Alexander Fleming's diagram of test tubes

Alexander Fleming learning enquiry

Do scientific discoveries happen more by accident or design?

This Learning Enquiry suggests a way that you could use any Nobel Prize-winner as a stimulus for a group research project. We have chosen Alexander Fleming as an example because the British Library holds an archive of records of his experiments. First there are some general questions you could ask about any innovative thinker, especially a scientist. Then there are questions about how scientists work and present their findings. As background information you can look at this short feature: Alexander Fleming (1881-1955): A noble life in science

You can also find out more about him from the Nobel Museum website.

Innovative thinking

Scientists who win the Nobel Prize are often innovative in their own unique fields - that is, they are able to identify new problems and think up new processes to solve them. They often take risks, glean information from a wide range of sources and learn from accidental discoveries.

To debate:

  • Is hard diligent work essential for innovative creativity?
  • Are people more creative during peacetime or war?
  • Do you think innovative science only happens with expensive funding and equipment?
  • Do you think creativity increases with freedom from regulations?
  • Do you think collaboration increases innovation or slows it down?

Here are some quotes from Nobel Prize-winners. Do you agree or disagree with them?

“It is the lone worker who makes the first advance in a subject: the details may be worked out by a team, but the prime idea is due to the enterprise, thought and perception of an individual." 
Sir Alexander Fleming (Nobel Prize for Medicine, 1945)

“We haven't the money, so we've got to think” 
Sir Ernest Rutherford (Nobel Prize for Chemistry, 1908)

“What really makes science grow are new ideas, including false ideas” 
Sir Karl Popper 1963

“After all, science is essentially international, and it is only through lack of the historical sense that national qualities have been attributed to it” 
Marie Curie (Nobel Prize for Physics, 1903; Nobel Prize for Chemistry, 1911)

“Creativity in science could be described as the act of putting two and two together to make five." 
Arthur Koestler 1964

How do great scientists work?

Not all scientists work in the same manner. The bacteriologist Alexander Fleming kept an untidy, cluttered laboratory and made his two most important discoveries, lysozyme and penicillin, by testing a range of substances (including his own nose mucus!), by leaving things to go mouldy, and with some good luck.

Do some of your own research about his methods. Can you find others who worked in a similar way? Can you also find scientists who worked in a completely different way? The Nobel Foundation website is a good place to start. You may like to explore the research into helicobacter pylori of recent winners Robin Warren and Barry Marshall, for example. How did they hypothesise, experiment and share their results?

The end result

How you present your results is vitally important. This is so that future scientists can repeat your experiments, replicate your results and try new versions of them.

Look at the website images showing the results of experiments conducted by Alexander Fleming. How many different ways has he recorded his results? What do you think is ingenious about some of these? The feature describes Fleming's records as beautiful? Do you think they are?

While Fleming used pen and paper, scientists today can create computer models of their results. How would you record and present your results of an experiment? What new visual methods or new technologies could you use?

You can email us your discoveries, thoughts and new ways of recording data. We can add some examples or extracts to this website. Email