Post #023: Serendipity

Glasgow, September 30, 2018

Luck is an important factor of life and shapes almost all of its aspects. In science, “serendipity” is the word of choice for the share of luck in scientific discovery [1,2]; a word that gains particular importance when attempting to provide historical accounts of medical, biomedical and pharmaceutical discoveries. Those involved in scientific discoveries often underestimate or downplay the role of serendipity in their accounts, either unintentionally or in fear of downgrading their own achievement, respectively. This phenomenon poses a challenge for the historian of science that would like to use such accounts as evidence.

In my opinion, serendipity is mistakenly considered as a factor that could downgrade the importance of a personal contribution to a scientific discovery. We lead our lives in a complex and thriving world where access to information is almost unlimited. A dream, a chat by the coffee machine in a research centre, a few random words on the co-passenger’s newspaper, a tweet, a missed deadline, an interview that went wrong, an airport lounge advertisement or the lyrics of a poem, could all provide the inspiration or the hint leading to a solution of a research problem; these don’t undermine the value of the discovery nor the credit given to the person being perceptive to such inspiration or serendipity-associated hints.

In recent years, the systematization of scientific research has eliminated the space for serendipity both on paper and in practice. Research grants are given to scientists who can prove that at least half of the work they claim the money for is doable (by presenting evidence of it), while by adopting high-throughput-oriented and systematic research, there is no practical space left for serendipity in well-funded research. Nothing wrong with the latter, one might argue. I agree. However, as research is becoming less explorative and more systematic, serendipity is becoming more a matter of scientific networking, funding and administration, and it is neither extinct, nor less important for historiography.


Notes: [1]: the term was probably coined by the English writer and art historian Horatio Walpole, 4th Earl of Orford (1717-1797), in order to describe an unexpected discovery he made; [2]: Walpole’s inspiration of this word can be tracked back to “The Three Princes of Serendip”, a Persian fairy tale in which the princes appeared to be making discoveries of things which they were not in quest of, and in which “Serendip” is the Classical Persian name for Sri Lanka (Ceylon).

Citation: Zarros A. Post #023: Serendipity. 2018; 30-Sep.