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Topic 1: “Happy Accidents” in Science
One of the greatest scientific developments in the past 150 years is the discovery of antibiotics. For some basic background on antibiotics, refer to the following resources:
There is, however, a dirty little secret about Alexander Fleming and his discovery – it was an accident. As Fleming worked in his lab in the late 1920s growing disease-causing bacteria in tiny petri dishes, he got a little sloppy by leaving the petri dishes uncovered for too long. One story even suggests that he may have sneezed into one of his petri dishes. Regardless of the exact cause, what resulted was a mold infestation on some of his bacterial dishes. However messy Fleming was, he was also smart enough to see that the mold infestation was killing off the bacteria he was studying. Completely by accident, he had found something that killed disease-causing organisms.
Such “happy accidents” are not uncommon in science. Some notable examples include aspartame (NutraSweet) which was discovered by a drug chemist who forgot to wash his hands. Even Isaac Newton benefited from a little accidental inspiration when he (supposedly) came up with a description of the concept of gravity after being knocked on the head by a falling apple. Scientists, like everyone else, make mistakes, but the best scientists use their mistakes and learn from them.
Take a moment and reflect on the famous Louis Pasteur quote: “Chance favors the prepared mind,” as well as what you have learned about scientific inquiry in your reading. Then, during the week, address the following:
- What examples of learning by “happy accident” or just by chance have you experienced in your own life?
- What do you think it means for a person (especially a scientist) to have a “prepared mind,” as Pasteur describes?
- How can a person prepare his or her mind to be open to chance within a particular discipline? What roles might education, job experience, and life experience play in creating a prepared mind?
Often researchers must try many things that don’t work before they find the hypothesis that really explains what is going on. This expectation of failure probably does not sit well with funding agencies or the public. How could this important part of the scientific method be explained to the public so that it is better accepted?