9 Jun 2022 STEAM / STEM

5 Recent STEM Discoveries Made by Accident

Making mistakes isn’t always a bad thing! Here are 5 times when something unexpected happened, changing the way scientists think about the world.

Our FabLab students often get frustrated when an experiment goes wrong, but we remind them that’s not always a bad thing. Scientists discover loads of interesting, funny or incredibly important STEM discoveries when they least expect it.

In a recent blog post about the science history of the UK, we told you about penicillin. It was one of the world’s first antibiotics which went on to save millions of lives around the world, and Alexander Fleming only discovered it because he left a petri dish out too long.

So here are five more similarly random science discoveries that might change the way you think about your mistakes or blunders.

1) Bananas scare male mice

If your first two questions are “really!?” and “how could you possibly know that!?”, then you’re not alone. But scientists researching the responses of mice to certain smells have discovered that male mice cannot stand the smell of bananas.

A group of researchers from McGill University in Canada made the discovery while testing what happens when male mice went near females with young mouse pups. Female mice emit a scent which causes a stress-reaction from male mice, so the males stay away and don’t harm any of the pups.

But these researchers noticed something else: the scent is also found in bananas. They bought a bottle of banana extract oil from a supermarket and, when put in a cage with the same male mice, got exactly the same response. The stressed-out mice tried to get away.

2) Brand new blue

In 2009, the first time in over 200 years, someone discovered a new blue colour for the first time.

Professor Mas Subramanian accidentally discovered the new colour when working with students in his lab one day. One student mixed yttrium, indium, and manganese in a furnace and pulled out an unexpected bright blue powder.

Blue pigments, which absorbs all light expect blue, usually occur naturally in rocks like lapis lazuli. Subramanian’s lab managed to find the first new man-made blue since ‘cobalt blue’ in 1802.

Subramanian’s bright new blue was a hit, and Crayola made it into a crayon in 2017.

3) MASSIVE stingray

In May, a few lucky local fishers discovered a four-metre stingray in a Cambodian river. That must have been something quite scary to accidentally haul into your boat.

Giant stingrays are a critically endangered species, and scientists had originally thought there weren’t any in the Mekong river in Cambodia until a huge specimen was found in a fishing net. Scientists helped the fishers return the 180 kg creature back to the depths of the river bed.

Stumbling across the stingray had helped scientists learn more about the species’ distribution and draw attention to threats to the river’s biodiversity.

4) Half star, half planet “brown dwarves”

This discovery was so accidental that NASA astronomers actually gave their discovery the nickname “the accident”!

Dan Caselden, a citizen scientist, spotted The Accident when looking at something totally different.

Caselden made a program using NASA’s data. It highlighted moving objects that had similar characteristics to other known brown dwarfs. He was looking at one potential brown dwarf when he spotted another object zipping across his screen. This was The Accident, which didn’t match the description of the brown dwarves he was looking for.

The Accident is actually a kind of brown dwarf, a name given to something that is not quite a planet or a star. They’re huge and made out of gas, bigger than the planets Jupiter or Saturn, but not big enough to start nuclear fusion which causes a sun to shine. This means they’re between the two and difficult to categorise.

Brown dwarves are difficult to spot. They cool as they age, and become more and more difficult to detect using telescopes. The Accident’s discovery indicates that there are many, many more brown dwarves in our galaxy than we knew about!

5) Fishing with disco lights

This is another one we promise we’re not making up.

In this strange experiment, the University of York and Devon’s Fishtek Marine thought they could use lights to attract crabs into traps. Weirdly, though, they attracted over a thousand scallops.

Scallops are small shelled sea creatures. When researchers placed LED bulbs into 1,886 lobster pots used to catch lobsters and crabs, they were surprised that instead they had caught scallops in nearly all of them!

Scallops are usually fished by dredging the floor of the ocean. This practice can damage the environment. Thanks to the accidental discovery that they will willingly “jump” into a pot with a flashing light they can be caught in a way that protests fish habitats.

Bonus: Accidentally discovering Mars (again)

This one technically doesn’t make the list because, in the end, nothing was actually discovered. But we think it’s a good story of not giving up and not taking yourself too seriously!

One night in 2018, Professor Peter Dunsby of Cape Town University was convinced he’d discovered a new star. It was incredibly bright and didn’t match anything he’d seen before.

Excited by his amazing new discovery, he rushed to tell everyone. He said it was the “the brightest star in the field” in his message to the Astronomy Telegraph message board.

What he had actually found, however, was the planet Mars. Somewhere along the way, Dunsby got mixed up and mistook Mars for something new. In fact, humans have known about Mars for at least 4000 years

A few hours later, he posted the message ” The object reported in ATel 11448 has been identified as Mars. Our sincere apologies for the earlier report and the inconvenience caused.”

That didn’t stop Astronomy Telegraph from having some fun, though. Later, Dunsby was awarded for “discovering Mars”.