Oftentimes people try to plan out every aspect humanly possible in their lives in a futile event to control everything around them. Scientists regularly have a question in mind and set out down the path of experimentation to see if their hunch is correct. However, as the saying goes, “life happens” and things don’t always go as planned. For as much as people try to govern the world around them, sometimes things are discovered purely by accident.
P.W. Bridgman notes that “the laws of thermodynamics smell of their human origin” in the epigraph of the novel Warmth Disperses and Time Passes: A History of Heat, alluding to the fact that the laws of thermodynamics were first thought of and discovered in the way most humans live their life: somewhat randomly. Although he did not theorize the first law of thermodynamics, that energy cannot be created nor destroyed but can be transferred in form, directly, Count Rumford randomly noticed the phenomenon while working on upgrading his cannons. To see just how much frictional heat could be produced by rubbing metal against metal, Rumford “cast a specially shaped cannon barrel that could be thoroughly insulated against the loss of heat” and immersed the “front part of the gun, where the action was, in a tank full of water.” To his dismay, the initially cool water began to heat and even came to a boil after 2 hours and 30 minutes of the metal cannon rubbing against the metal of the dull drill bit. Trying to think of how best to capitalize his observation, Rumford realized that “the power to produce heat somehow traveled from the oats [that horses ate] to the horse and thence, via winch, gears, and shaft, to the borer” foreshadowing the discovery of conservation of energy. Now Rumford did not set out on a quest to discover innate properties of heat that in time would change the way we viewed the world, but he slightly did so anyway. While looking for answers to a specific question, such as how much frictional heat can be generated, people often end with different answers than expected.
A famous example of the randomness of discovery comes from Alexander Fleming. He was trying to observe the bacteria staphylococci when he left his laboratory for a month on holiday. Upon returning, Fleming noticed one of his petri dishes had become infected with a fungus and that all the bacteria immediately surrounding this strange fungus had been killed. Thus, penicillin was born. In the commonplace random turn of events that plagues human history, Fleming did not set out to make a medical breakthrough. He simply benefitted from sheer dumb luck and a messy workstation.
Sure, both Rumford and Fleming were men of scientific influences who realized the value of experimentation and did set out on investigation with a goal in mind. Nonetheless, they both randomly discovered something remarkable and unrelated to their initial thoughts. Great advances in science do not come out of nothing and lack of observation of the surrounding world, but they are surely often helped along by the power of luck. The laws of thermodynamics illustrate this randomness of life and chance.