Doug Bonderud

Apr 10th 2019

Interesting Science Experiments and Unintended Consequences


Even the most carefully orchestrated lab experiments don’t always go to plan.

Sometimes, initial results are startling but are eventually debunked by further investigation — as Space reports, that’s the likely fate of the “no-fuel” EmDrive that made headlines last year. In other cases, positive outcomes don’t match original intentions. According to Science History, that’s the story behind non-stick polymer Teflon: Researcher Roy Plunkett was trying to create a new, safer type of refrigerant when he accidentally produced the slippery cooking surface.

Here’s a look at some recent interesting science experiments worldwide — and the results the experimenters weren’t expecting.

The Mega Magnet Manifestation

Last September, a team from the University of Tokyo set out to create a powerful magnetic field. Their goal was around 700 Teslas (T), generated by pumping 3 million amps into their experimental setup. Typical fridge magnets are approximately 0.01 T, so they built a special enclosure to handle the output. Their result? According to AIP, they managed 1,200 T, enough to destroy their protective enclosure and effectively blow up their lab.

Despite the destruction, this is a positive result: As noted by research lead Shojiro Takeyama, magnetic fields over 1,000 T allow improved observation of electrons. Short-term bursts of high-power magnetic fields are also critical components of many next-gen fusion reaction designs; Takeyama’s team demonstrated that it’s possible to achieve these values with a relatively simple setup (albeit one requiring a heavier door). Next up for the Tokyo crew? 1,500 T from 5 million amps — and likely a new lab space.

The Warm Floor Worry

Climate change concerns are quickly gaining international attention, prompting greater efforts to understand the effects of temperature on critical natural processes.

As noted by, that was the goal of ecology Ph.D student Stephanie Roe’s forest-floor study: She set out to discover the impact of warmer temperatures on biomass breakdown in Puerto Rican forests. Her expectations? Increased temperatures would boost metabolism, in turn increasing the activity of microbes responsible for decomposition. Instead, she discovered that higher temperatures reduced moisture by 38 percent, more than offsetting any benefit from increased activity and slowing the decomposition process when compared to non-warm plots.

Roe’s research is ongoing, but initial results shore up the notion that when it comes to scrapping lab experiments for real-world observations, what’s expected isn’t always the outcome.

The Dark Matter Modification

Search for “dark matter” and you’ll have your hands full — scientists across the globe are ramping up efforts to find the “missing matter” in our universe. Some options, such as the popular weakly interacting massive particles (WIMPs) theory, have been effectively sidelined; according to Physics, direct experimentation has now ruled out the existence of WIMPs.

A new paper in the Journal of Cosmology and Astroparticle Physics, however, proposes another explanation for dark matter: We might not need it. The theory suggests that an effect called Vainshtein Screening is at work, which posits that “each sufficiently dense, compact object in space generates an invisible sphere around it which determines how the laws of physics behave with growing distance.” At short distances, say the size of our solar system, everything acts as expected. Outside the sphere, it’s possible that massive objects exert enhanced gravitational pull — without the commensurate amount of matter required by typical Newtonian mechanics.

It’s a sideways take on a high-profile mystery, but it does have some support, allowing researchers to more accurately explain stellar velocities than by using general relativity. Also important: It’s falsifiable. Because the theory predicts that very compact galaxies will exhibit stronger light deflection than their not-so-compact counterparts, increasingly precise measurement of interstellar phenomena could provide significant confirmation — or render the theory moot.

The Rogue Wave Recreation

In 1995, a rogue wave struck the Draupner oil platform near the Norwegian coast. There was no warning: At 3 p.m., the 84-foot wave crashed into the platform, causing massive damage — and making history as the first credible observation of “freak waves” in the real world.

As Science Alert reports, teams from the universities of Oxford and Edinburgh combined existing theory data and a real-world test tank at the FloWave Ocean Energy Research Facility in the United Kingdom to create the perfect wave. Their findings? Using banks of smaller waves crossing at 120 degrees, it was possible to create a rogue wave that appeared without warning and was much higher than expected.

And while this certainly falls under the category of interesting science experiments, it wasn’t an unexpected result. Instead, the unexpected came from an 1830 woodblock carving called “The Great Wave off Kanagawa,” an image of a breaking wave that’s now iconic both in Japan and across the world. It’s also a match for the rogue wave results, suggesting that similar sightings of massive water walls aren’t so uncommon as initially believed.

Experimental Outcome

Good science requires great experimental discipline. But sometimes interesting science experiments come with unexpected results — results that could shift the future of nuclear fusion, improve our understanding of climate change, alter our notion of classical physics or replicate physical phenomena that were once the stuff of legends.