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The Limits of Knowledge, Part III: Big Surprises in Little Packages

(Part of a continuing series: part I and part II)

I love tales of serendipitous scientific discovery. A spot of mold in a Petri dish leads to penicillin, a spill on the stovetop becomes vulcanized rubber. The true hero is penetrating curiosity: instead of dumping a ruined experiment in the trash, the keen-eyed scientist frowns and wonders: what does this mean?

Most stories of serendipity occur among test tubes and Bunsen burners, but today computers allow numerical experiments and computational “accidents.” And one of the most paradigm-shattering accidents of the twentieth century involved neither dawdling clocks moving at the speed of light, nor slippery electrons dancing around an atom, but humble calculations of the weather.

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