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Wednesday, 8 March, 2000, 19:37 GMT
Science can be so unpredictable
Jodrell Bank radio telescope
Radio astronomy was discovered by accident
Chance has played a big part in some of the most significant discoveries in science, a leading scientist claims.

The X-ray, radioactivity and radio astronomy were all chance discoveries in the history of science, said Sir John Meurig Thomas.

In a lecture on 'The Unpredictability of Science' at Cardiff University, Sir John also described how being in the right place at the right time has influenced modern science.

He used the example of a London bookmaker, who was given tickets by one of his customers to attend the Royal Institution to hear a lecture by Sir Humphrey Davy.

Professor Sir John Meurig Thomas
Sir John Meurig Thomas emphasises the importance of chance in science
A few months later, the bookmaker wrote to Davy seeking an apprenticeship.

That apprentice was Michael Faraday, who became one of the greatest scientists of his day and one of the greatest experimenters of all time.

Sir John, who was born in south Wales in 1932, has been Master of Peterhouse, the oldest College of the University of Cambridge, since 1993.

He is Professor of Chemistry at, and former Director of, the Davy Faraday Research Laboratory at the Royal Institution in London.

His interest in the unpredictability of science was first aroused in 1983 when he was a member of the Government's Cabinet Office Advisory Council for Applied Research and Development.

He was a member of its study group surveying scientific developments and advising on how the UK Government could get a better long-term return for its spending on basic scientific research'.

Michael Faraday
A science lecture inspired Michael Faraday
Its remit was remarkably similar to that given by President Roosevelt who in 1937 set up a commission to advise the US Government on what would be the most important technical and industrial developments for the next 20 or 30 years.

The commission duly made its report, which contained many sensible recommendations.

But what struck Sir John was what the commission missed, such as antibiotics (discovered by Fleming in the 1920s); biotechnology (discovered in 1904); the fax machine (discovered in 1840); and the fuel cell (basis of future road transport - invented by Swansea-born lawyer W R Grove in 1842).

The internet was also a product of science's unpredictability, said Sir John.

He quotes its creation as an example of how military factors can influence scientific leaps forward.

The internet began as a Cold War project to create a communication network immune to nuclear attack.

Sir Richard Woolley
Sir Richard Woolley dismissed space travel a year before Sputnik's launch
In 1969, the US government created ARPANET, connecting four western universities and allowing researchers to use the mainframe computers of any of the networked institutions.

New connections were soon added to the network, bringing the number of 'nodes' up from four to 23 by 1971, to 111 by 1977 and up to four million by 1994.

Sir John points out that scientists are no better at predicting the future than the layman.

In 1956, Royal Astronomer Sir Richard Woolley said: "Space travel is utter bilge".

The next year, the first artificial satellite - Sputnik 1 - was launched and in 1961 Yuri Gagarin became the first astronaut.

Sir John delivered the Lord Phillips Memorial Lecture, which commemorates David Chilton Phillips, the founding father of structural biology.

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