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Accidental Science


Now, let's welcome back to the ASK ME ANOTHER hot seat, our VIP Jad Abumrad.


EISENBERG: Jad, were you sweating it out backstage?

JAD ABUMRAD: Some of this stuff is abusively hard.

EISENBERG: Abusively hard. I don't think it's not...

ABUMRAD: No, no, it's fine. It's all good quizzical fun.

EISENBERG: Good quizzical fun.


EISENBERG: You're ready.

ABUMRAD: I'm ready.

EISENBERG: You're a smart guy. You're going to ace this. We're thinking about science here, and sometimes scientific discoveries happen when large groups of people spend a lot time very hard on something and they solve a challenge, right, like landing on the moon or sequencing the humane genome.

And other times stuff happens by accident, and then someone gets a Nobel Prize. And this game is about that. We are going to tell you about happy accidents in science and you have to name the invention or discovery that resulted from it. Fun, right?



EISENBERG: You'll be playing for one of our listeners, Sasha Woodward.


EISENBERG: And normally when we do this, you have to get four right for that person to win a prize, but since you're kind of a genius, you have to get them all right.


EISENBERG: Yeah, yeah, what do you think of that?

ABUMRAD: Come on.

EISENBERG: Yeah, sure. Don't worry about it. Let's start.



EISENBERG: In 1945, an engineer named Percy Spencer was building radar transmitters for the defense contractor Raytheon. One day he stopped in front of the magnetron - like you do - and he suddenly realized that the chocolate bar in his pocket had melted. His discovery would lead to what common kitchen appliance?

ABUMRAD: I'm going to have to go with microwave.

EISENBERG: You are going to have to go with correct.


ABUMRAD: Who is my spirit animal? What's her name again?


EISENBERG: Your spirit animal's name is Sasha Woodward.

ABUMRAD: Okay, all right, yeah.

EISENBERG: In 1941, George de Mestral went on a hunting trip with his dog in the Alps. He noticed at the end of the day, he and his dog were covered with burs, small seeds that went into his clothes and his dog's fur. And after examining them under a microscope - hopefully, he took a shower first and cleaned off the dog - he came up with an idea for what fastener?

ABUMRAD: Velcro.

EISENBERG: Yes, of course.


EISENBERG: Changed lives, Velcro.

ABUMRAD: You know, I read this story to my kid every day about the Apollo 11. It's all about Velcro. Velcro was huge in space. At the beginning of space travel...


ABUMRAD: ...because things were floating around and you had to fasten it.

EISENBERG: What did they do before that? They just couldn't have anything.

ABUMRAD: Knocked their heads...


EISENBERG: That was their alarm.

ABUMRAD: Thank goodness for Velcro. Okay.

EISENBERG: In 1879, a chemist named Constantine Dahlberg was conducting experiments on cold tar derivatives. One night at dinner, he noticed that the dinner rolls were unusually sweet, but his wife insisted that she had not changed the recipe. This guy had a wife that made him dinner rolls. I'd like to point that out right now.


EISENBERG: It turns out that he had left work without washing his hands - disgusting - so he went back his lab, tasted everything in his workspace - weird - and then discovered an over-boiled beaker. What sugar substitute did Dahlberg accidentally create?

ABUMRAD: Okay, let me go through this more slowly.

EISENBERG: Sure, let's do it.

ABUMRAD: So a fellow makes some sort of tar derivative.

EISENBERG: Cold tar derivative, yeah.

ABUMRAD: Cold tar derivative. It ends up in the dinner rolls.

EISENBERG: Yeah, because he doesn't wash his hands.

ABUMRAD: Goes back to his lab. Something got onto his hands and to the dinner roll.

EISENBERG: Yeah, something, a beaker over-boiled and it's a...

ABUMRAD: It is a sugar substitute.

EISENBERG: It's a sugar substitute.

ABUMRAD: 1879.

EISENBERG: And it was...

ABUMRAD: 1879.

EISENBERG: And his first name is Constantine.

ABUMRAD: Constantine. And his wife made dinner rolls.

EISENBERG: His wife made dinner rolls.

ABUMRAD: His wife made dinner rolls.


ART CHUNG: Just keep on vamping, just keep going.

ABUMRAD: He did not wash his hands before dinner.

EISENBERG: Did not wash his hands.

CHUNG: He tasted everything in the lab including his lab partner.

ABUMRAD: I can't think of any sugar substitute except for saccharin.

EISENBERG: That's the one.

ABUMRAD: That's it?



ABUMRAD: 1879.

EISENBERG: Yeah. I know. So far, you are doing great. You have a perfect score.


EISENBERG: In 1964, two Bell Labs engineers could not determine what was causing a low, steady noise in their giant antenna. They double checked their data, recalibrated their equipment. They even cleaned out the pigeon droppings in the antenna, but the noise remained.

Fourteen years later, Arnold Penzias and Robert Woodrow Wilson won the Nobel Prize in physics for discovering cosmic microwave background radiation, which is considered proof of what cosmological theory?

ABUMRAD: The big bang.

EISENBERG: Yes, indeed.


ABUMRAD: That's four, right?

EISENBERG: That is four. I know, you got one more.


EISENBERG: One more moment to shine. This one isn't technically a scientific discovery, it's just really cool. In the 1930s, Cleo McVicker invented a putty-like substance to clean the soot from coal-burning stoves off of wallpaper - weird. But 20 years later, natural gas stoves were becoming popular and the demand for that product fell.

So his company almost went out of business, until a family member heard that children had trouble using modeling clay. So the company decided to remove the cleaning agent, add color dyes and start selling their wallpaper cleaner as what?

ABUMRAD: Is that how Play-Doh came to be?



EISENBERG: I don't know if you were this kind of kid, but I've eaten Play-Doh.


EISENBERG: It's a little salty, but I didn't know it was a cleaning agent.

ABUMRAD: It's basically like bread but with some dye in it, mashed up.

EISENBERG: Yeah, it turns out, just missing one little thing that cleans soot off of wallpaper. But Jad, you've done it. You got them all right.


EISENBERG: Congratulations.


EISENBERG: Thanks to you, Sasha Woodward gets an ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cube, and you know what, so do you. We have a wonderful gift for you. We have an ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cube that is wrapped in our ASK ME ANOTHER chamois that you can use to clean your iPad screen, your glasses, other people's faces, whatever you want.


EISENBERG: One more round of applause for our VIP Jad Abumrad.

ABUMRAD: Thank you.


EISENBERG: How about a song, Paul and Storm?

PAUL: Sure. In keeping with the science theme, this is a song sung from the point of view of a mad scientist who is sad. This song is called "Live."


PAUL AND STORM: I've worked so long, every night and every day, been through hours and hours of research and dozens of brains. The perfect girl turns out was just to hard to find.

So I had to make her, but can I make her mine? Will she be friendly or will she break free? Will she terrorize the villagers? Will she notice me? Hard work and science are what I have to give, and all I'm asking in return is that we live.


EISENBERG: Paul and Storm. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.