The following is a true story. I have not embellished even one tiny little fact.
Recently, I took a one-day course on astronomy at the Boston Museum of Science. It was an excellent introductory course for someone like me who has a deep interest in the subject and wants to learn some basics. The instructor, a thirty-something PhD just brimming with enthusiasm, was excellent. She was a gifted presenter who needed no teaching aids besides chalk and a blackboard. But she did have one aid she was very proud of: a thick roll of paper on which she had drawn the sun, Earth, and the other planets of our solar system to show their relative distances from one another. She took us from the classroom to the hallway and ceremoniously unrolled the paper the full length of the 40-or-so-foot hallway to show us the vast distances in our corner of the universe.
It was an incredible teaching device, and it made it very clear just how far apart the heavenly bodies are from one another. She was rightly proud of her work, which she had created for herself in undergraduate school and kept ever since.
While we were all looking at the unrolled paper, a Museum staffer walked into the hallway carrying an owl, which she was taking to a lab at the other end of the building. The poor owl was apparently sick and not the least bit interested in astronomy. On the way down the hall, the owl relieved itself—right on our instructor's unrolled paper, somewhere between Neptune and Uranus. The instructor gasped and then seemed to stop breathing. I had to turn away.
Perhaps the owl was pointing out the location of some yet-to-be-discovered star, or showing us a new planet. Owls are wise, you know.
$&!# happens. It's how you respond that counts. I'm not sure what the astronomy instructor eventually did. She seemed at that instant to fall into a black hole of a depression, which I hope she has emerged from by now. Perhaps she has developed a miracle cleaning solution—or discovered the wonders of computer graphics.
One of the best known examples of the unexpected yielding positive results happened at 3M. While trying to improve the company's acrylate adhesives, researcher Spence Silver discovered a new, strong adhesive that lost some but not all of its stickiness when coated onto a tape backing. But he didn't know what he could use it on. Enter 3M researcher Art Fry, who sang in his church choir and got aggravated every time the piece of paper he used to mark the music fell out. He decided Spence's adhesive on a piece of paper would be a better bookmark that wouldn't damage the song book. Thus was born the Post-It note.
The unexpected can also point to new insights. Just ask the engineers who developed some of the first bird-strike tests at Grumman.
Legend has it that while testing airplane windshields for ability to withstand bird strikes, the engineers reportedly fired a bird at a test plane with an air canon. It not only shattered the windshield, the bird went through the entire fuselage, out the rear pressure bulkhead, and across the street. Insight: Don't use a frozen bird for the test.
Then there's the case of my brother-in-law, whose first visit to California came about because he fell asleep on a flight to Detroit, which continued on to San Francisco. He took the occasion to enjoy the city and then got a free flight back to Detroit.
Murphy, who gave us that law we all live by, would have liked that. Perhaps the owl would have liked it too.
Reach Teague at email@example.com.