by Marinus Jan Marijs
(from the Oxford English Dictionary)
- Serendip, a former name for Sri Lanka + -ity. A word coined by Horace Walpole, who says (Let. to Mann, 28 Jan. 1754) that he had formed it upon the title of the fairy-tale `The Three Princes of Serendip’, the heroes of which `were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of’.
The faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident. Also, the fact or an instance of such a discovery. Formerly rare, this word and its derivatives have had wide currency in the 20th century.
* 1955 Sci. Amer. Apr. 92/1 Our story has as its critical episode one of those coincidences that show how discovery often depends on chance, or rather on what has been called `serendipity’-the chance observation falling on a receptive eye.
* 1971 S. E. Morison European Discovery Amer.: Northern Voy. i. 3 Columbus and Cabot..(by the greatest serendipity of history) discovered America instead of reaching the Indies.
Role of chance in scientific discoveries
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
“The role of chance, or luck, in science comprises all ways in which unexpected discoveries are made. This is a topic studied in many domains, especially psychology. Kevin Dunbar and colleagues estimate that between 30% and 50% of all scientific discoveries are, in some sense, accidental (see examples below).
Dunbar quotes Louis Pasteur‘s saying that “Luck favours the prepared mind”. He suggests that luck can be harnessed to make more discoveries, and also that various investigations into the scientific method itself (e.g. philosophical, historical, psychological, Thomas Kuhn‘s famous The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and so on) have all supported the idea that serendipity (“happy accidents”) plays an important part.
Research suggests that scientists are taught various heuristics and practices that allow their investigations to benefit from serendipity. Researchers use the scientific method because the careful control conditions allow them to properly identify something as “unexpected”, potentially leading them to new knowledge. Researchers also work across various disciplines to explain their curious findings: They use creative analogies, but also seek help from colleagues with different specialities. Psychologist Alan A. Baumeister emphasizes that a scientist must also be “sagacious” (attentive and clever) to turn luck into serendipity. (List of discoveries influenced by chance circumstances, From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)
Below are discoveries in science that involve chance circumstances in a particularly salient way. This page should not list all chance involved in all discoveries (i.e. it should focus on discoveries reported for their notable circumstances, because Luck in science indicates that this would mean listing too many discoveries).
Royston Roberts says that various discoveries required a degree of genius, but also some lucky element for that genius to act on. Richard Gaughan writes that accidental discoveries result from the convergence of preparation, opportunity, and desire.
Major everyday discoveries that were helped by luck in some way include products like vulcanized rubber, teflon, nylon, penicillin, cyanoacrylate (Super Glue), the implantable pacemaker, the microwave oven, Scotchgard, Saran wrap, Silly Putty, Slinky, safety glass, propeller, snowmaking, stainless steel, etc. Typically influenced by chance circumstances: Popsicle. Most artificial sweeteners have been discovered when accidentally tasted, including aspartame and saccharin.
Ideas include the theory of the big bang, tissue culture, radio astronomy, and the discovery of DNA.
Such archeological discoveries as the Rosetta stone, the Dead Sea Scrolls and the ruins of Pompeii also emerged partly out of serendipity. And also Terracotta Army, etc.
Many relevant and well known scientific theories were developed by chance at some degree along history. According to a legend, Archimedes realized his principle on hydrostatics when he entered in a bath full of water, which overflows (he then shouted out his famous “Eureka!”).
The novel optical illusion the flashed face distortion effect suggests a new area of research in the neurology of face perception”. (Wikipedia)
One could ask the question whether these are truly random events, or that there is some hidden principle behind it.
Harvard palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould:
“We have become, by the power of a glorious evolutionary accident called intelligence, the stewards of life’s continuity on earth. We did not ask for this role, but we cannot abjure it. We may not be suited to it, but here we are.”
― Stephen Jay Gould, The Flamingo’s Smile: Reflections in Natural History
Kurt Wise reflected on Gould’s book Wonderful Life: “Gould asserts that with the acceptance of scientific orthodoxy, the idea of a creation fashioned for the purpose of man has been completely obliterated. Astronomy relegated the earth to an unspectacular third position among nine about an average star located near the fringes of an average galaxy in an unspectacular galactic cluster. Evolutionary biology declared man to be nothing more than a sexually mature, upright, juvenile ape–one lineage among thousands and one animal among millions. Radiometric dating reserved for man only the last one forty-thousandth of the earth’s history. And, lest some view evolution as a steady, inevitable pathway to human intelligence, Gould argues differently. If, as Gould argues, the evolutionary tape were played again, human life would not be expected. In fact, even if it were replayed a million times or more, man would not be expected again.
To conclude, as Gould does, that man is “…a wildly improbable evolutionary event…” (p. 291), “…a detail, not a purpose…” (p. 291), and “…a cosmic accident…” (p. 44) is disconcerting to some, but not to Gould. To him, release from any purpose is ‘exhilarating’ as it also releases any responsibility to any other, “…offering us maximum freedom to thrive, or to fail, in our chosen way” (p. 323).
As Gould explains so well, however, a scientifically orthodox understanding of earth history includes many facts that are at odds with the idea that man was a purposeful product of the evolution. Why is it, for example, that for two thirds of the history of the earth, life proceeded no further than bacteria? Why is it that for half of the remaining one third of earth history, life remained one-celled? What is to be made of the possibility that two unsuccessful attempts at multicellularity preceded the one that finally initiated the line to humans? Why was the evolution of mammals delayed for 100 million years by the parenthetical note of the development, domination, and demise of the ‘terrible lizards’? Why is it that it took 99,999 out of the 100,000 units of time in the history of this universe for man to come about? Although not expressly designed as a polemic against theological theories of accommodation, Gould’s arguments nonetheless bear upon them. The very nature of God comes into question if He chose evolution as a means to form man. The literal reading of the macroevolutionary history of the earth is that man is an accident–at best an afterthought of nature’s process.
The second implication that I would like to consider has to do with the second ‘great problem’ posed by the Burgess organisms (the first being the chaotic nature of macroevolutionary history). In particular, “How did the diversity of the Cambrian (the Burgess and similarly aged animals) arise in the first place?”. The rocks older than the Cambrian lack organisms ancestral to most of the Cambrian animals, but do not lack the ability to preserve the animals, if they ever existed. As Gould reflects, the origin of the Burgess is a challenge to current evolutionary theory. Gould includes in his book a brief discussion on how this unknown evolutionary mechanism might work. To aid the reader’s understanding, Gould creates the metaphor of the ‘Great Token-Stringer’ who constructs the Burgess organisms by stringing together organismal features chosen at random from an orderly grab bag of goodies. Though it is only introduced as a pedagogical tool, it is interesting that the most natural and easily understood mechanism for the origin of the Cambrian chimeras is a being of remarkable manipulative ability and power. Though that is by no means what my mentor intends in this book, I do see reasons to believe that Gould’s chimeras are constructed not by the hand of evolutionary theory but by the loving hand of an omnipotent and all-knowing God.
Though not an easy read, Gould’s Wonderful Life is a worthwhile volume. In it one meets a great thinker and can ponder with him some of the most disturbing philosophical implications of evolutionary theory”. (Kurt Wise)
Kurt Wise holds a Ph.D. in Geology from Harvard University, where Stephen Jay Gould was his advisor. Dr. Wise is currently Assistant Professor of Science and director of an origins research program at Bryan College in Dayton Tennessee.
To include (or exclude) some transcendent intelligent force within biological evolution is difficult. Biological development is extremely complex, much more complex than the data which prove the fine-tuning of the universe. If one can make the argument of a teleological process from the fine-tuning of the universe based upon a rigorous and consistent mathematical formalism, this is very difficult in the case of biological evolution. The theory of biological evolution is one of the greatest scientific achievements, but claim that it has been proven that there are no other principles involved than Darwinism, is in conflict with Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorem.
The idea of an intelligent design is sometimes trivialised, but some scientists agree with Albert Einstein’s “I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists”.
Another case of what is considered to be serendipity is the discovery of an antibiotic penicillin by Alexander Fleming. It has been estimated that humans on this planet live on average ten years longer because of this discovery and the use of antibiotics. Looking back upon this discovery:
” There is the unbelievable coincidence that one of the thousands different fungi that exist exactly came by bacteria (one of the thousands of different bacteria that exist) which are sensitive for it, and that this just happened in a situation in which that could be observed and exactly by the person who could see the importance of thereof.” (ILja Maso: “De zin van het toeval”). Maso in his book implies divine interference in this matter.