LSD, Krazy Glue, radioactivity, Teflon, Viagra, X-rays, the planet Uranus, penicillin, corn flakes, gravity – the list of things we would never have heard of if we didn’t occasionally luck out as scientists is virtually endless.

Serendipity is roughly “good luck in making unexpected and fortunate discoveries”. A good deal of the most amazing discoveries in science ever occurred when one scientist was doing his or her best to understand one thing, and in the process of doing so stumbled upon another thing, which eventually led to insights and inventions that came to change the world forever.

Krazy Glue

In my humble opinion, serendipity alone is reason enough for society and mankind to perform and invest in science. (Explaining this to a businessman, politician, or my grandmother is much more difficult than performing the actual science.) We do science because we know from experience that we will discover new, cool stuff about the universe, but we are frankly not always sure of what we will come up with, or necessarily in what order and when exactly, before we get going.

Why am I ranting about this tonight? See, I was looking for the original synthesis scheme for chlordiazepoxidethe, the first benzodiazepine (a sedative), because I had this vague memory of a good story around its discovery (a failed last step in the planned synthesis of a dye, actually). One thing led to another, and I ended up reading this absolutely fantastic paper:

Thomas A. Ban, “The role of serendipity in drug discovery”, Dialogues in Clinincal Neuroscience 2006, 8, 335-344. (Full version available here.)

You don’t need experience in drug discovery, chemistry or medicine to enjoy this one. This is just one helluva great write-up – trust me. Read it NOW!


5 Responses to My thoughts on serendipity

  1. milkshake says:

    the article is marred by serious factual errors: Uric acid is not a degradation product of urea as the article says, but a product of purine metabolism. Mephenesin is 1-O-(o-tolyl)-glycerol, not 1-O-(o-methoxyphenyl)-glycerol. The later structure is Guaifenesin (which is is commonly used as a cough medication and has almost no muscle-relaxing/sedative effects of mephenesin). Guaifenesin discovery was a serendipity too, it came from series of mephenesin analogues

    • drfreddy says:

      You party pooper! Give the author a break – the guy doesn’t even have a Ph.D…. 🙂 (My favorite quote from Silence of the Lambs.) Technically, you are correct of course, but let’s stay on topic: serendipity in research

  2. milkshake says:

    Mephenesin is a pet of mine – when I was a freshman at Charles Uni in Prague in late 80s, a faculty colleague complained that the only medication she found to work for her back pain problem was mephenesin, and she could not get it under communism because it was not an approved drug in East Bloc. I looked up the structure and thought it cannot be that hard to make (epichlorohydrine and o-cresol, with KOH) so I whipped up batch for her, and we presented it to her as birthday present.

  3. Bob Calder says:

    I met a woman at the AAAS meeting whose father was a food chemist. One day he came home with a bag full of hard little globs that later came to be called “pop rocks”. He furnished her with literally pounds of the stuff to take to school.

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