Contrary to popular opinion, science is not only about research, careful measurements and ongoing (often robust) debate. Luck plays a significant role but not the type of luck that is associated with winning the national lottery or hitting a hole-in-one in golf. It is the good fortune that was meant by Louis Pasteur when he stated, “Luck favours the prepared mind”. About three centuries ago, Horace Walpole coined the word serendipity to describe the discovery of something useful or helpful while not actually looking for it. As later highlighted by Pasteur’s remark, the prepared or “sagacious” (to use Walpole’s description) mind is central to the concept of serendipity.
Serendipity plays a part in many discoveries and inventions. While the stories of Archimedes shouting “Eureka” as he watched water splash over the top of his bath as he jumped in and Newton discovering gravity as he watched an apple fall are probably apocryphal, the same cannot be said of the discovery of nylon, penicillin, Super Glue, Post-It Notes or even archaeological artefacts such as the Dead Sea Scrolls or the ruins of Pompeii. In fact, some reports credit serendipity with a role from a third to as much as a half of all scientific discoveries.
Edinburgh Biosciences Ltd (EBS) is fortunate in having the prepared mind of its founder, Prof. S. D. Smith OBE, FRS or Des as he is known to friends and colleagues. As well as being a leading academic, Des is a serial inventor and entrepreneur. His earliest invention was a “selective chopper radiometer” for UK’s first satellite experiment on NASA’s Nimbus 4 spacecraft and later was included in several NASA planetary probes. This device arose from seminal research into the design of “multiplayer bandpass filters”, the beginning of a continuing interest in these devices which has led most recently to him being the co-inventor of a new family of Dynamic VariChrome filters. Coupling these filters to new light sources such as LEDs and supercontinuum (“white light”) lasers creates the potential of a new generation of scientific instruments.
Early experiments show great potential for this new light source / wavelength selector combination. According to the way in which they are coupled, they can produce very narrow light beams (i.e. with a wavelength spread of only a few nanometers), selectable wavelengths over wider ranges or full scan capabilities, i.e. a wide range of wavelengths one after the other. Scientists make measurements by studying how light interacts with the materials they are studying. This technique is known as spectroscopy and is widely applied in various fields such as physics, medicine, biochemistry, chemistry and astronomy
While investigating an application of spectroscopy to the diagnosis of cataracts in the eye, Des had a “Eureka” moment when he realised that his new optical design could be incorporated into a “Point of Care” system. (A Point of Care system is a device that allows medical testing close to a patient.) in this case, we are talking of a low cost system for early detection of cataracts. Such a system could well be installed in every optician’s room to provide routine scanning for the onset of cataracts. Perhaps we are not too far away from another addition to the list of serendipitous discoveries.