Unexpected Observations & Results in Experiments

Instructor: Sarah Friedl

Sarah has two Master's, one in Zoology and one in GIS, a Bachelor's in Biology, and has taught college level Physical Science and Biology.

Observations and experimental results do not always agree with what we expect. However, these results are not necessarily mistakes, and in this lesson we'll take a look at how they can even lead to useful discoveries.

When Things Don't Go As Planned

John is a scientist, and he runs a lot of experiments. He puts a good amount of time and energy into designing his experiments because he knows how important this is. He has been a scientist for a long time, so he often has a pretty good idea what to expect in terms of his results. But sometimes John is very surprised by what he sees during and after an experiment, because his observations and results are different than what he expected to see based on his scientific knowledge.

What does John do when this happens? First, he checks his experimental design. We are all human, so there's always the chance that there was an error in one or more steps along the way. After this, he goes back and makes sure that he recorded everything correctly. Again, there's always the chance that a data point was written down incorrectly or something like that.

But if all looks well in the experiment, what can be said for the unexpected results? Because John runs so many experiments he already knows that things do not always go as planned. And when he encounters unexpected observations or results that aren't from an error in the experiment, he's really excited about it! This is because John now has the opportunity to learn something new. Think about it: if you run an experiment and you get the results you expected, you didn't learn anything, you just validated knowledge you already had. But if you get results that are different than you expected, you get the chance to figure out why. In other words, you get to discover something new!

Interesting Unexpected Results

Unexpected results from experiments have given us some really interesting items that our lives wouldn't be the same without. Let's look at a few examples of experiments that led to some unexpected, but useful results.

Synthetic Dye

Synthetic, or artificial, dye was discovered by accident in 1856 when William Henry Perkin was attempting to develop a way to synthetically produce quinine, a treatment for malaria. Perkin ran some experiments, and during one he ended up producing a black, gunky material that he decided to experiment with even more. During cleanup, however, the rag he was using became stained dark purple (called mauveine)- the first synthetic dye!

Synthetic dye was discovered by accident.
synthetic dye

Most colors today are made with synthetic dyes. They cost less, are easier to manufacture, and can be made into thousands of different colors. Synthetic dyes are no longer limited to clothing, either. Today they are used in medicine, plastics, wood, cosmetics, and more.


Another accidental discovery from unexpected results is the invention of Kevlar, an incredibly strong material used in bullet-proof vests. Kevlar was discovered by Stephanie Kwolek, a chemist at DuPont in 1965. Around this time, car manufacturers were trying to find a strong, heat-resistant material to strengthen tires, that was also inexpensive. In trying to create a synthetic fiber that was both strong and flame-resistant, she accidentally created this material, which is also used in things like gloves, boots, and even military vehicles.

Kevlar was accidentally discovered during experimentation but is now useful for things like bulletproof vests and military vehicles.
bulletproof vest

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