When you find valuable or agreeable things you weren’t looking for, that’s a case of serendipity.
Serendipity has always played a major role in science. For example, in the discovery of penicillin, made by Alexander Fleming in 1928.
In fact, as the story goes, Fleming was sorting through many different petri dishes containing cultures of dangerous bacteria. So doing, he noticed that on one dish was happening something unexpected. The colonies of bacteria spread all over the dish but for one small area where a mold was growing. Besides, the area all around the mold was free of bacteria.
Of course, years of further research would pass before that relatively simple observation lead to the production on industrial scale of penicillin. Yet, the discovery is considered one of the greatest breakthroughs in medicine.
There are many other examples like this.
Wilhelm Röntgen, who discovered X-rays in 1895, didn’t do so on purpose. Quite simply he was experimenting with cathode ray tubes in his laboratory when an unusual glow caught his attention.
Enrico Fermi during the 30s was trying to create very heavy atoms. To do so he bombarded uranium with electrons. So doing he went in the opposite direction, he created lighter particles. In fact, although inadvertently, he managed to split the nucleus in half, discovering nuclear fission.
Even Viagra was the result of serendipity. It went from being a pretty ineffective drug to treat angina to being considered a sort of magic bullet for millions of frustrated lovers everywhere in the world suffering from erectile dysfunction. Even if it has some potentially fatal side effects.
Myth and reality
Examined from this point of view serendipity just looks like something that happens. One moment there is nothing, and a moment later the eureka moment strikes.
But, as always, myths and memes and tall tales tell only a small part of the story. In particular, the most superficial part. The one that when gets told invariably elicits oohs and aahs of admiration and surprise from the public.
However, the truth is different. In particular, most often it deprives such stories of any supernatural, magic veneer.
For some people this sort of peek behind the scenes is an unacceptable drawback.
But I believe this isn’t at all a bad thing. In fact, when these stories are told in all their details, serendipity appears even more interesting and desirable.
In fact, in these detailed and more objective stories, serendipity escapes the domain of sheer chance, unchangeable fate, atavistic superstition, and so on, to reenter our domain–our human domain.
And this is an exciting perspective. In fact this means that even if we can’t force serendipitous events at will, we can nonetheless engineer the ideal conditions for them to take place more often. A lot more often indeed than they would under normal conditions.
Why is this the case?
The ups and downs of our brain
If we think about the Invisible Gorilla experiment it’s easy to realize how selective our perceptions can be. How focusing even on a relatively simple task can dim beyond belief the perceptions of our surroundings.
At the same time, if we think about Kant and the way he, relying only on reasoning, was able to make revolutionary–and spot on–claims about the nature of nebulae and galaxies, we are filled with awe for the imaginative power our brain possesses.
These are just two opposite examples. But I think they show pretty convincingly how powerful and yet susceptible to environmental factors our brain can be.
The components of serendipity
We have also to take into consideration four aspects that scientists who experience serendipity usually share.
1) They have a lot of background knowledge. They know their fields pretty well to say the least. As a result they are able to more easily spot any oddity, any interesting anomaly.
It’s just like in chess. We can show a position to thousands of lay people and come up with a list of possible moves–all leading to defeat. Instead if we show the same position to a group of Grand Masters, within seconds they all come up with the only move able to save the day.
2) To be an expert in a field, in any field, there’s no shortcut. You have to study a lot and then carry out your own research. You have therefore to possess a deeply inquisitive mind.
In fact, only inquisitive minds take pleasure in finding out the whys and hows of things.
Of course also inquisitive minds have some preferred themes, some preferred fields. But that’s only logical. While back in the Middle Ages one could read a lot of books and become an expert in many different subjects, nowadays you can’t read but a minuscule portion of what is published every year even if you focus only on the most neglected niche in science.
3) Many discoveries have been made because scientists were able to look at things from novel perspectives. You can call it lateral thinking, diverging thought, or creativity.
In any case people experimenting serendipity are generally open-minded and receptive. They are willing to engage even with hypothesis that look absurd. Just for the sake of the argument. Just to discover where a line of reasoning leads.
4) Finally, it should be noted that no one ever attained greatness or discovered something just out of sheer luck. The only place luck has in the serendipity equation is well exemplified in the saying: the more I work the luckier I get.
Because there’s no way around it. Just like to run a marathon you have to run twenty-six miles, to make a great discovery you have to be ready to put in the same kind of effort.
This is also why only those who consider their work a reward in itself stay the distance. Because otherwise it’s extremely easy to burn out. To lose steam if we don’t ‘get lucky’ immediately.
Serendipity for writers
For authors serendipity works much in the same way as it does for scientists. Authors have to hoard ideas, considerations, and hypothesis of any sort. They have to be constantly on the look out for interesting characters, settings, and potential conflicts. They have to be ready, but not trying too hard.
They should write, write, and then write a bit more. Not because what they write is necessarily what they are going to publish. But because this constant writing exercise hones their technical skills. In such a way that a great idea that was once too difficult to treat adequately can later become manageable.
In fact we can have terrific ideas all day long. But if we don’t have the technical skills to put them into words in the way we have envisioned them in our mind’s eye we haven’t written the story at all. We have written something else entirely. We have spoiled our opportunity to say hello to serendipity.
Just think of this. In 1965, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson announced the discovery of the fossil radiation.
Sure they were brilliant scientists. But all their brilliance would have been useless to make such a discovery if they hadn’t been testing a new piece of equipment.
Similarly, if you think you have inside your head a revolutionary story to tell, don’t make the mistake of thinking your idea is so powerful that poor grammar, uncertain syntax and abysmal orthography can’t prevent it from shining on the world in all its powerful beauty.
You’d lose your wager. Just as scientists need some equipment, writers need grammar, rhetorical devices and so on.
After all if you had a vocabulary of just 100 words and you wanted to write a meager four-word phrase you would have at your disposal something like one hundred million possible combinations.
And this is just for four words and a vocabulary any three year old would laugh at. Obviously, the number of possibilities for a whole novel with a full vocabulary to rely on are simply unimaginable.
That’s why authors create whole worlds and populate them with characters. In a way they try to imagine the unimaginable and give it purpose, direction, shape. And so doing, if they are at least a bit serious, they discover how hard it is playing god.
For more on serendipity: How to Court Serendipity – a Personal Anecdote