Serendipity is the effect by which one accidentally discovers something fortunate, especially while looking for something else entirely. The word has been voted as one of the ten English words that were hardest to translate in June 2004 by a British translation company. However, due to its sociological use, the word has been imported into many other languages (Portuguese serendipicidade or serendipidade; French sérendipicité or sérendipité but also heureux hasard, "fortunate chance"; Italian serendipità; Dutch serendipiteit; German Serendipität; Swedish, Danish and Norwegian serendipitet; Romanian serendipitate; Spanish serendipia ).
The word derives from Serendip
, the old Persian name for Sri Lanka
, and was coined by Horace Walpole
on 28 January 1754
in a letter he wrote to his friend Horace Mann (not the same man as the famed American educator), an Englishman then living in Florence. The letter read,
- "It was once when I read a silly fairy tale, called The Three Princes of Serendip: as their highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of: for instance, one of them discovered that a camel blind of the right eye had travelled the same road lately, because the grass was eaten only on the left side, where it was worse than on the right—now do you understand serendipity? One of the most remarkable instances of this accidental sagacity (for you must observe that no discovery of a thing you are looking for, comes under this description) was of my Lord Shaftsbury, who happening to dine at Lord Chancellor Clarendon's, found out the marriage of the Duke of York and Mrs. Hyde, by the respect with which her mother treated her at table.
The role of serendipity in science and technology
One aspect of Walpole's original definition of serendipity that is often missed in modern discussions of the word is the "sagacity" of being able to link together apparently innocuous facts to come to a valuable conclusion. Thus, while some scientists and inventors are reluctant about reporting accidental discoveries, others openly admit its role; in fact serendipity is a major component of scientific discoveries and inventions. According to M.K. Stoskopf "it should be recognized that serendipitous discoveries are of significant value in the advancement of science and often present the foundation for important intellectual leaps of understanding".
The amount of contribution of serendipitous discoveries varies extensively among the several scientific disciplines. Pharmacology and chemistry are probably the fields where serendipity is more common.
Most authors who have studied scientific serendipity both in a historical, as well as in an epistemological point of view, agree that a prepared and open mind is required on the part of the scientist or inventor to detect the importance of information revealed accidentally. This is the reason why most of the related accidental discoveries occur in the field of specialization of the scientist. About this, Albert Hofmann, the Swiss chemist who discovered LSD properties by unintentionally ingesting it at his lab, wrote:
"It is true that my discovery of LSD was a chance discovery, but it was the outcome of planned experiments and these experiments took place in the framework of systematic pharmaceutical, chemical research. It could better be described as serendipity."
The French scientist Louis Pasteur also famously said: "In the fields of observation chance favors only the prepared mind. This is often rendered as "Chance favors the prepared mind."
History, of course, does not record accidental exposures of information which could have resulted in a new discovery, and we are justified in suspecting that they are many. There are several examples of this, however, and prejudice of preformed concepts are probably the largest obstacle. See for example for a case where this happened (the rejection of an accidental discovery in the field of self-stimulation of the brain in humans).
Examples of serendipity in science and technology
- Gelignite by Alfred Nobel, when he accidentally mixed collodium (gun cotton) with nitroglycerin
- Polymethylene by Hans von Pechmann, who prepared it by accident in 1898 while heating diazomethane
- Low density polyethylene by Eric Fawcett and Reginald Gibson at the ICI works in Northwich, England. It was the first industrially practical polyethylene synthesis and was discovered (again by accident) in 1933
- Silly Putty by James Wright, on the way to solving another problem: finding a rubber substitute for the United States during World War II.
- Chemical synthesis of urea, by Friedrich Woehler. He was attempting to produce ammonium cyanate by mixing potassium cyanate and ammonium chloride and got urea, the first organic chemical to be synthesised, often called the 'Last Nail' of the coffin of the Élan vital Theory
- Pittacal, the first synthetic dyestuff, by Carl Ludwig Reichenbach. The dark blue dye appeared on wooden posts painted with creosote to drive away dogs who urinated on them.
- Mauve, the first aniline dye, by William Henry Perkin. At the age of 18, he was attempting to create artificial quinine. An unexpected residue caught his eye, which turned out to be the first aniline dye—specifically, mauveine, sometimes called aniline purple.
- Racemization, by Louis Pasteur. While investigating the properties of sodium ammonium tartrate he was able to separate for the first time the two optical isomers of the salt. His luck was twofold: it is the only racemate salt to have this property, and the room temperature that day was slightly below the point of separation.
- Teflon, by Roy J. Plunkett, who was trying to develop a new gas for refrigeration and got a slick substance instead, which was used first for lubrication of machine parts
- Cyanoacrylate-based Superglue (a.k.a. Krazy Glue) was accidentally twice discovered by Dr. Harry Coover, first when he was developing a clear plastic for gunsights and later, when he was trying to develop a heat-resistant polymer for jet canopies.
- Scotchgard moisture repellant used to protect fabrics and leather, was discovered accidentally in 1953 by Patsy Sherman. One of the compounds she was investigating as a rubber material that wouldn't deteriorate when in contact with aircraft fuel spilled onto a tennis shoe and would not wash out; she then considered the spill as a protectant against spills.
- Cellophane, a thin, transparent sheet made of regenerated cellulose, was developed in 1908 by Swiss chemist Jacques Brandenberger, as a material for covering stain-proof tablecloth.
- The chemical element helium. British chemist William Ramsay isolated helium while looking for argon but, after separating nitrogen and oxygen from the gas liberated by sulfuric acid, noticed a bright-yellow spectral line that matched the D3 line observed in the spectrum of the Sun.
- The chemical element Iodine was discovered by Bernard Courtois in 1811, when he was trying to remove residues with strong acid from the bottom of his saltpeter production plant which used seaweed ashes as a prime material.
- Polycarbonates, a kind of clear hard plastic
- The synthetic polymer celluloid was discovered by British chemist and metallurgist Alexander Parkes in 1856, after observing that a solid residue remained after evaporation of the solvent from photographic collodion. Celluloid can be described as the first plastic used for making solid objects (the first ones being billiard balls, substituting for expensive ivory).
- Rayon, the first synthetic silk, was discovered by French chemist Hilaire de Chardonnet, an assistant to Louis Pasteur. He spilled a bottle of collodion and found later that he could draw thin strands from the evaporated viscous liquid.
- The possibility of synthesizing indigo, a natural dye extracted from a plant with the same name was discovered by a chemist named Sapper who was heating coal tar when he accidentally broke a thermometer whose mercury content acted as a catalyst to produce phthalic anhydride, which could readily be converted into indigo.
- The dye monastral blue was discovered in 1928 in Scotland, when chemist A.G. Dandridge heated a mixture of chemicals at high temperature in a sealed iron container. The iron of the container reacted with the mixture, producing some pigments called phthalocyanines. By substituting copper for iron he produced an even better pigment called 'monastral blue', which became the basis for many new coloring materials for paints, lacquers and printing inks.
- Acesulfame, an artificial sweetener, was discovered accidentally in 1967 by Karl Claus at Hoechst AG.
- Another sweetener, cyclamate, was discovered by US chemist Michael Sveda, when he smoked a cigarette accidentally contaminated with a compound he had recently synthesized.
- Aspartame (NutraSweet) was accidentally ingested by G.D. Searle chemist James Schlatter, who was trying to develop a test for an anti-ulcer drug.
- Penicillin by Alexander Fleming. He failed to disinfect cultures of bacteria when leaving for his vacations, only to find them contaminated with Penicillium molds, which killed the bacteria. However, he had previously done extensive research into antibacterial substances.
- The psychedelic effects of LSD by Albert Hofmann. A chemist, he intentionally ingested a small amount of it upon investigating its properties, and had the first acid trip in history, while cycling to his home in Switzerland; this is commemorated among LSD users annually as Bicycle Day.
- 5-fluorouracil's therapeutic action on actinic keratosis, was initially investigated for its anti-cancer actions
- Minoxidil's action on baldness, originally it was an oral agent for treating hypertension. It was observed that bald patients treated with it grew hair too.
- Viagra (sildenafil citrate), an anti-impotence drug. It was initially studied for use in hypertension and angina pectoris. Phase I clinical trials under the direction of Ian Osterloh suggested that the drug had little effect on angina, but that it could induce marked penile erections.
- Retin-A anti-wrinkle action. It was a vitamin A derivative first used for treating acne. The accidental result in some older people was a reduction of wrinkles on the face
- The libido-enhancing effect of l-dopa, a drug used for treating Parkinson's disease. Older patients in a sanatorium had their long-lost interest in sex suddenly revived.
- The first benzodiazepine, chlordiazepoxide (Librium) was discovered accidentally in 1954 by the Austrian scientist Dr Leo Sternbach (1908–2005), who found the substance while cleaning up his lab
- The first anti-psychotic drug, chlorpromazine, was discovered by French pharmacologist Henri Laborit. He wanted to add an anti-histaminic to a pharmacological combination to prevent surgical shock and noticed that patients treated with it were unusually calm before the operation.
- the anti-cancer drug cisplatin was discovered by Barnett Rosenberg. He wanted to explore the inhibiting effects of an electric field on the growth of bacteria: it was rather due to an electrolysis product of the platinum electrode he was using.
- The anesthetic nitrous oxide (laughing gas). Initially well known for inducing altered behavior (hilarity), its properties were discovered when British chemist Humphry Davy tested the gas on himself and some of his friends, and soon realised that nitrous oxide considerably dulled the sensation of pain, even if the inhaler were still semi-conscious.
- The anesthetic ether
- Mustine, a derivative of mustard gas (a chemical weapon), used for the treatment of some forms of cancer. In 1943, physicians noted that the white cell counts of US soldiers accidentally exposed when a cache of mustard gas shells were bombed in Bari, Italy, were decreased, and mustard gas was investigated as a therapy for Hodgkin's lymphoma.
- The first oral contraceptive (a.k.a. The Pill) was discovered by Dr. Carl Djerassi accidental production of synthetic progesterone and its intentional modification to allow for oral intake
- Prontosil, an antibiotic of the sulfa group was an azo dye. German chemists at Bayer had the wrong idea that selective chemical stains of bacteria would show specific antibacterial activity. Prontosil had it, but in fact it was due to another substance metabolised from it in the body, sulfanilimide.
Medicine and Biology
- Bioelectricity, by Luigi Galvani. He was dissecting a frog at a table where he had been conducting experiments with static electricity, Galvani's assistant touched an exposed sciatic nerve of the frog with a metal scalpel, which had picked up a charge, provoking a muscle contraction.
- Neural control of blood vessels, by Claude Bernard
- Anaphylaxis, by Charles Robert Richet, when he tried to reuse dogs that hadn't previously shown allergic reactions to sea anemone toxin, developed them much faster and more intensely the second time
- The role of the pancreas in glucose metabolism, by Oskar Minkowski. Dogs that had their pancreas removed for an unrelated physiological investigation, urinated profusely and the urine attracted flies, indicating its high glucose content
- Coronary catheterization was discovered as a method when a cardiologist at the Cleveland Clinic accidentally injected radiocontrast into the coronary artery instead of the left ventricle.
- The mydriatic effects of belladonna extracts, by Friedrich Ferdinand Runge
- Vaccination, discovered by English physician Edward Jenner, after he observed that milkmaids did not catch smallpox after exposure to benign cowpox.
- Interferon, an antiviral factor, was discovered accidentally by two Japanese virologists, Yasu-ichi Nagano and Yasuhiko Kojima while trying to develop an improved vaccine for smallpox.
Physics and Astronomy
- Discovery of the planet Uranus by William Herschel. Herschel was looking for comets, and initially identified Uranus as a comet until he noticed the circularity of its orbit and its distance and suggested that it was a planet, the first one discovered since antiquity.
- Infrared radiation, again by William Herschel, while investigating the temperature differences between different colors of visible light by dispersing sunlight into a spectrum using a glass prism. He put thermometers into the different visible colors where he expected a temperature increase, and one as a control to measure the ambient temperature in the dark region beyond the red end of the spectrum. The thermometer beyond the red unexpectedly showed a higher temperature than the others, showing that there was non-visible radiation beyond the red end of the visible spectrum.
- S. N. Bose discovered Bose-Einstein statistics when a mathematical error surprisingly explained anomalous data.
- High-temperature superconductivity was discovered serendipitously by physicists Johannes Georg Bednorz and Karl Alexander Müller, ironically when they were searching for a material that would be a perfect electrical insulator (nonconducting). They won the 1987 Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery.
- Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation, by Arno A. Penzias and Robert Woodrow Wilson. What they thought was excess thermal noise in their antenna at Bell Labs was due to the CMBR.
- Radioactivity, by Henri Becquerel. While trying to investigate phosphorescent materials using photographic plates, he stumbled upon uranium.
- X rays, by Wilhelm Roentgen. Interested in investigating cathodic ray tubes, he noted that some fluorescent papers in his lab were illuminated at a distance although his apparatus had an opaque cover
- Electromagnetism, by Hans Christian Oersted. While he was setting up his materials for a lecture, he noticed a compass needle deflecting from magnetic north when the electric current from the battery he was using was switched on and off.
- Cosmic gamma-ray bursts were discovered in the late 1960s by the US Vela satellites, which were built to detect nuclear tests in the Soviet Union
- Metallic hydrogen was found accidentally in March 1996 by a group of scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, after a 60-year search.
- The thermoelectric effect was discovered accidentally by Estonian physicist Thomas Seebeck, in 1821, who found that a voltage developed between the two ends of a metal bar when it was submitted to a difference of temperature.
- Pluto's moon Charon was discovered by US astronomer James Christy in 1978. He was going to discard what he thought was a defective photographic plate of Pluto, when his Star Scan machine broke down. While it was being repaired he had time to study the plate again and discovered others in the archives with the same "defect" (a bulge in the planet's image which was actually a large moon).
- Discovery of the principle behind inkjet printers by a Canon engineer. After putting his hot soldering iron by accident on his pen, ink was ejected from the pen's point a few moments later.
- Vulcanization of rubber, by Charles Goodyear. He accidentally left a piece of rubber mixture with sulfur on a hot plate, and produced vulcanized rubber
- Safety glass, by French scientist Edouard Benedictus. In 1903 he accidentally knocked a glass flask to the floor and observed that the broken pieces were held together by a liquid plastic that had evaporated and formed a thin film inside the flask.
- Corn flakes and wheat flakes (Wheaties) were accidentally discovered by the Kelloggs brothers in 1898, when they left cooked wheat untended for a day and tried to roll the mass, obtaining a flaky material instead of a sheet.
- The microwave oven was invented by Percy Spencer while testing a magnetron for radar sets at Raytheon, he noticed that a peanut candy bar in his pocket had melted when exposed to radar waves.
- Pyroceramic (used to make Corningware, among other things) was invented by S. Donald Stookey, a chemist working for the Corning company, who noticed crystallization in an improperly cooled batch of tinted glass.
- The Slinky was invented by US Navy engineer Richard James after he accidentally knocked a torsion spring off his work table and observed its unique motion.
- Art Fry happened to attend a 3M college's seminar on a new "low-tack" adhesive and, wanting to anchor his bookmarks in his hymnal at church, went on to invent Post-It Notes.
- Chocolate chip cookies were invented by Ruth Wakefield when she attempted to make chocolate drop cookies. She did not have the required chocolate so she broke up a candy bar and placed the chunks into the cookie mix. These chunks later morphed into what is now known as chocolate chips.
Some ideas and concepts that came to scientists through accidents or even dreams are also considered a kind of serendipity. Some examples (coincidentally all are regarded with suspicion by science historians):
Other examples of serendipity
Stories of accidental discovery in exploration abound, of course, because the aim of exploration is to find new things and places. The principle of serendipity applies here, however, when the explorer had an aim in mind and found another unexpectedly. Some classical cases were discoveries of the Americas by explorers with other aims.
The first European to set foot on North America was Leif Ericsson, who was trying to escape from a storm. The Americas were also accidentally re-discovered (see Leif Ericsson) by Christopher Columbus, who was actually looking for a new way to India. South-America was also discovered by accident, first by Spaniard Vicente Pinzon, who was only exploring the West Indies previously discovered by him and Columbus, and stumbled upon the Northeast of Brazil, in the region now known as Cabo de Santo Agostinho, in the state of Pernambuco. He also discovered the Amazon and Oiapoque rivers; and Pedro Álvares Cabral, a Portuguese admiral, who was sailing with his fleet to India via the South African route discovered by Vasco da Gama and was deviated to the coast of Brazil.
Uses of serendipity
Serendipity is used as a sociological method in Anselm L. Strauss' and Barney G. Glaser's Grounded Theory, building on ideas by sociologist Robert K. Merton, who in Social Theory and Social Structure (1949) referred to the "serendipity pattern" as the fairly common experience of observing an unanticipated, anomalous and strategic datum which becomes the occasion for developing a new theory or for extending an existing theory. Robert K. Merton also coauthored (with Elinor Barber) The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), which traces the origins and uses of the word "serendipity" since it was coined. The book is "a study in sociological semantics and the sociology of science", as the subtitle of the book declares. It further develops the idea of serendipity as scientific "method" (as juxtaposed with purposeful discovery by experiment or retrospective prophecy).
There is are "Serendipity books" which tell fairy tales that teach children valuable life lessons through the characters mishaps. They are written by Stephen Cosgrove and illustrated by Robin James.
The exact meaning of serendipity
There are three interrelated debates regarding the meaning of the word serendipity:
- The first debate: are the events referred to by Walpole in his letter to Mann, good examples of serendipity, as defined by Walpole? Expanding on this debate, are any of the adventures of the Three Princes, good examples of Walpole's definition of serendipity?
- The second debate: if the examples of serendipity cited by Walpole are not good examples of serendipity, what should determine the meaning of the word serendipity, Walpole's precise definition, or a definition derived from the adventures of the Three Princes?
- The third debate: given the range of current definitions for the word serendipity, from Walpole's precise or strict definition to extremely loose definitions, what events should be cited as actual occurrences of serendipity?
Quotations on serendipity
- "In the field of observation, chance favours only the prepared mind." Louis Pasteur
- "I find that a great part of the information I have was acquired by looking up something and finding something else on the way." (Franklin P. Adams, 1881-1960)
- "Serendipity. Look for something, find something else, and realize that what you've found is more suited to your needs than what you thought you were looking for." Lawrence Block
- "The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka!', but 'That's funny…'" Isaac Asimov
- "In reality, serendipity accounts for one percent of the blessings we receive in life, work and love. The other 99 percent is due to our efforts." Peter McWilliams
- "Serendipity is looking in a haystack for a needle and discovering a farmer's daughter." Pek van Andel
- "Serendipity is putting a quarter in the gumball machine and having three pieces come rattling out instead of one—all red." Peter H. Reynolds
- "--- you don't reach Serendib by plotting a course for it. You have to set out in good faith for elsewhere and lose your bearings… serendipitously." John Barth, The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor
- "Serendipity is the art of making an unsought finding." Pek van Andel (1994)
- "Serendipity is the faculty of finding things we did not know we were looking for." Glauco Ortolano (2008)
- "Serendipity is when you find things you weren't looking for because finding what you are looking for is so damned difficult." Erin McKean 2007
William Boyd coined the term zemblanity to mean somewhat the opposite of serendipity: "making unhappy, unlucky and expected discoveries occurring by design". It derives from Novaya Zemlya (or Nova Zembla), a cold, barren land with many features opposite to the lush Sri Lanka (Serendip). On this island Willem Barents and his crew were stranded while searching for a new route to the east.
Bahramdipity is derived directly from Bahram Gur as characterized in the "Three Princes of Serendip". It describes the suppression of serendipitous discoveries or research results by powerful individuals.
- Theodore G. Remer, Ed.: Serendipity and the Three Princes, from the Peregrinaggio of 1557, Edited, with an Introduction and Notes, by Theodore G. Remer, Preface by W.S. Lewis. University of Oklahoma Press, 1965. LCC 65-10112
- Robert K. Merton, Elinor Barber: The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity: A Study in Sociological Semantics and the Sociology of Science. Princeton University Press, 2004. ISBN 0-691-11754-3. (Manuscript written 1958).
- Patrick J. Hannan: Serendipity, Luck and Wisdom in Research. iUniverse, 2006. ISBN 0-595-36551-5
- Royston M. Roberts: Serendipity: Accidental Discoveries in Science. Wiley, 1989. ISBN 0-471-60203-5
- Pek Van Andel: "Anatomy of the unsought finding : serendipity: origin, history, domains, traditions, appearances, patterns and programmability." British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 1994, 45(2), 631-648.
- "The view from Serendip", by Arthur C. Clarke, Random House, 1977.
Serendipity is the name of the character "The Muse" in Kevin Smith's film Dogma.