Sri Lanka is a beautiful country, with tropical beaches, lush hill country, tea plantations, spice gardens and a fiery cuisine. The Arabic name for the island was Serendib, “from the Sanskrit Simhaladvipa which literally translates to “Dwelling-Place-of-Lions Island” (thankyou, Wikipedia). There is a Persian fairy tale called The Three Princes of Serendip, whose heroes “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of”. This tale inspired Horace Walpole in the mid-18th century to coin the word “serendipity”, meaning a faculty for making felicitous discoveries. The word did not appear in the Oxford English Dictionary until 1912 but its use is now widespread.
Recently while reclassifying some books I came across Erling Norrby’s book Nobel prizes and life sciences. He devotes a whole chapter to serendipity, explaining the history of the word and its occurrence in science. He suggests that the euphonious sound of the word itself has helped to popularise its use. The symmetry of it and the inclusion of the word “dip” inside it, as in “lucky dip”, add to the flavour of the word, Norrby says. He notes that the word has been imported into many other languages. Norrby tells us that in the 1930s serendipity leapt from the world of letters into the world of sciences, thanks largely to Walter B. Cannon, the Harvard physiologist. In his biography, The way of an investigator, Cannon devotes a whole chapter to serendipity.
In a previous post I touched on serendipity and its role in information seeking. Therefore when I saw an advert for a sameAs event featuring three speakers on the theme of serendipity, my interest was piqued and I attended the event. The discoveries I made were not quite what I had been seeking, but were interesting nonetheless. I left the event feeling decidedly non-linear, and hence this post may be somewhat
The first talk was the most straightforward. Natalie Downe, one of the founders of the website Lanyrd, explained that Lanyrd aimed to bring together people who have shared interests but didn’t previously know it. Lanyrd is a bridge between your network of contacts and events that are of interest to you. It attempts to predict future events that will be of interest to you.
Kat Jungnickel and Julien McHardy then took the stage with their Enquiry Machine. This is a contraption formed ftrom a bicycle or two, with two seats facing each other. It seemed more like an art installation than anything to do with information science. Kat and Julien pedalled away on the machine and spoke about its purpose.
At this point my wheels of cognition buckled and my head exploded. I understood little of what they said, but I think that was possibly the point. Because the Enquiry Machine is so off-the-wall (not to say barmy) and incomprehensible, it demands that you stop trying to understand, freeing you from the tyranny of thinking. You must open your mind.
non-linearity intuition lateral thinking creativity leap of faith surreality humour irrationality insanity superstition there be dragons speaking in tongues automatic writing coincidence serendipity
Once you stop trying to build a ladder of linear logical connections then you give yourself the chance to leap sideways to a different place. Well, that is the best explanation I could come up with.
After that challenge, Aleks Krotoski let us down lightly in her talk. She ran through some definitions of serendipity, and examined whether services like Amazon’s recommendation engine (“here are some more books you may like”) were really serendipity in action. Her recent Guardian column Is the web a serendipity machine or a tool for cultural homogenisation? makes a similar point. Alex suggested that such services are insufficiently sophisticated, for instance they mix up different spheres of your life (like buying books as Xmas presents and buying books for your own interest), and they tend to just recommend more of the same, lacking a creative spark. One audience member characterised such services as merely clever retrieval engines and not serendipitous discovery tools.
I wondered privately whether there was really | a difference. Perhaps at the extreme, when | (if) Amazon knows absolutely everything | about my life and interests, then it will be | able to surprise me with things I am really | interested in but did not know about? |
Aleks and Kat are to collaborate in building an Enquiry machine mark 2, or Serendipity Engine. Details as as yet sketchy, but Aleks has posted some notes on her Tumblr page.
The talks between them did a good job of stimulating the old neurons, and softening us up for further thought. Earlier in the day I had been talking with venerable scientist Jam Tata about Charles Harington, a biochemist from an earlier generation. Harington was the first person to correctly determine the stucture of thyroxine and to complete a chemical synthesis of the hormone. Later he discovered that diiodotyrosine when left standing dimerises to form thyroxine. This was a chance discovery and Jam suggested that it was Harington’s acute observational powers that led to the discovery. He saw that something unexpected had happened but instead of ignoring it as something irrelevant, as others might have, he looked further at what had happened.
This reminded me of Pasteur’s dictum that “chance favours the prepared mind”. So, you need to prepare your mind for serendipity. Perhaps we all see the same things but only those prepared to really notice them can make serendipitous discoveries. It goes back to that word “sagacity” that Walpole used about hte three Persian princes. Another audience member commented that a broadly-based education, such as that provided by the USA’s liberal arts colleges, provides a more wide-ranging intellectual context than a narrowly focused specialised education.
Later I chatted with Alasdair Allan about how best to preapre our minds for felicitous discoveries. I speculated that perhaps visiting the bar might be a good method (but that was probably a thought influenced by the pint of beer I had already drunk). Alasdair commented that serendipity – with its surprising linkages – shared something with humour. We laugh at things that surprise us, at things that are similar but not quite (puns, for instance). Humour, too, often relies on knowledge of a context for the joke.
It was an interesting evening and provided plenty of food for thought. Ian Mulvany has posted another account of the evening, and his thoughts on serendipity, on his blog.
I leave you with two more quotes from Norrby’s book. Irving Langmuir, the physicist and chemist, came across the word ‘serendipity’ in 1938 in a detective story he was reading on holiday. He liked it and started to use it. In 1953 an article about his style of management said:
Cultivating serendipity is, essentially, a matter of being constantly on the lookout for the chance reaction that may lead to a discovery. Irving Langmuir … deliberately nurtures serendipity by never setting himself a specific goal. As he puts it he just has ‘fun in the laboratory… Discovery cannot be planned, but we can plan work that will lead to discoveries’.
Norrby later emphasises:
It is the prepared mind of the scientist-inventor that turned a trivial observation, made by many before, into a lever to a new understanding.
If you want to read more about serendipity in science then you should get hold of a copy of the book below. It was written in 1958 but for some reason not published until nearly 50 years later.
The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity:
A Study in Sociological Semantics and the Sociology of Science
Robert K. Merton & Elinor Barber. Princeton University Press, 2006. ISBN: 9780691126302
“Beautifully written, the book is permeated by the prodigious intellectual curiosity and generosity that characterized Merton’s influential On the Shoulders of Giants. Absolutely entertaining as the history of a word, the book is also tremendously important to all who value the miracle of intellectual discovery. It represents Merton’s lifelong protest against that rhetoric of science that defines discovery as anything other than a messy blend of inspiration, perspiration, error, and happy chance–anything other than serendipity.”