You inoculate a couple petri dishes with a bacterium you are studying and then go away for a few days on vacation. When you return you notice the bacteria are not growing around a colony of fungus that has contaminated the plate. Nuts! Now you’ve got to set up a new set of plates. But wait…you might have just discovered a new antibiotic! You turn your attention to isolating the antibacterial factor from the fungus and characterize it as a safe and effective antibiotic that can save millions of lives. What a brilliant story and, like that of Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin, is a classic example of discovering something through serendipity: a “fortunate happenstance” or “pleasant surprise”!
In 1754 the word serendipity was coined when the English historian, Horace Walpole, described a Persian fairy tale in which three princes of Serendip (Sri Lanka) were “always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of”. (Wikipedia)
As Director of the Chalk Talk Science Project, an initiative to teach career-enhancing communication skills to all scientists and engineers, I encourage researchers to explain their work in the form of stories. Stories explain events, connecting the teller to the listener and making the message memorable, impactful and “sticky” (Chip and Dan Heath. 2008. Made to Stick, Random House). Stories are far better at helping students and colleagues understand experimental results and concepts than are facts and figures. Stories make data come alive!
Scientific discoveries often pop up unexpectedly as a result of lucky accidents. Consider Percy Spencer’s messy discovery of the microwave oven when a candy bar melted in his pocket as he walked by a radar set. Another lucky accident is Charles Goodyear’s vulcanization of rubber that improved tire durability and revolutionized the automobile industry. Great stories! Explaining the “surprise factor” is an engaging way to tell others about our scientific work. To be honest, we should mention the role serendipity played in the discovery when we report our findings to our colleagues and the general public.
Serendipity adds a human element to science stories (e.g., mystery, surprise, humor) and suggests that by being persistent, observant and sagacious, scientists take advantage of unexpected opportunities. Stories of serendipity fuel creativity, inspiring us to “think outside the box.” Our well-being may rest upon serendipitous findings: we need novel solutions to antibiotic resistance, a decreasing supply of clean water, a changing climate and a lot of unknown “dark” stuff out there in outer space. Stories of serendipity give all of us some hope that we, mere mortals toiling away in a lab or office, can someday stumble upon a great discovery.
Finally, we must tell legislators, administrators and funders that serendipitous findings are the direct result of opportunity. If money, resources and time are available for us to explore “things we were not in quest of”, important scientific discoveries made though serendipity can happen. We must be given the chance to take risks, have “fortunate happenstances” and tell our stories of discovery.