Manipulating Serendipity

Serendipity has long been recognized as an integral component of much scientific discovery.  From dropping rubber and sulfur on a stove and producing vulcanized rubber to leaving a bacteria culture out and discovering penicillin, serendipity has left a significant mark on science and the development of our world.  It is still a concept of complexity though, as it still remains a hot topic of scientific debate.  One such question that still lingers about the scientific community is the question of whether or not serendipity can be created, cultivated, and/or controlled.  There is probably no simple answer to this though, since the magnitude and instances of serendipity tend to vary so much.

According to Webster, serendipity is the phenomenon of finding valuable things not sought for.  With that in mind, the creation of serendipity seems very contradictory to its nature.  Instead, I believe the chance of having a serendipitous moment can be maximized rather than created.  This can be done many ways by simply keeping an open mind as you observe the world to performing arbitrary experiments.  Take for example the age of exploration.  By merely building better boats and seeing how far they could go, people began to uncover various civilizations that were heretofore non-existent and alien to their culture.  Even the discovery of the Americas, with its purpose based on trade expansion, exemplifies the spirit of serendipity as Columbus recognized and reported the value of his discovery instead of ignoring his mistake and returning to Spain without mention of what he found.

The next matter to be addressed is that of the cultivation of serendipity.  In order to cultivate serendipity, an element of desire must be added to the general process of experimentation.  For this, consider the concept of buoyancy surmised by Archimedes.  He was not simply looking for any worldly phenomenon or even any property of physics.  He was specifically looking for a way to measure density and volume, and, as his bath water was displaced, he had the insight to recognize how that pertained to what he needed.  Being able to realize how such occurrences relate to what you are looking for is a very distinct skill though, and it requires an immense amount of curiosity, a keen eye for detail, and abstract thinking or prior knowledge of the subject.  Simply put, serendipity cultivation can be very difficult without the proper cognitive skills.

Controlling serendipity is by far the most cumbersome issue.  Again, by definition, serendipity is a beneficial accident, so I believe it cannot be controlled.  A lot of diseases have been cured and many vaccines have been developed completely by accident rather than strict procedure like the discovery of penicillin, many laws of physics have been conceived through epiphany as with buoyancy, and a great number of technologies used today were created by accident for another function such the 1 mega-ohm resistor that is used as a pacemaker now.  The common theme in each of these discoveries was not control though; they were intention, open-mindedness, and/or persistence.

Serendipity can only be manipulated to a certain extent before it loses its meaning. Rather than actively controlling it, I believe the creation, cultivation, and control of serendipity rely on the personal characteristics of the researcher instead.  Generally serendipity can occur for anyone, but being able to identify and utilize serendipitous discoveries requires skills that not everyone possesses.  Personally, I would have eaten the apple and moved away from the tree rather than discover gravity.


2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Paige Hoerle on October 13, 2011 at 9:27 pm

    Great post! I especially like the last paragraph, where you stated that the recognition and value of serendipitous discoveries is determined by the personality of the researcher. I think this is the reason that it is vital to have creativity in order to research effectively. Without creativity, only the expected results will be allowed to be significant. Not only is it good to be openminded in order to take in unexpected results, but having the imagination to make something of those results is certainly a gift. Many if not all of us alive today owe our lives to serendipitous discoveries made by those that came before us.

    -Paige Hoerle, visual, J5


    • Posted by Phyll McCrary on October 14, 2011 at 10:21 pm

      Thank you! Imagination is an extremely important component of invention/discovery. Without creativity, I don’t believe discoveries could be efficiently utilized to aid society in ever possible way it could. In the words of Albert Einstein, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Because, to me, the greatest minds know can figure out what to do with information rather than simply obtaining it.


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