5 Jan 2018

Crayola’s New Blue and Other Hidden Opportunities

By Larry Verstraete

Months ago, Crayola, the crayon giant announced the removal of Dandelion from its palette of yellows and oranges. In March, the company issued a news release saying that Dandelion’s replacement would be in the blue family. Not long after, it added another tidbit of information. The replacement would be a newly invented, never seen before, hue of blue with a backstory as unique as its name, “YInMn Blue”.

In 2009, Mas Subramanian, an Oregon State University (OSU) chemist, discovered the colour with his grad student, Andrew Smith. The two were heating batches of manganese to 1200 °C (~2000 °F), hoping to produce a high-efficiency electronic material. After one attempt, Smith pulled a striking, brilliant-blue compound out of the furnace. Subramanian knew right off it was a research breakthrough. Unwittingly, they had created a shade of blue unlike any other from a combination of yttrium, indium, manganese, and oxygen.

Recognizing opportunity, Subramanian and his team shifted gears. They expanded their research. To date, they have created a range of new pigments, everything from bright oranges to vibrant hues of purple, turquoise, and green.

Discoveries of this sort are not uncommon in science. X-rays, penicillin, and Kevlar are a few items that owe their existence to usual circumstances where scientists were looking for one thing and happily found something else. The nicotine patch is another.

In 1986, as Frank Etscorn, a behavioural psychologist, walked across the floor of his basement laboratory in the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology carrying an open vial, he stumbled. He had been studying sugar dependency in rats and the vial contained a nausea-inducing substance found in tobacco that he thought might reduce the rats’ cravings for sweets. When he stumbled, the brown liquid sloshed on to his arm. “I wiped it off and didn’t pay attention,” he told a reporter for People Magazine later. “But after about 15 minutes I felt nauseated.”

The experience sidetracked Etscorn, steering him into a new area of research. “Almost immediately, I realized this could be a way for people to stop smoking.”

It took years to produce a workable nicotine patch, but the accident was the start of the process. Just as in Subramanian’s case, Etscorn saw something others might have missed.

What does it take to recognize hidden opportunities when they arise? Brain research provides some clues. The corpus callosum, a thick band of more than 200 million nerve fibres, connects the left and right hemisphere. Think of it as a busy freeway where impulses fire back and forth, facilitating communication between the two sides of the brain.

In brain studies, neuroscientists discovered that the corpus callosum of creative individuals was thicker than normal. In such brains, there appears to be more communication between the two hemispheres and greater potential of connecting seeming disconnected ideas.

Not every brain hardwired with a thick callosum connects the dots and capitalizes on unexpected circumstances, however. And it doesn’t mean that a brain with a thin callosum cannot be a member of the discovery club either. There’s more at play in taking advantage of serendipitous events than simple brain mechanics.

Over a century ago, Louis Pasteur made a major discovery after his lab assistants neglected a batch of petri dishes. Wondering how this would affect his results, Pasteur opted to carry on the experiment.  His decision led to a breakthrough in the development of vaccines.

Luck played a role in the discovery. The lab assistants messed up, providing Pasteur with opportunity. But Pasteur recognized that more than luck was involved, too. Knowledge and experience combined with curiosity seem to be another part of the formula. Or, to quote Pasteur’s famous line, ‘Chance favours the prepared mind’.

There you go, crayon lovers. Colour on with Crayola’s new blue knowing that you are holding a bit of chance between your fingers.

Images from Pixabay

1 comment:

It's a little skewed, that's for sure. said...

Loved this post, and not only because I am interested in colour, in science history and accident, but also because of the note about creative folks having thicker corpus callosums than others. I did not know this - but know from an MRI that my brain has an unusual feature - a thicker than 'normal' corpus callosum! Proof!!!