Crayola’s Accidental Blue and the Brains Behind It

For a while now, Crayola has been teasing crayon lovers worldwide.  Months ago, the company announced the removal of Dandelion from its palette of yellows and oranges.  In March, Crayola issued a news release saying that Dandelion’s replacement would be in the blue family.  Then, days ago, the crayon giant 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”.

YinMin Blue was discovered by accident.  In 2009, Mas Subramanian, an Oregon State University (OSU) chemist, discovered the color 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.

Serendipitous discoveries of this sort are not uncommon, and history is ripe with examples.  X-rays, penicillin, Kevlar, and the nicotine patch are but a few products that owe their existence to a happy accident.  But it takes something more than a serendipitous event to yield a useful product.  It takes a mind like Subramanian’s to recognize opportunity, a mind that can connect the dots, shift gears, and capitalize on unexpected circumstances.

ElisaRiva / Pixabay

What goes on in such a mind?  Brain research provides 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 to 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 major 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 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 chance between your fingers.

 

For more about Louis Pasteur and 80 other chance and circumstance discoveries check out Accidental Discoveries: From Laughing Gas to Dynamite.

 

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