Species of serendipity

Like most ideas, this one arrived in the shower. I needed to write a post for this week, but my list of topics was wearing thin and the weather is finally starting to get nice enough to distract me. Sure, I had a few promising ideas lined up, but they all need more time to develop. Plus I had a DVD to watch: a Nature of Things episode on serendipity in science due back at the library. Then it hit me – of course! I’ll watch the episode and then write about that.

Serendipity – supposedly one of the top ten most untranslatable words in the English language – was coined in the 1700s by Horace Walpole as a play on the tile of a Persian fairy tale. The Three Princes of Serendip takes place in Sri Lanka. It follows the adventures of three brothers exiled from the island by their father the king, in hopes that his sons might achieve a more worldly education. In the course of their travels, the princes go on to solve many mysteries – like unintentionally tracking down a lost camel on scant evidence – thanks to their sagacity and a series of lucky accidents.

Since Walpole, the word has taken on a close association with Eureka moments in science, starting with Archimedes’ famous bath. Supposedly, the ancient Greek mathematician solved the problem of measuring the volume of irregular objects after noticing how his own body displaced water in the tub.

Scientists have taken a great interest in tracking serendipity, perhaps because it seems to play a role in research success. Wikipedia has an extensive list of celebrated examples, from Viagra to chocolate chip cookies. Many have looked for ways to encourage this kind of scholarly luck. For instance, after his Nobel prize winning work on viruses, the molecular biologist Max Delbrück is perhaps best known for coming up with the principle of limited sloppiness: researchers should be careless enough that unexpected things can happen, but not so sloppy that they can’t reproduce them when they do. Alexander Fleming had this advantage when he discovered penicillin. He first noticed its antibiotic effects in a stack of dirty culture dishes that he hadn’t bothered to clean before leaving for summer vacation.

So how do people study something that is by definition rare and unusual? Psychology Today has summed up some of the latest research on luck, most of it based on surveys of people who claim to be especially serendipitous1. Not surprisingly, they are more competent, confident and willing to take risks than the rest of us. They are also more extroverted and less neurotic than most. Being born in the summer apparently helps as well – especially May.

Other advice might be more practical.

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Quirks, quarks and quantum sailboats

An old mystery from my days as a sailor resurfaced this week. Does air on one side of the sail somehow know what the air on the other side is doing? Sounds strange, but it happens to be a key part of explaining how boats, birds and airplanes work, and it stumps a whole lot of people who should probably know better – including most pilots.

I was reminded of this by Bob McDonald from CBC’s Quirks and Quarks radio show. He was in town to give a talk on “The Science of Everyday Life”. It was clear that this was going to be a show for kids, but I dragged Charlie along for two reasons. First, I was planning on presenting some of my peacock research at a family science festival on Saturday; I thought it might be useful to see a master of this sort of thing in action. Fandom came into it too – the Quirks show is one of a handful of radio programs that got me through my troglobite period of 8 hour days in the darkroom last summer.

I was pretty sure what we were in for – baking soda and vinegar magic for the edification of the grade school set – but I wasn’t prepared for how quickly McDonald would put me under his spell, too. Sitting there cold and hungry in the dingy auditorium, I had forgotten all about my surroundings by the time McDonald was whirling a mop around and keeping a kid trapped in his chair using only his thumb to demonstrate centre of gravity. And he was just getting started. Although the talk was too long at nearly 2 hours, it was worth the wait to see video of McDonald’s adventures in weightless flight at the end. His imaginative pitch for the space tourism industry was another highlight. I was hooked at his concept for a giant rotating space hotel. If we put a cylindrical swimming pool smack in the middle, the water would stick to the outer walls by centripetal forces. You could literally fly around in the air at the zero-gravity centre and dive down in any direction to the water below.

McDonald mentioned something in his explanation of how to make a better paper airplane that brought up an old problem for me.

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Employed science

It’s when applied science gives back, contributing a piece to the basic research puzzle.

Jaded grad students like me get a warm fuzzy feeling when we hear about people reaping unexpected benefits – economic or social – from the results of pure science. Last night I was reminded that this can work in the opposite direction.

Matthew Mecklenburg and Chris Regan, two physicists from UCLA with interests in quantum theory and its applications for sustainable energy, wanted to design a better transistor. Instead, they discovered something fundamental about the structure of the universe1. Hidden from our eyes and our finest instruments, the space that surrounds us might be more like a chessboard than a continuous expanse.

Mecklenburg, a grad student, was investigating graphene as a potential material to make more efficient transistors – the little bits of silicon that allow computers and essentially all modern electronic devices to function. He needed some precise measurements of the way light interacts with graphene at the nanoscale, to assess feasibility of the new design. These experiments gave Mecklenburg a quantitative picture of the way electrons hop around in the lattice of carbon atoms in graphene. And that’s when the chessboard struck.

Mecklenburg and Regan realized that the hopping behaviour of electrons in graphene was formally equivalent to what happens when an electron flips its “spin” – a theoretical concept that has remained an enigma since it was described in the early 20th century.

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We brought home a new kitchen knife from my parents last month. The knife block was full, but Charlie exchanged the new one for what was previously our smallest and dullest. He wasted no time wrapping the old one up in plastic and hiding it from me. My hand naturally gravitates towards whichever tool will fit nicely inside it, even when I’m cutting a monster squash. We have a good arrangement: Charlie keeps the knives sharp, I keep my fingers, and I toss him the odd carrot slice in return.

But could he eventually be replaced by a sea urchin? A new study in the journal Advanced Functional Materials explains how sea urchin teeth never dull or break. In fact, they get sharper with use1.

Most people are probably familiar with sea urchins as the spiny little balls one occasionally encounters on the beach. Evil looking, but mostly harmless, so long as you avoid stepping on them. Sea urchins live in shallow tidal pools, eating algae and other plant material. So why do they need such sharp teeth? Much like their spines, the teeth probably serve a protective function. The urchins use them to chew burrows, often in solid rock, where they can take shelter from predators and waves.

In the current study, a group of physicists and biologists used an arsenal of sophisticated imaging, chemical and nano-scale stress test procedures to investigate the teeth of the California purple sea urchin (Strongylocentrotus purpuratus). Like starfish and sea cucumbers, urchins are members of a group of animals known for their penta-radial, or five-fold, symmetry. They have five teeth arranged in what is known as Aristotle’s lantern.

Aristotle's lantern

Aristotle’s lantern, as viewed from below with teeth closed. From Killian et al. 20111.

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