Science stories to 
reflect on the history and future of science & society. By P. Gomez-Romero
En español, por favor.En español

 
Serendipi...WHAT?
 In the Kingdom of Serendip
  Once upon a time there was an oriental and exotic Kingdom called Serendip, the memory of which blends with imagination. Our elder tell us that it existed; that it was located in an island that many many years later was called Ceylan, today known as Sri Lanka. The exotic names of cities in that island, places like Trincomalee o Jaffna,  can easily make us believe that was the case. Or maybe Serendip was in Persia.
  I will tell you a particularly curious tale from that old Kingdom. It is the story of the Three Princes of  Serendip, three priviledged individuals not only gifted by their noble origin but also endowed with a unique talent: the gift of casual discovery. These three characters were able to find answers to questions or misteries they were not in search of. Thanks to their natural sagacity they would solve unexpected dilemmas.
  This unique ability must have impresed so deeply an anonymous witness that he decided to save it for history in the anonymous story entitled “The Three Princes of Serendip”. 
  Many many people read this book for many many years. But when Mr. Horace Walpole read it in the 18th century something changed. 
Walpole must have also found sublime the gift of the three princes, though quite difficult to describe, and invented to the effect an expresive little word:  “serendipity”.

  Letters are a very valuable source of historical information. And the letter that Mr Walpole wrote to Sir Horace Mann on January 28, 1754  is one of those texts that make history. Not history of wars or empires, spies or conspirations, but word history. In that  letter Horace Walpole wrote about his recent creation, about the word serendipity and its expressive richness.

. . . this discovery indeed is almost of that kind which I call serendipity, a very expressive word, which as I have nothing better to tell you, I shall endeavor to explain to you: you will understand it better by the derivation than by the definition. I once read a silly fairy tale, called The Three Princes of Serendip: as their highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of: for instance, one of them discovered that a mule blind of the right eye had travelled the same road lately, because the grass was eaten only on the left side, where it was worse than on the right--now do you understand serendipity?
 The word “serendipity” is found today in English dictionaries- though only in those edited after 1974- and its meaning fits perfectly well the accidental nature of many scientific discoveries, made by chance, found without looking for them but possible only through a sharp vision and sagacity, ready to see the unexpected and never indulgent with the aparently unexplainable. The following are just a few examples of many serendipitous discoveries and inventions
 

Archymedes' Principle
The legend says he discovered it while taking a bath. Archymedes must have realized that his body was gradually weighing less as he was getting into the bath, while spilling the same volume of water. He was so thrilled that he ran naked out of the bath and into the streets yelling "Eureka!" (I found it).

The case of he jumping frog's leg.

“I had dissected and prepared a frog in the usual way and while I was attending to something else I laid it on a table on which stood an electrical machine at some distance from its conductor and separated from it by a considerable space. Now when one of the persons present touched accidentally and lightly the inner crural nerves of the frog with the point of a scalpel, all the muscles of the legs seemed to contract again and again as if they were affected by powerful cramps.”
This is Galvani's own description of his first and absolutely accidental observation of what he called "animal electricity". Instead of forgetting the incident he didn't stop until he could repeat it. Galvani's experiments set the basis for modern neurophysiology. Nerves were not the fluid-filled channels that the mind of Descartes had earlier imagined but electrical conductors.

The first electric battery
Was designed by Alessandro Volta and reported in 1800 based on the serendipitous observations by Galvani. Volta wanted to demonstrate that the generation of electricity in Galvani's experiments was originated by the use of two different metals separated by an electrolytic solution.

Sticky "ma non tropo"
Not only some of the greatest scientific discoveries have serendipitous roots. Many little (but very profitable) technological contributions also fall within that category. The adhesive used in those very popular self-sticking "Post it" notes for example. That glue was not what their discoverers were looking for. In fact it was a lousy glue. Nevertheless, a keen reevaluation took it out of the failures drawer and after a certain period of optimization put it into the shrine of profitable innovations.

Do you know more examples of serendipitous discoveries?

Tell me your favorite: cienciateca@mail.com


Dr. Pedro Gomez-Romero (b. Almansa, Spain) (B.S., M.S. Univ. Valencia, Spain) (PhD Chemistry, Georgetown University, USA) is a scientist at the Materials Science Institute of Barcelona, Spain, where he works in the field of solid state chemistry, materials for rechargeable lithium batteries and related topics. Member of the American Asociation for the Advancement of Science, the American Chemical Society and the Electrochemical Societypedro.gomez@icmab.es

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  Questions and comments to cienciateca@mail.com |  Last modified: Jan. 12, 2002
©Pedro Gómez-Romero, 2000