What do penicillin, Teflon, X-rays and insulin have in common? A prominent thinker of our age, while explaining the purpose in the creation of man, emphasizes the importance of prayer and classifies the types of prayer: ‘(Our type of) prayer falls into two categories, as active and oral prayers. To comply with causes is active prayer, for in this case man knows that the gathering of causes does not itself suffice to bring about the desired result, so he requests the object of his supplication from God All-Mighty through his actions. To plough, for example, is an active prayer and is to knock at the door of the Treasure of Compassion’ (Nursi, 23rd Word). Along the same lines, one can think of a chemist doing experiments in his lab or a physicist trying to develop a theory to explain a phenomenon, as doing active prayer for the development of science and the discoveries of things useful to mankind.
I am sure, to most of us who have learned about scientists as unapproachable figures sitting on top of Mount Everest (and somehow almost all of whom are Western), this viewpoint may seem quite new. Yet, there is more to it. The same thinker points to another equally important factor in the development of civilization and advancement of sciences: with a great strength in his weakness and potency in his impotence, man is very much like a pampered child in creation. If he recognizes his weakness and performs his worship with his words, actions and state of mind, if he knows his own impotence and asks for God’s aid, he will then have fulfilled the obligation of gratitude for the subjugation of creation to his needs.
As with a petted child who by means of a little cry or simply a sad look obtains the assistance of adults to serve him: even the tiniest part of what they do for him by far exceeds what lies in the child’s own power to do for himself, and their great help he owes to his great weakness. So too, the apparent dominance of man over the rest of creation and his progress in civilization are not the result of his own deserving but they were subjugated to him because he himself was weak: he received aid because he was helpless; he was enriched thereby because he was poor; he was inspired because he was ignorant; he was bestowed with favours because he was in need of them (Nursi, 23rd Word).
Most people believe that great discoveries are results of deliberate, directed effort, planning. exhaustive experiment and logical inference. The discovery of penicillin is the most famous counter example. Although the role of planning, experimenting and research has an undeniable role in scientific discoveries, events do not always form a logical sequence, and this is what I am here trying to emphasize.
During World War I, doctors depended on antiseptics to cure battIe wounds. A. Fleming, a bacteriologist, observed that phenol (or carbolic acid, the most common antiseptic at that time) did more harm than good, in that it killed the leukocytes (white blood cells) faster than it killed the bacteria, and he knew this was bad because the leukocytes are the body’s natural defenders against bacteria.
In 1922, while suffering from a cold, Fleming made a culture from some of his own nasal secretions. As he examined the culture dish filled with yellow bacteria, a tear fell into it from his eye. The next day, when he examined the culture, he found a clear space where the tear had fallen. He correctly concluded that the tear contained a substance that caused rapid destruction of the bacteria, but was harmless to human tissue. The antibiotic enzyme in the tear he named lysozyme. It turned out to be of little practical importance because the germs that lysozyme killed were relatively harmless, but this discovery was an essential prelude to that of penicillin.
In the summer of 1928, Fleming was engaged in research on influenza. While doing some routine laboratory work involving microscopic examination of cultures of bacteria grown in petri dishes (flat glass dishes provided with covers), Fleming noticed in one dish an unusual clear area. Examination showed that the clear area surrounded a spot where a bit of mould had fallen into the dish, apparently while the dish was uncovered. Remembering his experience with lysozyme, Fleming concluded that the mould was producing something that was deadly to the staphylococcus in the culture dish. Later he would say: ‘There are thousands of different moulds and there are thousands of different bacteria, and that chance putting the mould in the right spot at the right time was like winning the Irish sweep.’
Fleming’s own words are enough as a response to those who attribute scientific discoveries to chance or idolize scientists. However, I will give other examples to make the point clearer.
From non-stick frying pans to space suits to artificial heart valves, Teflon has found several areas of application. Its discovery resulted from an apparently ‘accidental’ observation by a young chemist, R. Plunket, working in Du Pont laboratories. On April 6, 1938, Plunket opened a tank of gaseous tetrafluoerothylene in the hope of preparing a non-toxic refrigerant from it, but no gas came out, to the surprise of Plunkett and his assistant. Plunkett could not understand this because the weight of the tank indicated that it should be full of the gaseous fluorocarbon.
Instead of discarding the tank and getting another in order to get on with his refrigerant research, Plunkett decided to satisfy his curiosity about the ‘empty tank’. Having determined that the valve was not faulty by running a wire through its opening, he sawed the tank open and looked inside. There he found a waxy white powder and, being a chemist, he realized what it must mean.
The molecules of the gaseous tetrafluoroethylene had combined with one another ‘polymerized’ to such an extent that they now formed a solid material. The waxy white powder did indeed have remarkable properties: it was more inert than sand - not affected by strong acids, bases or heat and no solvent could dissolve it - but, in contrast to sand, it was extremely slippery.
Physicist W. Roentgen discovered the rays which were later to be named after him, in an unexpected and unplanned manner. Roentgen was repeating experiments by other physicists in which electricity at high voltage was discharged through air or other gases in a partially evacuated glass tube. We now know that cathode rays are actually streams of electrons being emitted from the cathode, and the impact of these electrons on the walls of the glass tubes produces the phosphorescence.
In 1892, it was demonstrated that cathode rays could penetrate thin metallic foils. Discharge tubes having thin aluminium windows allowed the cathode rays to pass out of the tube where they could be detected by the light they produced on a screen of phosphorescent material (such screens were also used to detect ultraviolet light), but they were found to travel only two or three centimetres in the air at ordinary pressure outside the evacuated tube.
Roentgen repeated some of these experiments to familiarize himself with the techniques. He then decided to see whether he could detect cathode rays issuing from an evacuated all-glass tube, that is, one with no thin aliminium window. Na one had observed cathode rays under these conditions. Roentgen thought the reason for the failure might be that strong phosphorescence of the cathode tube obscured the weak fluorescence of the detecting screen. To test this theory, he devised a black cardboard cover for the cathode tube. To determine the effectiveness of the shield, he then darkened the room and turned on the high voltage coil to energize the tube. Satisfied that his black shield did indeed cover the tube and allowed no phosphorescent light to escape, he was about to shut off the coil and turn on the room lights so that he could position the phosphorescent screen at varying short distances from the vacuum tube:
Just at that moment, he noticed a weak light shimmering from a point in the dark room more than a yard from the vacuum tube. At first, he thought there must be, after all, a light leak from the black mask around the tube, which was being reflected from a mirror in the room. However, there was no mirror. When he passed another series of charges through the cathode tube, he saw the light appear in the same location again, looking like faint green clouds moving in synchronism with the fluctuating discharges of the cathode tube. Hurriedly lighting a match, Roentgen found to his amazement that the source of the mysterious light was the little fluorescent screen that he had planned to use as a detector near the blinded cathode tube, but it was lying on the bench more than a yard from the tube.
Roentgen realized immediately that he had encountered an entirely new phenomenon. These were not cathode rays that lit up the fluorescent screen more than a yard from the tube! With feverish activity, he devoted himself single-mindedly in the next several weeks to exploring this new form of radiation. He reported his findings in a paper published in Wunburg, dated December 28, 1895, and entitled ‘A New Kind of Ray, a Preliminary Communication’. Although he described accurately most of the basic qualitative properties of the new rays in this paper, his acknowledgement that he did not yet fully understand them was indicated by the name he chose for them, X-rays. (They have also often been called Roentgen rays.)
He reported that the new rays were not affected by a magnet, as cathode rays were known to be. Not only would they penetrate more than a yard of air, in contrast to the two or three inch limit of cathode rays, but also (to quote his paper):
‘All bodies are transparent to this agent, though in very different degrees. Paper is very transparent; behind a bound book of about one thousand pages I saw the fluorescent screen light up brightly. In the same way the fluorescence appeared behind a double pack of cards. Thick blocks of wood are also transparent, pine boards two or three centimetres thick absorbing only slightly. A plate of aluminium about fifteen millimetres thick, though it enfeebled the action seriously, did not cause the fluorescence to disappear entirely. If the hand be held between the discharge tube and the screen, the darker shadow of the bones is seen within the slightly dark shadow image of the hand itself.’
He found that he could even record such skeletal images on photographic film. This property of X-rays captured the attention of the medical world immediately. In an incredibly short time X-rays were used routinely for diagnosis in hospitals throughout the world.
If a relative or a friend of yours has diabetes, you will probably know how important insulin is for them. As a partial remedy for most diabetics today, insulin was discovered as an answer to the prayers of hundreds of thousands of diabetics by the Most Merciful One. Perhaps, even better relief and remedy are awaiting discovery in some unexpected time or place.
In 1889, while studying the function of the pancreas in digestion, two researchers removed the pancreas from a dog. The very next day a laboratory assistant called their attention to a swarm of flies around the urine from this dog. Curious about why the flies were attracted to the urine, they analysed it and found it was loaded with sugar. Sugar in urine is a common sign of diabetes.
The researchers realized that they were seeing for the first time evidence of the experimental production of diabetes in an animal. The fact that this animal had no pancreas suggested a relationship between that organ and diabetes. The researchers subsequently proved that the pancreas produces a secretion that controls the use of sugar, and that lack of this secretion causes defects in sugar metabolism then exhibited as symptoms of diabetes.
Many attempts were made to isolate the secretion, with little success until 1921. A young Canadian medical student extracted the secretion from the pancreas of dogs. When they injected the extracts into dogs rendered diabetic by removal of their pancreases, the blood sugar levels of these dogs returned to normal or below, and the urine became sugar-free. The general condition of the dogs also improved.
Until recently, all insulin used for the treatment of human diabetes came from the pancreases of some animals. As a result of genetic engineering, based on knowing how DNA controls protein synthesis, a major pharmaceutical firm has begun to produce human insulin by using bacteria. The fact that a microscopic creature, like the bacterium can be made to work for the wellbeing of human beings is a subject worthy of study on its own.
Of course, these are by no means the only examples worth mentioning of ‘happy, chance discoveries’. Here are some more to add to the list: the discovery of molecular structure of organic compounds, saccharin and nutra-sweet (sugar substitutes, again for diabetics), ‘safety glass used in automobiles and planes, oxygen and several other chemical elements, radioactivity, astronomical discoveries like pulsars and background Big Bang radiation, many mathematical theorems, high temperature superconductors, synthetic dyes, etc., etc.
Can one really call all of these marvellous discoveries simply ‘happy, chance accidents’? I believe human conscience and reason must resist such a misconception. Surely, any person of common sense would say: ‘I am thankful to the Merciful One, who has bestowed upon us the favour of these discoveries, enabled us to benefit from them, among His innumerable other bounties’.