A SKELETON IN THE DARKROOM: Tales of Serendipity in Science by Gilbert Shapiro

A SKELETON IN THE DARKROOM: Tales of Serendipity in Science

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A neat little volume inspired by the notion that serendipity doesn't happen to novices, but does happen to those whom Pasteur described as having ""prepared minds."" So it's off to Roentgen's laboratory and the elaborate and tedious methods necessary in 1895 to evacuate a glass tube, ensure total darkness, and develop high enough voltages of electricity to discharge across the tube in order to ""see"" cathode rays--which turned out to be X-rays. And we learn about Alexander Fleming's fancy ways of making germ paintings by seeding his culture dishes with different bacterial species whose colors would make little landscape scenes as they grew to fill the carefully designed spaces. (And, of course, we learn about the stray spore that contaminated a culture one day and led to a fungal growth that inhibited the bacterial strain growing nearby.) Most of Shapiro's serendipities are drawn from physics or astronomy. Earliest is his account of Hans Christian Oersted's 1820 discovery of the relationship between electricity and magnetism. Other examples include Wilson's and Penzios' discovery of the background radiation of the Big Bang, and an account of the Alvarez theory of dinosaur extinction based on an extraterrestrial collision with a comet or asteroid. Shapiro's tales make delightful reading for all ages, but might be especially inspiring to bright high schoolers interested in knowing how science occasionally ""happens.

Pub Date: Oct. 29th, 1986
Publisher: Harper & Row