Science has the potential to change our world for the better in dramatic ways but sometimes it seems like a pointless endeavour which serves no purpose other than to transfer funds from the tax-payer to the scientist. Headlines such as 'Dolphins Name Themselves with Whistles', 'Planet Found 22,500 Light Years Away' or 'Necrophilia among Ducks' often face ridicule and questions such as "OK, but where's the cure for cancer?"
The public who, in one way or another, fund research want it to produce results of direct benefit to society such as cures for deadly diseases and even smaller cell phones. Although we are right to desire useful results from our researchers, we must also realise that the destination of research can be hard to predict from its starting point and that some of the most meaningful discoveries have arisen from quite humble, unrelated or obscure origins or have simply been mistakes.
Medieval alchemists set out to turn lead into gold or create an elixir of eternal life. Although these undertakings were ultimately failures, in their struggles they provided massive leaps in our understanding of chemistry and metallurgy as well as developed many of the techniques and practices used in modern chemistry. Alternatively, Albert Einstein never set out to invent lasers or nuclear power but his theorising into the nature of subatomic particles lead to both of these inventions. Likewise, Wilhelm Röntgen wasn't intending on creating a method of imaging bones but he did with his chance discovery of X-rays while working on the effects of electric discharges on evacuated glass tubes.
Some of medicine's greatest advances have come from laboratory accidents. Most people know about Alexander Fleming's accidental discovery of antibiotics in his messy lab. Louis Pasteur discovered one of the first vaccines when a group of chickens were accidentally inoculated with an old culture of cholera bacteria. Instead of being killed, the chickens developed resistance to the disease. This lead Pasteur to propose that if a weakened strain of bacteria is given to a host they will become resistant to the more deadly strains. A vaccine for anthrax quickly followed.
It has been reported that Luigi Galvani or his assistant cut into the sciatic nerve of a dead frog with a metal scalpel that had picked up a static charge. The frog's leg kicked as if alive which lead to the discovery that muscles and nerves operate through electrical charges and also inspired the novel 'Frankenstein'.
The 19th Century botanist Robert Brown was examining pollen grains and moss spores under a microscope when he noticed that tiny particles within their fluid-filled vacuoles constantly jittered around, never coming to rest. Einstein later proposed that this movement was caused by vibrating water molecules. Atoms and molecules were, at the time, considered to be only hypothetical constructs made up by scientists until this pollen-research proved their existence. Although this ground-breaking discovery is routinely presented in physics text books, Brown's reasons for his interest in pollen, if he had reasons, is rarely mentioned.
One of the most startling discoveries in biology in the last few decades is that life can thrive in the complete absence of sunlight, also interesting is that this discovery was made by a geologist. Chemical traces in basaltic rock indicated the presence of undersea
Origin of life research could be said to be similar to alchemy in that it is an endeavour which will probably never be resolved, however, by engaging in it anyway a lot can be learnt about the nature of living cells and their biochemicals. This could lead to a better understanding of disease, new drug discoveries, biotechnologies and, through DNA computing, possibly even smaller cell phones.