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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Serendipity: A meteoric demise?

LAYERS of rock represent moments in history, with each layer representing a more ancient time than the layer above it. The date of the death of the dinosaurs can be pinpointed because there is a sharp transition between layers of rock that are rich in fossils and higher layers that are devoid of fossils. This transition can be dated to 65 million years ago, but for a long time scientists had no idea of the speed of the transition. Did the dinosaurs die off over the course of a few years or a few thousand years?

Serendipity A splinter in the eye

LAST YEAR I learned that I had developed tiny cataracts, and ever since I have been collaring opthalmologists and asking them what I should do. Some suggested that I sit tight and wait to see if my eyesight deteriorates further, while others said that I should have a routine operation that will give me perfectly clear sight again. One opthalmologist pointed out that the operation in question was the result of a serendipitous observation.

Serendipity: The soul of hieroglyphs

IN 1799, French soldiers preparing the foundations for an extension to Fort Julien, at Rosetta, Egypt, discovered the single most famous stone in the history of archaeology, the Rosetta Stone. This slab contained an inscription in Egyptian hieroglyphs accompanied by the same text in Greek, which seemed to offer a key to unlocking the mysterious symbols of Egyptian writing.

Science: Serendipity The secrets of mirth control

LAST YEAR, the scientific journal Nature reported the story of a 16-year-old girl, known only as AK, who suffered from severe epileptic seizures. She was to undergo surgery to remove the small section of her brain responsible for triggering the seizures, but prior to the operation it was necessary to carry out a detailed survey of her brain. This was a precautionary procedure aimed at checking that the operation would not remove or damage any important brain tissue.

Serendipity Rocky foundations

FROM THE 1920s onwards, cities worldwide began to suffer from collapsing sewers. The concrete lining of pipes in places such as Cairo, Cape Town and Melbourne was turning into putty in just a couple of years, and engineers were baffled. Eventually, in the 1940s, an Australian investigator named CD Parker pinpointed the culprit, namely subterranean bacteria only a millionth of a metre in length. The bugs produced sulphuric acid, which dissolved the concrete.

Serendipity A bit of a snag

IN 1948, George de Mestral went for a quiet walk in the Swiss countryside. Just like millions of people before him, he returned home to find his trousers covered in burrs, but, unlike everybody before him, Mestral wanted to find out about the mechanism behind these pesky and persistent seed cases. He put one of the burrs under his microscope, and saw that its surface was covered in tiny hooks; these had been responsible for latching on to the loops of fibre in his trousers.

Serendipity: An antisocial accident

ON 13 SEPTEMBER 1848, a railroad engineer by the name of Phineas Gage was preparing for a rock blast when something suddenly went through his mind, namely a four-foot iron rod. A premature detonation had forced the rod into Gage's left cheek, through his brain, and out of the top his skull, eventually landing 100ft away. Remarkably, moments later Gage was able to "walk off, talking with composure and equanimity of the hole in his head".

Serendipity: Nature's error- correction

CHANCE meetings between researchers from different backgrounds, one of them unwittingly holding the missing piece of the other's jigsaw, can result in significant discoveries. Just such a meeting occurred in a bar at Bradford University, between Dr Simon Shepherd and Professor Terry Baker.

Serendipity Nature's smoke detectors

THROUGHOUT history, humans have learnt lessons from animals and plants, copying mother nature's designs and stealing her secrets. The idea for turning wood pulp into paper, for instance, came from insects.

Search Engines: Serendipity: Hardly a poxy matter

IF YOU ever find yourself in Bentley, Gloucestershire, then you might like to visit the Cowpox Temple, a small building erected to commemorate the achievement of Edward Jenner. At the age of 19, Jenner was chatting up one of the local milkmaids, who casually mentioned to him that she would never contract smallpox because she had already had cowpox, a well- known piece of Gloucestershire folklore. Although Jenner thought nothing of it at the time, he became a doctor and several years later realised the significance of the milkmaid's tale. The relatively harmless cowpox virus was enough to stimulate the immune system into defending the body against the more deadly, but related, smallpox virus.
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