Simon Singh

Simon Singh is an author, journalist and TV producer, specialising in science and Mathematics. His latest book is "Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial", co-authored with Edzard Ernst, the world’s first professor of complementary medicine.

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Search engines: Serendipity Hallucinogenic snowballs

IN SEARCH of some festive serendipity, I decided to read Can Reindeer Fly?, Roger Highfield's enchanting romp through the science of Christmas, and was delighted to learn of the research of Patrick Harding of Sheffield University, who discovered an unusual link between Christmas and fly agaric, a type of mushroom found in northern Europe. Fly agaric is highly toxic, which is not surprising because it is related to the lethal death cap mushroom. It also contains a mind-altering hallucinogenic chemical, and before the arrival of alcohol, fly agaric was used as a recreational drug by Laplanders, who exploited the formidable constitution of their reindeer friends to achieve a safe buzz from the mushroom.

Serendipity: The singing detective

WHEN IT comes to popularising science, Jim Ottaviani's comic books do an excellent job of telling scientific stories in a fun and absorbing way. His latest, Dignifying Science, is a beautifully drawn series of stories about women who made major contributions to science and technology, but who have been largely forgotten. For example, although Heddy Lamarr is famous for her film career, few people realise that she also invented a missile guidance system.

Serendipity After the cold rush

I HAVE JUST finished reading Absolute Zero and the Conquest of Cold by Tom Shachtman, a fascinating history of the science of cold, which is not without its serendipitous episodes. For example, in 1892 the Scottish chemist James Dewar invented the vacuum flask, developed in order to store liquids, such as liquid oxygen, at very low temperatures. The hollow wall of the flask was evacuated so that no heat could be conducted through it. Its design was deliberate and elegant, so much so that Dewar was blinkered to the flask's commercial potential. He never considered using the so- called dewar flask to keep hot liquids hot.

Serendipity: The vagaries of radar

I RECENTLY HAD dinner with Neal Stephenson, the cult science fiction writer. He had just written Cryptonomicon, a thriller based on encryption, and I had just written The Code Book, a history of cryptography. Neal told me a story with a cryptographic angle and a serendipitous twist, concerning the Japanese attack on the Pacific island of Midway in June 1942. The Americans knew that an assault was imminent because they had cracked much of the Japanese code, but they were unsure about the exact location of AF, an encoded grid reference.

search engines: Serendipity On the rebound

IN THE 18th century, fishermen on the island of Lovgrund, a few miles off the Swedish coast, noticed that things were not as they used to be. The village elders remembered how seals used to climb upon a particular rock in the harbour, where they could easily be harpooned or shot. But the seals could no longer clamber on to the rock, because the sea level seemed to have fallen and the rock was too high out of the water.

Serendipity: The lighthouse family

I HAVE just finished reading The Lighthouse Stevensons, by Bella Bathurst, the story of the family that courageously devoted itself to building the lighthouses that protected those who sailed around the Scottish coast. Bathurst describes a serendipitous discovery that had an enormous impact on the effectiveness of lighthouses. In 1781, a Swiss chemist named Ami Argand was eating dinner with his brother when he accidentally broke a glass flask. As he picked up the pieces, he happened to pass a tubular fragment above the flame of an oil lamp. Argand's brother documented what happened to the flame: "Immediately it rose with brilliancy. My brother started from his seat in ecstasy, rushed upon me with a transport of joy and embraced me with rapture."

Serendipity: The lighthouse family

I HAVE just finished reading The Lighthouse Stevensons, by Bella Bathurst, the story of the family that courageously devoted itself to building the lighthouses that protected those who sailed around the Scottish coast. Bathurst describes a serendipitous discovery that had an enormous impact on the effectiveness of lighthouses. In 1781, a Swiss chemist named Ami Argand was eating dinner with his brother when he accidentally broke a glass flask. As he picked up the pieces, he happened to pass a tubular fragment above the flame of an oil lamp. Argand's brother documented what happened to the flame: "Immediately it rose with brilliancy. My brother started from his seat in ecstasy, rushed upon me with a transport of joy and embraced me with rapture."

Serendipity: Galactic catastrophes

IN THE LATE Sixties, America launched the Vela satellites, designed to monitor the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty by detecting gamma rays given off during nuclear blasts. The Americans could already monitor nuclear tests in the atmosphere and below ground, and now they were able to see if the Soviets were conducting clandestine nuclear tests in space. In 1967, a Vela satellite detected a blast of gamma radiation, and the American military immediately panicked.

Serendipity: On a different wavelength

PERCY SPENCER grew up a poor, uneducated farmboy in Howland, Maine. Orphaned at the age of two, he was brought up by his uncle and aunt, who managed to arrange a job for him in a local paper mill. When the mill was electrified in 1910, the young Percy showed such enthusiasm for the newfangled source of energy and learned so much about it that he was promoted to the job of electrician. This was the start of a meteoric rise, and by the end of the Second World War he was a senior researcher at the Raytheon Corporation, helping to develop radar technology.
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