Phosphorus Starts With Pee In This Tale Of Scientific Serendipity

Feb 2, 2016
Originally published on February 3, 2016 11:41 am

The history of science is full of happy accidents — most folks have heard that penicillin was discovered in 1928, when a few mold spores landed on some neglected petri dishes in a London lab. But sometimes serendipity's role is a bit less ... mainstream.

Hennig Brand was a German alchemist in the 1660s. I'm not saying he was a gold digger — but he did marry first one rich lady, and then, after her death, a second rich lady. And he used their money to literally try to make gold.

Back then, a lot of people thought you could change worthless materials into precious metals. And Brand was convinced he could distill gold from a golden substance that he encountered every day: human urine.

He used his wife's money to build a basement laboratory and employed his stepson as a lab assistant. Then, he started collecting.

Accounts from the time don't go into detail about where Brand got his raw material, or what his basement smelled like, or what the stepson thought of his new dad. But they do suggest that Brand stockpiled something like 1,500 gallons of urine. Then he set to work. One of the surviving accounts of the process begins:

Take a good large Quantity of New-made Urine of Beer-drinkers and evaporate it gently to the consistency of honey.

I'll spare you the rest — it involved lots of boiling and cooking and waiting.

In the end, Brand's persistence paid off. He didn't make gold, but he did end up with a white, waxy substance that glowed in the dark. He had stumbled upon the element phosphorus. The name, appropriately, starts with "p."

Phosphorus, it turns out, is an incredibly powerful element. It has been used in deadly explosives and in the synthetic fertilizers that help feed the world.

Throughout history, curious minds have turned mistakes, coincidences and surprises like the discovery of phosphorus into important scientific insights.

Now NPR's science blog Skunk Bear is looking for modern examples — we'd like you to send us your stories of happy accidents in the lab and in the field that led to interesting discoveries. Or maybe such stories from your friends or professors or students or colleagues — or just modern cases of scientific luck you've heard about.

Our favorite stories will be honored in an awards show later this month, and one twice-lucky scientist will receive a trophy from Skunk Bear — The Golden Mole Award For Accidental Brilliance.

Please hurry — we need your nominations by the end of this week, Feb. 5.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The field of science has this history of happy accidents. We're talking about good accidents, like how penicillin was discovered when a few mold spores landed on some neglected petri dishes. NPR's Adam Cole has been thinking about this, and he brings us a story of serendipity in science that's, shall we say, a little less glamorous.

ADAM COLE, BYLINE: Hennig Brand was a German alchemist. I'm not saying he was a gold digger, but he did marry first one rich lady and then after her death a second rich lady and used their money to literally try and make gold. In the 1670s when Brand was alive, a lot of people thought you could change worthless materials into precious metals. And Brand was convinced he could distill gold from a golden substance he encountered every day, human urine. He used his wife's money to build a basement laboratory, and he employed his stepson as a lab assistant. Then he started collecting. Historic accounts don't go into detail about where Brand got his raw material or what his basement smelled like or what the stepson thought of his new dad, but they do suggest that Brand stockpiled something like 1,500 gallons of urine. Then he set to work. One of the surviving accounts of the process begins, take a good large quantity of new-made urine of beer drinkers and evaporate it gently to the consistency of honey. I'll spare you the rest, but it involved lots of boiling and cooking and waiting. And it turns out Brand's persistence paid off. He didn't make gold, but he did end up with a white waxy substance that glowed in the dark. He had stumbled upon the element phosphorus. The name appropriately starts with P. Phosphorous, it turns out, is an incredibly powerful element. It's been used in deadly explosives and in the synthetic fertilizers that helped feed the world. Throughout history, curious minds have turned mistakes, coincidences and surprises, like the discovery of phosphorus, into important scientific insights. Now NPR's science blog Skunk Bear is looking for modern examples. We want you to send us your stories of happy accidents in the lab and in the field that led to interesting discoveries. Our favorite stories will be honored in an award show later this month, and one twice lucky scientist will receive a trophy, the Golden Mole Award for Accidental Brilliance. Submit your stories by February 5. Go to npr.org/goldenmole. Adam Cole, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.