Serendipity is the art of discovering new things by observing, and learning from encountering unexpected information. It has received attention in several fields from sociology of science to epistemology, from psychology and innovation studies to information and computer science. It is no surprise that there is no wide consensus on its meaning. It is indeed widespread to consider serendipity as a romantic ill-defined buzzword. In particular, nowadays serendipity is researched in digital environments as an emerging design and ethical principle in order to counteract so-called filter bubbles, algorithmically personalized environments in which it is increasingly difficult to encounter the unexpected: what the algorithms are not able — or willing — to infer from your profile. Actually, serendipity is relatively a neologism with no equivalent in languages other than English.
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This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives License, which permits for noncommercial use, distribution, and reproduction in any digital medium, provided the original work is properly cited and is not altered in any way. It is only recently that serendipity has acquired its rather grand and mysterious significance.
And these new findings are often not the products of cold logic. Sometimes, great discoveries are made because of a serendipitous situation or observation. One excellent example of a serendipitous observation which led to a great discovery occurred in , when Alexander Fleming, suffering from a particularly juicy cold, happened to sneeze into a Petri dish full of bacteria.
He absent-mindedly placed the dish on his cluttered desk. Some days later, as he was straightening his desk, he noticed to his great surprise that the bacteria in the dish had been destroyed.
Convinced that more potent agents might exist, Fleming began searching for other environmental antibacterials, eventually coming up in with penicillin, for which he won the Nobel Prize in He shared the prize with Florey and Chain, who made the mass administration of the drug to humans practical. In his characteristic understated manner he was after all the son of a Scottish farmer , Fleming commented,.
He was puzzled, since the only conceivable source of energy in the room was the tube, which was not emitting visible light. He termed the new radiation X-rays. Within a year after this discovery in , X-rays were being applied in diagnostic medicine. It was there that he acquired what would be a lifelong fascination with butterflies. In fact, although he became a physician, he kept up his interest in inheritance of butterfly wing patterns, and made several original observations in this field.
A friend of his suggested that he might also examine human blood groups from a genetic standpoint, and this serendipitous suggestion ultimately led Clarke to an understanding of blood group inheritance in humans, and to the development of an injectable antibody inhibitor Rhogam for Rh disease in newborns. More recently, the multi-billion dollar biotechnology industry in great measure found its origins in a spontaneous, serendipitous detour:.
Unfortunately, this would not be true. On his first visit to Yellowstone, Brock became intrigued with the multi-coloured algae mats in the hot springs, and on a whim, took some samples back to analyze in his laboratory. In , Brock and Freeze reported the discovery of Thermus aquaticus ; this bacterium became one early source from which the heat-stable enzymes were purified - the key tools in recombinant DNA technologies.
And the pharmaceutical industry has benefited many times from serendipitous observations. Perhaps the best-known contemporary case is that of Viagra, which was originally tested as a treatment for angina. It was almost immediately found to be less effective than nitroglycerine for coronary artery dilatation, but then the patients in the first clinical trial reported an unusual, not at all undesirable and now well-known side effect.
It is no wonder that the patients became depressed when the first clinical trials were brought to an end, and it was requested that the unused pills be returned to Pfizer.
The company noted that never had so many unused clinical trial pills been reported as lost, misplaced, or accidentally flushed down the toilet But sometimes the serendipitous insight eludes the original experimenter, and alights instead on the reader of the experimental report, or how embarrassing! The fascinating experiments with sponge cells performed by H. Wilson in the early part of the 20th century fall in this category, and in a stunning way. Wilson set out to create chimeric sponges by dissociating cells of three sponge species, and placing them in the same dish to coalesce as combinatorial new species.
To his extreme disappointment, the cells from each distinct species only sought each other out to aggregate with, and Wilson was unable to induce any chimeras to form. He wrote:. These experiments were based on the assumption that if the dissociated cells of a species will recombine to form a regenerative mass and eventually a new sponge, the dissociated cells of two different species may be made to combine and thus form a composite mass bearing potentially the two sets of species-characteristics It is the first cell region to receive impressions from the outside world; through its delicacy of adjustment and fineness of reaction, it constitutes the first link in the chain of cytoplasmic reactions and sets the path for the orderly succession of events comprising the course in the differentiation of development.
Just, The Biology of the Cell Surface. Competitors may be annoying recipients of the serendipitous insight. In , Santiago Ramon y Cajal visited Dr. Luis Simarro Lacabra, a psychiatrist friend of his who had a histological laboratory in his cellar medical students harken - his hobby was histology!
Cajal had been formulating the principles of the neuron doctrine, an extension of the cell theory of Schleiden and Schwann, but had not as yet found a way to verify his hypothesis that each neuron was a self-contained entity. All was sharp as a sketch with Chinese ink Golgi had had the data right in front of him, but was unable to interpret it correctly.
The two shared the Nobel Prize in , were on the same stage in Stockholm, but never uttered a word to each other. Serendipity still plays a major role in discovery and invention. It is the manifestation of inspiration, and of being in the right place at the right time. To some, it has a certain magic about it that suggests predetermination or intervention by the supernatural, or as Shakespeare wrote:. In the end, though, probably the best way to sum up the phenomenon was most thoughtfully stated by Julius Comroe:.
National Center for Biotechnology Information , U. Journal List Mcgill J Med v. Mcgill J Med. David R. Author information Copyright and License information Disclaimer. Colman, Ph. Colman is the Director of the Montreal Neurological Institute. A native of New York City, Dr. Colman received his B. This article has been cited by other articles in PMC. Just, The Biology of the Cell Surface Competitors may be annoying recipients of the serendipitous insight. Support Center Support Center.
The Three Princes of Serendip
Today I submit for your introspection a folk tale from Persia. A long time ago Three Young Princes of Serendip decided to go forth into the world in search of glory and Treasures to honour their father and gain his favour. They decided to not travel as High born princes but like everyman, so that no one would seek to curry favour with them or to give them any special privileges. They found that by travelling in this manner they found much hardship and human suffering along the way. But they also discovered, quite unexpectedly, great and wonderful good in the most unlikely of situations, places and people.
He had three sons who were very dear to him. And being a good father and very concerned about their education, he decided that he had to leave them endowed not only with great power, but also with all kinds of virtues of which princes are particularly in need. So begins the fascinating story of The Three Princes of Serendip. As the three princes are endowed with great intelligence, they soon become highly trained in the arts and sciences.
“The Three Princes of Serendip” Fairy Tale: The Origins of Serendipity
The Three Princes of Serendip is the English version of the story Peregrinaggio di tre giovani figliuoli del re di Serendippo published by Michele Tramezzino in Venice in Tramezzino claimed to have heard the story from one Cristoforo Armeno , who had translated the Persian fairy tale into Italian, adapting Book One of Amir Khusrau 's Hasht-Bihisht  of The story first came to English via a French translation, and now exists in several out-of-print translations. The story has become known in the English-speaking world as the source of the word serendipity , coined by Horace Walpole because of his recollection of the part of the "silly fairy tale" in which the three princes by "accidents and sagacity" discern the nature of a lost camel. He had three sons who were very dear to him.