5 Coincidences That Made The Modern World
Fiction is neat, but reality is messy. In fiction, everything happens for a reason, even if that reason is "because car chases rule." But in reality, most things are random, and the world as you know it only exists because of a series of staggering, unintuitive, or downright stupid coincidences. Try not to let it throw you into a spiral of existential despair. Especially since we're about to make a bunch of jokes about it ...
We Only Have Modern Hip Hop Because Of A Power Outage In 1977
In July 1977, New York City was a giant soda bottle someone had shaken up and left on the counter. Just coming out of a major recession, crime was up, race relations down, the Son of Sam randomly shooting people in the streets, and the worst of the summer heat still looming. Pop the cap and boom! New York City all over your nice pants.
The analogy may have gotten away from us.
Anyway, on July 13, a single lightning bolt struck an important electricity transmission line, leading to a chain reaction that caused a Long Island power plant to shut down. NYC plunged into darkness for 25 hours. The city burst like an overcooked hot dog and the 1977 NYC blackout riots began, ultimately leading to 1,600 stores looted and 1,000 fires started.
And countless Wet Willies.
How It Changed The World:
1977 was also the year that a cultural movement geared up in New York City -- a musical style you might have heard about called "hip-hop." One Catch: The people who were most interested in creating hip-hop were also the least likely to be able to afford to create it. Though there were thousands of talented kids who aspired to produce their own tracks, there were only a handful of local DJs who could afford the expensive equipment required to do so. Then came the mass looting of July 13, which had the effect of, let's say, "liberating" a large amount of DJ equipment to the masses.
"Acoustic redistribution," if you will.
Now, we're not coming out in favor of looting here. But the immediate aftermath of the riot was undeniable: Hip-hop culture suddenly exploded. A style that was once limited to a small number of elite artists became immediately accessible to the mainstream. Due to grand theft, sure, but everything in western music was metaphorically stolen from pop to rock 'n roll ... who's surprised by a little literal theft?
We Have Medically Viable Penicillin Thanks To A Lazy Shopkeeper
In 1928, scientists isolated penicillin, a substance derived from mold with bacteria-killing superpowers that revolutionized our ability to fight disease. Now, the discovery of penicillin itself was a total coincidence already, Alexander Fleming didn't clean his equipment properly and came back to find that a mold had grown on it. Turns out that mold had killed all of his bacteria cultures overnight and he soon realized its importance.
"And that's how I Mr. Magoo'ed my way to a Nobel Prize."
How It Changed The World:
But medical penicillin owes its success to another coincidental discovery, Fleming's mold wasn't able to produce penicillin in large enough quantities to be useful. Early researchers had to grow entire forests of mold on every available surface of their laboratory in order to extract enough penicillin to treat one single infection. If scientists found a cure for cancer today, but it took the entire crop yield of Kansas to grow a single dose, would it matter?
Enter Mary Hunt, a lab assistant who worked with penicillin molds. She went shopping at a local fruit market and bought a cantaloupe covered in a strange looking golden mold. She decided to take it back to the lab to test it and found a hitherto undiscovered strain capable of producing 200 times the amount of penicillin. By the next year, hundreds of millions of units of penicillin were being produced in the United States, medical science became radically more effective, and that fruit market probably still kind of sucked.
"Science cantaloupes, half off!"
Regardless, this chain of events allowed the USA to produce 2.3 million doses of penicillin just in time for the invasion of Normandy. They reached over 600 million doses by the end of the war. The rates of death from bacterial infections dropped from 18 percent in WWI to 1 percent in WWII, which allowed the Allied forces to keep their manpower -- already in short supply -- on the field and engaging the enemy. It may not have won the second World War on its own, but it sure gave the Allies a boost. You're not reading this in German today because some small-time produce salesman looked at one particularly gross cantaloupe and said, "Eh, some jerk'll probably still buy this."
The Lewis And Clark Expedition Succeeded Because Of An Unlikely Family Reunion
Not long after the Louisiana Purchase Thomas Jefferson commissioned the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition. Captain Meriwether Lewis and Second Lieutenant William Clark embarked on a two-year journey that would explore and map the western frontier. Alongside them was a Native American woman, Sacagawea, who acted as an interpreter for when they encountered native people who weren't aware of the fact that they were squatting on American land.
"All. Of. It."
Sacagawea had been kidnapped as a child by a rival tribe and sold to a man named Toussaint Charbonneau, who was French. Can you tell? Charbonneau and Sacagawea joined the expedition and traveled west until they reached the Rocky Mountains, at which point Lewis and Clark realized that they were going to need some more horses, and hoped to purchase some from the local Shoshone tribe.
Now, the Shoshone were more than happy to party with the explorers like it was 1799, but they weren't willing to part with any of their horses. That is, until they met the tribal chief of the Shoshone, and Sacagawea happened to recognize him. He was her brother. As luck would have it, this was the very tribe she had been kidnapped from, and her brother had since risen through the ranks a little.
How It Changed The World:
The Shoshone chief happily hooked up the expedition with all the horses they needed to cross the Rockies. If not for the Native American assistance the Lewis and Clark expedition would almost certainly have turned back. And today, the entire west coast would be owned by, we dunno, probably the people who were already living there. Crazy!
" ... Shit."
Joan Of Arc's Army Won Because A Town Planted Too Many Beans
When Joan of Arc was leading her army to the city of Reims to liberate the French from English rule and install Charles VII as the rightful King, she suffered a massive setback: Her army ran out of food and began to starve. Right as they were about to give up, turn back, and learn to appreciate fried foods and puddings, the French army reached the town of Troyes, where they discovered an immense crop of beans -- far larger than the whole town could consume in a lifetime.
Though the smell in the air certainly indicated that they'd tried their hardest.
How It Changed The World:
A year earlier, the town priest had delivered a sermon in which he instructed the local farmers to, "Sow, good people, sow plenty of beans, for he who should come will come very soon." He was actually referring to the antichrist and preparing for the eventual end of the world, but the farmers heard "plant beans," so they planted beans. They planted beans like crazy. And they ripened just as Joan's starving army marched into town.
By the time they churned through their tenth plate it's easy to imagine that the survivors began to envy the dead, but the last-minute power-up revitalized the French army enough to march on Reims and end the Hundred Years War.
And then some other stuff happened.
The Voyager Missions Were Only Possible Because The Planets Literally Aligned
A few years after we landed human beings on the moon, NASA launched the Voyager missions -- two unmanned spacecraft that did a photographic tour of every planet in our solar system before zipping off into the far reaches of space. But the Voyager missions were only possible in a very narrow window of opportunity. At any other point in history, you'd have to launch eight different probes to visit all the planets separately. It just so happened that, in the precise decade that the human species was becoming interested in exploring space, the solar system was coming into a once-in-175-years planetary alignment, which enabled us to hit them all in one relatively straight shot, like billiard balls on a pool table.
Except for Pluto, because fuck Pluto.
How It Changed The World:
If the alignment had happened 10 years earlier, we wouldn't have been technologically prepared to launch the probes. If it happened 10 years later, we might not have had the interest, or more importantly, the budget, to exploit the opportunity. But we did, and in 1990, Voyager 1 was able to take the famous "Pale Blue Dot" photograph. A photo with Earth occupying one single pixel in the vast expanse of space.
You are here.
We use the phrase "the planets aligned" metaphorically, to talk about luck so astounding it seems like destiny. In this case, they literally did align to make all of this possible.
Kian Lastman - providing you the perspectives you don't want to hear. Check out the author's two sites - for all things politics-related check out The Last Man and for all things economics-related check out Economic Investing.
Behind every awful movie is the idea for a good one. Old man Indiana Jones discovers aliens. Good in theory, bad in practice. Batman fights Superman. So simple, but so bad. Are there good translations of these movies hidden within the stinking turds that saw the light of day? Jack O'Brien hosts Soren Bowie, Daniel O'Brien, and Katie Willert of 'After Hours' on our next live podcast to find an answer as they discuss their ideal versions of flops, reboots, and remakes. Tickets are $7 and can be purchased here!
For more ways we just kind of dumb lucked our way into modern society, check out 5 Accidental Inventions That Changed The World and 5 Bizarre Accidents That Helped Invent Modern Medicine.
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