Special Reports

Luck & Success



There is no doubt in mind about the relation between luck and success, to what extent does luck play a role in success is what we will try to discover through this special report.
After my article on whether or not Success is Accidental, i want to focus a bit more on this subject, by doing a series of followup articles.

We will start with this article, which presents raw data that connect Luck to success. There will be no analysis in this post. Later articles will have more analysis.

Other articles in this special report where the different aspects of luck and success are analysed include:

Luck’s influence:

  • The number of CEOs born in June and July is much smaller than the number of CEOs born in other months.
  • The chance of becoming a CEO is influenced by your name or month of birth.
  • Those with last names earlier in the alphabet are more likely to receive tenure at top departments.
  • The display of middle initials increases positive evaluations of people’s intellectual capacities and achievements.
  • People with easy to pronounce names are judged more positively than those with difficult-to-pronounce names.
  • Females with masculine sounding names are more successful in legal careers.
  • About half of the differences in income across people worldwide is explained by their country of residence and by the income distribution within that country.
  • Scientific impact is randomly distributed, with high productivity alone having a limited effect on the likelihood of high-impact work in a scientific career.

Success due to luck:

Lucky Inventions:

  • Chocolate chip cookies were invented by Ruth Wakefield when she attempted to make chocolate drop cookies. She did not have the required chocolate so she broke up a candy bar and placed the chunks into the cookie mix. These chunks later morphed into what is now known as chocolate chip cookies.
  • Discovery of the principle behind inkjet printers by a Canon engineer. After putting his hot soldering iron by accident on his pen, ink was ejected from the pen’s point a few moments later.
  • Pyroceramic (used to make Corningware, among other things) was invented by S. Donald Stookey, a chemist working for the Corning company, who noticed crystallization in an improperly cooled batch of tinted glass.
  • Vulcanization of rubber, by Charles Goodyear. He accidentally left a piece of rubber mixture with sulfur on a hot plate, and produced vulcanized rubber.
  • Corn flakes and wheat flakes (Wheaties) were accidentally discovered by the Kelloggs brothers in 1898, when they left cooked wheat unattended for a day and tried to roll the mass, obtaining a flaky material instead of a sheet.
  • Safety glass, by French scientist Edouard Benedictus. In 1903 he accidentally knocked a glass flask to the floor and observed that the broken pieces were held together by a liquid plastic that had evaporated and formed a thin film inside the flask.

Luck In Pharmacology : Lucky Drugs developed for something used for something else.

  • Viagra (sildenafil citrate), an anti-impotence drug. It was initially studied for use in hypertension and angina pectoris. Phase I clinical trials under the direction of Ian Osterloh suggested that the drug had little effect on angina, but that it could induce marked penile erections.
  • Prontosil, an antibiotic of the sulfa group was an azo dye. German chemists at Bayer had the wrong idea that selective chemical stains of bacteria would show specific antibacterial activity. Prontosil had it, but in fact it was due to another substance metabolised from it in the body, sulfanilimide.
  • Minoxidil’s action on baldness ; originally it was an oral agent for treating hypertension. It was observed that bald patients treated with it grew hair too.
  • The first oral contraceptive (a.k.a. The Pill) was discovered by Dr. Carl Djerassi accidental production of synthetic progesterone and its intentional modification to allow for oral intake.
  • Retin-A anti-wrinkle action. It was a vitamin A derivative first used for treating acne. The accidental result in some older people was a reduction of wrinkles on the face.
  • The anesthetic nitrous oxide (laughing gas). Initially well known for inducing altered behavior (hilarity), its properties were discovered when British chemist Humphry Davy tested the gas on himself and some of his friends, and soon realised that nitrous oxide considerably dulled the sensation of pain, even if the inhaler was still semi-conscious.
  • The libido-enhancing effect of l-dopa, a drug used for treating Parkinson’s disease. Older patients in a sanatorium had their long-lost interest in sex suddenly revived.
  • The anti-cancer drug cisplatin was discovered by Barnett Rosenberg. He wanted to explore what he thought was an inhibitory effect of an electric field on the growth of bacteria. It was rather due to an electrolysis product of the platinum electrode he was using.
  • The first benzodiazepine, chlordiazepoxide (Librium) was discovered accidentally in 1954 by the Austrian scientist Dr Leo Sternbach (1908–2005), who found the substance while cleaning up his lab.
  • The first anti-psychotic drug, chlorpromazine, was discovered by French pharmacologist Henri Laborit. He wanted to add an anti-histaminic to a pharmacological combination to prevent surgical shock and noticed that patients treated with it were unusually calm before the operation.

Luck In Chemistry:

  • Teflon, by Roy J. Plunkett, who was trying to develop a new gas for refrigeration and got a slick substance instead, which was used first for lubrication of machine parts.
  • Gelignite by Alfred Nobel, when he accidentally mixed collodium (gun cotton) with nitroglycerin.
  • Pittacal, the first synthetic dyestuff, by Carl Ludwig Reichenbach. The dark blue dye appeared on wooden posts painted with creosote to drive away dogs who urinated on them.
  • The chemical element Iodine was discovered by Bernard Courtois in 1811, when he was trying to remove residues with strong acid from the bottom of his saltpeter production plant which used seaweed ashes as a prime material.
  • Cellophane, a thin, transparent sheet made of regenerated cellulose, was developed in 1908 by Swiss chemist Jacques Brandenberger, as a material for covering stain-proof tablecloth.
  • Silly Putty by James Wright, on the way to solving another problem : finding a rubber substitute for the United States during World War II.
  • Chemical synthesis of urea, by Friedrich Woehler. He was attempting to produce ammonium cyanate by mixing potassium cyanate and ammonium chloride and got urea, the first organic chemical to be synthesised, often called the ’Last Nail’ of the coffin of the Élan vital Theory.
  • Racemization, by Louis Pasteur. While investigating the properties of sodium ammonium tartrate he was able to separate for the first time the two optical isomers of the salt. His luck was twofold : it is the only racemate salt to have this property, and the room temperature that day was slightly below the point of separation.
  • Rayon, the first synthetic silk, was discovered by French chemist Hilaire de Chardonnet, an assistant to Louis Pasteur. He spilled a bottle of collodion and found later that he could draw thin strands from the evaporated viscous liquid.
  • Scotchgard moisture repellant, used to protect fabrics and leather, was discovered accidentally in 1953 by Patsy Sherman. One of the compounds she was investigating as a rubber material that wouldn’t deteriorate when in contact with aircraft fuel spilled onto a tennis shoe and would not wash out ; she then considered the spill as a protectant against spills.
  • The chemical element helium. British chemist William Ramsay isolated helium while looking for argon but, after separating nitrogen and oxygen from the gas liberated by sulfuric acid, noticed a bright-yellow spectral line that matched the D3 line observed in the spectrum of the Sun.
  • Aspartame (NutraSweet) was accidentally ingested by G.D. Searle & Company chemist James M. Schlatter, who was trying to develop a test for an anti-ulcer drug.
  • Saran (plastic) was discovered when Ralph Wiley had trouble washing beakers used in development of a dry cleaning product. It was soon used to make plastic wrap.
  • The synthetic polymer celluloid was discovered by British chemist and metallurgist Alexander Parkes in 1856, after observing that a solid residue remained after evaporation of the solvent from photographic collodion. Celluloid can be described as the first plastic used for making solid objects (the first ones being billiard balls, substituting for expensive ivory).
  • The possibility of synthesizing indigo, a natural dye extracted from a plant with the same name, was discovered by a chemist named Sapper who was heating coal tar when he accidentally broke a thermometer whose mercury content acted as a catalyst to produce phthalic anhydride, which could readily be converted into indigo.
  • Saccharin was accidentally discovered during research on coal tar derivatives.
  • Another sweetener, cyclamate, was discovered by graduate student Michael Sveda, when he smoked a cigarette accidentally contaminated with a compound he had recently synthesized.

Luck In Medicine & Biology:

  • Bioelectricity, by Luigi Galvani. He was dissecting a frog at a table where he had been conducting experiments with static electricity. His assistant touched an exposed sciatic nerve of the frog with a metal scalpel which had picked up a charge, provoking a muscle contraction.
  • The hormone melatonin was discovered in 1917 when it was shown that extract of bovine pineal glands lightened frog skin. In 1958 its chemical structure was defined by Aaron B. Lerner and in the mid-70s it was demonstrated that also in humans the production of melatonin exhibits and influences a circadian rhythm.
  • Anaphylaxis, by Charles Richet. When he tried to reuse dogs that had previously shown allergic reactions to sea anemone toxin, the reactions developed much faster and were more severe the second time.
  • Interferon, an antiviral factor, was discovered accidentally by two Japanese virologists, Yasu-ichi Nagano and Yasuhiko Kojima while trying to develop an improved vaccine for smallpox.
  • The role of the pancreas in glucose metabolism, by Oskar Minkowski. Dogs that had their pancreas removed for an unrelated physiological investigation urinated profusely ; the urine also attracted flies, signaling its high glucose content.
  • Coronary catheterization was discovered as a method when a cardiologist at the Cleveland Clinic accidentally injected radiocontrast into the coronary artery instead of the left ventricle.

Luck In Physics a Astronomy:

  • Metallic hydrogen was found accidentally in March 1996 by a group of scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, after a 60-year search.
  • Infrared radiation, by William Herschel, while investigating the temperature differences between different colors of visible light by dispersing sunlight into a spectrum using a glass prism. He put thermometers into the different visible colors where he expected a temperature increase, and one as a control to measure the ambient temperature in the dark region beyond the red end of the spectrum. The thermometer beyond the red unexpectedly showed a higher temperature than the others, showing that there was non-visible radiation beyond the red end of the visible spectrum.
  • High-temperature superconductivity was discovered by physicists Johannes Georg Bednorz and Karl Alexander Müller, when they were searching for a material that would be a perfect electrical insulator (nonconducting). They won the 1987 Nobel Prize in Physics.
  • The thermoelectric effect was discovered accidentally by Estonian physicist Thomas Seebeck in 1821, who found that a voltage developed between the two ends of a metal bar when it was submitted to a difference of temperature.
  • Electromagnetism, by Hans Christian Ørsted. While setting up his materials for a lecture, he noticed a compass needle deflecting from magnetic north when the electric current from the battery he was using was switched on and off.
  • Radioactivity, by Henri Becquerel. Serendipitously when trying to investigate phosphorescent materials using photographic plates, he stumbled upon uranium.
  • X rays, by Wilhelm Roentgen. Interested in investigating cathodic ray tubes, he noted that some fluorescent papers in his lab were illuminated at a distance although his apparatus had an opaque cover, but his hand in front showed his bones.
  • S. N. Bose discovered Bose-Einstein statistics when a mathematical error surprisingly explained anormalous data.
  • The first demonstration of wave–particle duality during the Davisson–Germer experiment at Bell Labs after a leak in the vacuum system and attempts to recover from it unknowingly altered the crystal structure of the nickel target and led to the accidental experimental confirmation of the de Broglie hypothesis. Davisson went on to share the 1937 Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery.
  • The rings of Uranus were discovered by astronomers James L. Elliot, Edward W. Dunham, and Douglas J. Mink on March 10, 1977. They planned to use the occultation of the star SAO 158687 by Uranus to study the planet’s atmosphere, but found that the star disappeared briefly from view five times both before and after it was eclipsed by the planet. They deduced that a system of narrow rings was present.
  • Discovery of the planet Uranus by William Herschel. Herschel was looking for comets, and initially identified Uranus as a comet until he noticed the circularity of its orbit and its distance and suggested that it was a planet, the first one discovered since antiquity.
  • Pluto’s moon Charon was discovered by US astronomer James Christy in 1978. He was going to discard what he thought was a defective photographic plate of Pluto, when his Star Scan machine broke down. While it was being repaired he had time to study the plate again and discovered others in the archives with the same « defect » (a bulge in the planet’s image which was actually a large moon).
  • Cosmic gamma-ray bursts were discovered in the late 1960s by the US Vela satellites, which were built to detect nuclear tests in the Soviet Union

Luck & Success on an Evolutionary Level:

Even in evolution and extension of species luck may have a big role, take for example the bears and ferrets in Asia VS. in the Americas, while a species of bears flourished in the America it’s gone almost extinct in Asia. The opposite for ferrets. Why? Luck! check the video below to understand how luck influenced the extinction or growth of an entire species!

Can We Influence Luck ?

  • Take some risks. Get out of your comfort zone.
  • Show appreciation.
  • Change your relationship with ideas.

Share if you care

Abdallah Alaili

I'm a serial entrepreneur (mostly tech) and micro-investor (tiny), this is a blog to learn from other entrepreneurs and spread the wisdom to many more. You can find me on: Instagram - Twitter - Linkedin - more about me