Top 5 journeys to scientific discovery

I spoke with sleep and respiratory scientist Max Thomas, all about science! Specifically, the unexpected or otherwise fascinating discoveries that have brought us incredible advancement.

Max Thomas makes a living out of making people breathless, which is a cool way of saying he studies how people breathe, and often has to make them not breathe very well so he can find out why they’re not breathing very well… you’re smart, you get it.

This episode was recorded on Black Wednesday, which, it has been posited, might not be the day you want to find yourself in hospital, as it’s the day when trainee doctors start their residencies. But we’re pretty sure it’s fine now.

Max’s picks

In order of discussion:

Radiocarbon dating

This method for determining the age of an object containing organic material is Max’s number one, purely because of the journey. We’re able to utilise a substance called carbon 14 which only came about because of nuclear testing, so… thanks?


This drug is more commonly known by another name, and is usually blue. Its discovery was somewhat accidental as the scientists working on it were trying to treating heart-related chest pain.


This was actually Max’s fourth pick. We have Albert Hofmann to thank for this psychedelic drug, and if you’ve never heard of Bicycle Day, you’re in for a treat.


Max celebrates German physician Werner Forssmann, who was told that catheterising the heart (sticking something inside it) would cause it to fibrillate (wobble unnecessarily). So on catheterising a dog, he then decided to experiment on himself. Total lad.

Peptic ulcers

While the destination might not sound the most thrilling, the self-experimentation of Austrian scientists Robin Warren and Barry J Marshall makes the journey that bit more interesting, and secures the humble stomach ulcer — and its treatment — a place in Max’s list.

My picks

In order of discussion:


German physicist Wilhelm Roentgen was working with a cathode ray tube in 1895, when he noticed a nearby screen glowed in a dark room. So he stuck his hand in front of the tube and saw his bones in the projected image on the screen. In 1896, doctors started journaling their hair loss and other ailments caused by exposure to X-rays. 🤮


1928, Sir Alexander Fleming saw mould growing in a dish of bacteria. He noticed the bacteria wasn’t growing around the mould, which secreted a chemical that inhibited bacterial growth. And apparently it has nothing to do with him seeing a mouldy piece of bread.

Laminated glass

In 1903, Edouard Benedictus dropped a glass flask with a liquid plastic solution in it. The liquid evaporated, but the glass didn’t shatter, and maintained the shape of the container. With this discovery, he created laminated — or safety — glass, which is used in safety goggles and car windscreens.


Wilson Greatbatch was building a device to record heart rhythm, and on pulling a resistor out of a box and fitting it, he found it was the wrong size, but the electrical pulses emitted by the circuit made him think of a previous idea that electricity might stimulate the heart

Microwave oven

This was discovered in 1945 by Percy Spencer, and involved him pointing vacuum tubes at different things, after a chocolate bar melted in his pockets. The first microwave weighed 340kg, and the first desktop unit sold in 1965 for $500.


Many know that quinine is used in tonic, which is in turn used in a gin-and-tonic. As Max points out, we used to put gin in tonic to make the tonic drinkable, whereas now we have nice-tasting gins.

Honourable mentions

More of Max Thomas

Max is part of Birmingham-based improv comedy troupe OK Stop!, who you can see perform at 1000 Trades in the Jewellery Quarter on the last Wednesday of every month. You can also follow Max on Twitter @maximum_science.

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