Serendipity Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything


11 Conversations

If you got here by accident, congratulations! You're on the right track!

Serendipity is the act of stumbling onto something useful while looking for something else.

For instance, in 1928, Sir Alexander Fleming had been preparing a set of petri dishes with Staphylococcus bacteria. His intention was to try applying different chemicals to those cultures in the hope that he might find a way to kill that bacterium. When he went to check his dishes, he found that some bread crumbs had fallen into one of them and another culture had sprung up in the dish, ruining it for the purpose he had originally intended.

He was about to throw out the spoilt culture when he realised that none of the Staph bacteria was growing in a clear ring around the bread mould. He discovered that he could dilute the toxin the mould was producing 800 times and still kill the Staphylococcus. He noted his discovery but couldn't get funding to pursue it for twelve years until the Second World War created the need to justify the development of his new drug.  Thus, Penicillin began saving millions of lives.

The Serendipitous Discovery of Serendipity

The actual word, 'serendipity', entered the English language after the publication of the letters from Sir Horace Walpole to Horace Mann. In one of the more precisely dated pieces of historical evidence, Walpole wrote on 28 January, 1754, 'this discovery, indeed, is almost of that kind which I call Serendipity, a very expressive word.'

He goes on to explain that he derives the word from a 'silly' Persian fairy tale called the 'The Three Princes of Serendip.'1 

A Brief Telling

The fairy tale tells the story of how the King of Serendip sent his three sons out to find the most precious thing in the world and bring it back to him. The sons split up and begin their hunts.  As each of them travels, they stumble, more or less by accident, into different situations which change their idea of what might be the most precious thing. They return to their father, only to discover that he has found what he considers to be the most precious thing right outside the wall of his palace. The moral of the story seems to be that each man must find on his own what it is he values most, but that first he must be willing to look.

Walpole then finished by saying, '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 Claredon's, found out the marriage of the Duke of York and Mrs Hyde, by the respect with which her mother treated her at table.'

After which, we might assume that the Fourth Earl of Oxford, Sir Horace, was either quite bored or most easily amused.

Pearls Before Swine

What Walpole described as 'accidental sagacity', has become a very popular concept in the last 50 years or so. Particularly in science, people have begun to re-examine their 'mistakes' to see if they had been blinded to success by their own expectations or prejudices2. We seem to suspect that the pearls have, in fact, been cast before swine, so that now we are much more interested in the make-up of the muck.

Far more importantly, we have come to recognise that great discoveries are still left to be made through the coming together of things that had previously been thought to be quite separate. For instance, it wasn't all that long ago that ray-guns were thought to be the purest fantasy. Quite long essays were published to prove that visible light was merely visible light and it was foolish to imagine that a red or green light could be a weapon. None of these authors really cared or knew that Einstein had predicted something about stimulated emission. It wasn't until 1960, when Theodore Maiman discovered a way to make a special type of ruby rod which could produce Light Amplification by the Stimulated Emission of Radiation, a laser, that the first real red ray-gun came into being.

Maiman's work was not serendipity, however; he set out to do exactly what he did. And, he did it through the systematic application and generalization of techniques developed by other earlier scientists.  But, to the public, modern wonders like the transistor, the laser, the automobile, the telephone, television, and Barbie dolls (just to name some of the more obvious) have already transformed the basic nature of our lives in so many unexpected ways that it has become plain to us that, even if we have learned to expect the unexpected, we are still expecting to be surprised.

It is clear that there is fame and fortune to be had to whomever stumbles into the next pile of muck and comes up with an unexpected pearl.

You've Always Wanted Inspiration . . .

... and here it is!  Four steps to success:

  1. Make up your mind that you are going to find something and start looking for it.

  2. Turn over every stone you come to and be prepared to jump back from what you find.

  3. If you find something that you want, hurrah, you win!

  4. If you find something that you don't want, look again.  You may want it.

1Serendip seems to be an old name for Ceylon or what we now call Sri Lanka.2This might also be taken to be the result of the change in our modern society in our views about issues of absolute values.

Bookmark on your Personal Space

Edited Entry


Infinite Improbability Drive

Infinite Improbability Drive

Read a random Edited Entry

Categorised In:

Written by

Edited by

h2g2 Editors


h2g2 Entries

Write an Entry

"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a wholly remarkable book. It has been compiled and recompiled many times and under many different editorships. It contains contributions from countless numbers of travellers and researchers."

Write an entry
Read more