Of lost treasure, guilt and serendipity

In our review of a top-end metal detector this month, a treasure hunter refers to his “curious sense of guilt” after discovering, and appropriating, someone else’s lost property. I know exactly how he feels. Some years ago, while holidaying in New York with my wife, I found a roll of banknotes on a busy street – about $200 in total. Feeling unaccountably furtive, I raised the money above my head to show that I knew it wasn’t mine… and of course I had no intention of keeping it.

“What on earth are you doing?” hissed my wife. In retrospect, I have to say that my reply was a masterpiece of muddled thinking: “Er… you know, just in case someone is looking for it.” She was speechless for a few seconds, then inquired very quietly whether I thought we should stop passers-by and ask if they’d dropped a wad of cash in the street. I actually gave the idea brief consideration before reality kicked in and prompted me to pocket the money. (For the record, it bought us an excellent lunch and a couple of tickets to the Philharmonic.)

Where is all this heading? To serendipity, a delicious word defined by my dictionary as “the natural talent for making fortunate discoveries by accident” and by another as “the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way”. In other words, it’s about happy accidents.

Although I’d be the last person to embrace luck in preference to the scientific method, I must admit to a mild frisson each time I encounter one of these. One of my favourite stories is recounted in our August 2010 issue by American scientist Lonnie Johnson, an advanced-weapons expert, space probe project manager, nuclear engineer – and inventor of the world’s best-known water gun, the Super Soaker. He was working on a heat pump experiment in his bathroom when the apparatus shot a jet of water across the room. Hey, he thought, this thing has potential. (Indeed it did: the toy resulting from that chance discovery has since achieved global sales in excess of R8 billion.)

A better-known example of serendipity is Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin way back in 1928. It came about when he left a culture plate smeared with Staphylococcus aureus on his laboratory bench before taking a two-week holiday. He returned home to find the culture had been contaminated by a fungus that was destroying the bacteria; he had just discovered an antibiotic.

Eleven years ago, neurobiologist David Anderson discovered the “magic fertiliser” that allowed neural stem cells (which build the nervous system in a developing embryo) to bloom into neurons, sprouting axons and dendrites. As he told the New York Times: “It was a very boring compound that we used to coat the plastic bottom of the Petri dish in order to afford the cells a stickier platform to which to attach. Never would we have  predicted that such a prosaic change could exert such a powerful effect. Yet it turned out to be the key that unlocked the hidden neuronal potential of these stem cells.”

Want more evidence of serendipity in action? Try radiation, cellophane, Post-it notes, Velcro, X-rays, Teflon, pulsars… the list is long and fascinating.

In this month’s issue, however, we introduce a bunch of people who didn’t wait for Fate’s intervention; they simply took an idea and ran with it. Our “Backyard Genius Awards” (starting on page 24) celebrate the creative spirit and harmless lunacy of people like Matt Riese, who built a Back to the Future-inspired DeLorean hovercraft; and Matt Richardson, who was so infuriated by TV coverage of the impending nuptials of reality star Kim Kardashian that he rerouted the broadcast signal to his Enough Already device and programmed it to mute the sound when it detected a trigger word (in this case, “Kardashian”).

Beautiful.