Aventurra: Chance and Serendipity in Scientific Discovery and Glass-making
In 17th century Italy, in the canalled streets of Murano, Venice, a glassmaker stumbled upon a new technique that seemed to create sparkling puddles of gold underneath the surface of pure, clear glass. Some legends tell how the inventor of this technique accidentally spilled copper salts into a batch of molten glass. In the low-oxygen environment of the furnace, the copper transformed from a sooty black powder into shimmering golden pools. The glass produced from this technique was named aventurine, from the Italian word aventurra, meaning ‘by chance’. Whether or not the original creator of aventurine glass genuinely made his discovery by accident, the name stuck.
Science, perhaps unlike creativity in the arts, is popularly viewed as being composed of exact, precise and thoughtfully planned out acts. Hypotheses are made, before experiments are planned in minute detail. The steps are then followed exactly as the methodology was specified, until a result is achieved. Each step is therefore of critical importance. In the case of aventurine glass, this difference between scientific precision and artistic freedom seems perfectly supported; the artistry blossomed out of a fortunate mistake. A scientific attitude to precision might not have resulted in the creation of such beautiful and prized glass.
However, science is not always as accurately predicted as some might think. Fortunate mistakes, happy accidents, or serendipity have played a large part in some of the most important scientific discoveries ever made. From Archimedes’s bath to Newton’s apple tree to Pfizer’s surprise discovery of Viagra, there are countless examples of serendipity in science throughout the ages.
The Penicillin precedent
In 1928, Alexander Fleming’s serendipitous discovery changed modern medicine changed forever. Although a brilliant and respected researcher, his laboratory was often untidy. When he looked at the petri dishes he had stored away over summer, perhaps much like the first person to discover golden pools of aventurine in their glass, he was confounded. ‘That’s funny’, he famously remarked. The dishes had become contaminated with a fungus, and where this fungus grew, staphylococci had been killed. Fleming isolated the fungus and grew it, noting that it exuded a substance which had the ability to kill bacteria. Fleming named his discovery penicillin.
“When I woke up just after dawn on September 28, 1928, I certainly didn’t plan to revolutionise all medicine by discovering the world’s first antibiotic, or bacteria killer, but I suppose that was exactly what I did.”
To suggest that such a monumental scientific discovery as antibiotics happened only by chance is perhaps insulting to the great minds that went into their discovery. However, Horace Walpole, the celebrated 18th century man of letters, who coined the term serendipity , described how the word referred to a specific kind of happy accident, one which only a sagacious, or clever, person can exploit. Louis Pasteur, whose discovery of the chicken cholera vaccine is sometimes cited as an example of serendipity, similarly stated that ‘chance favours only the prepared mind’.
Even if the first glassmaker to discover aventurine did so by knocking over a plate of copper oxide into the molten glass, it is only through generations of Muranese expertise (Walpole’s ‘sagacity’) that this accident was harnessed and refined to create the beautiful wares known as aventurine.
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Moretti, C. et al (2013) Le verre aventurine (“avventurina”): son histoire, les recettes, les analyses, sa fabrication. ArchéoSciences, 37: 2013, pp. 135-154