illustrations by Giulia Ferla

Popular science history is full of classic anecdotes, sometimes coming dangerously close to myth, in which a lucky coincidence leads to revolutionary discoveries: from Alexander Fleming's penicillin to Wilhelm C. Röntgen's X-rays, from cosmic background radiation to the microwave oven. 

The list of serendipitous discoveries documented is truly impressive, and even includes technologies that today have become essential parts of our daily life, among others: modern chemotherapy, discovered through studies on the effects of mustard gas during the Second World War; vulcanised rubber; the daguerreotype; saccharine; electromagnetic induction; the pacemaker; celluloid; neon light; Teflon; Pyroceram; artificial silk, and many more.

But are we sure we have really understood the secrets of serendipity?

The term serendipity - used with its modern meaning for the first time in 1754 by the English writer Horace Walpole - comes from three characters in a wonderful Persian fable, The Three Princes of Serendip, who embark on a voyage of initiation during which "they continued to make discoveries, by accident and through sagacity, of things they were not searching for."
By serendipity, today we mean accidental discovery, that phenomenon where scientists are searching for one thing, and find something completely different. They plan an experiment, ask a particular research question, but then over the course of the project they come across entirely unexpected evidence.

In order to go beyond the merely anecdotal, we need to construct a taxonomy of the phenomenon. According to experts, serendipitous processes in science can be classified into four categories:

  1. research studies that start in a certain field and lead to discoveries in another (we could call this transdisciplinary serendipity);
  2. discoveries that are the fruit of free investigation with no fixed objectives;
  3. unexpected solutions to old problems that people had been attempting to resolve for a long time;
  4. and finally, maybe the most interesting type of all, chance discoveries that later reveal themselves to be the solution to a problem that had not yet arisen at the time (for example, the chance discovery of laminated glass, which would later be used for shatterproof windscreens).

But what are the conditions that favour the most promising serendipitous discoveries?

In fact, serendipity is not pure chance. As Louis Pasteur had already noticed, it requires us to be ready and receptive when faced with a surprising result. We need to understand immediately that we have an unexpected discovery on our hands, and not simply a failed experiment.
Who knows how many examples of serendipity ended up in the bin, and therefore lost in the annals of history, without being properly considered in time. We know that there are mechanisms that encourage serendipity: astute observation; the introduction of new tools and routines; the ability to learn from mistakes and capitalise on unexpected results; controlled distraction, in order to be neither too focused on one single objective, nor too stubborn when experiments go against expectations; and knowing how to understand revealing anomalies and deviations from starting hypotheses. 
Collaboration between large networks of scientists, if possible with different origins and backgrounds, also makes serendipity more likely: observing a phenomenon from multiple points of view, with different disciplinary perspectives and languages, opens the mind and multiplies the opportunities for serendipitous discoveries.

Instead, the enemies of scientific creativity are too much haste to publish, pressure on results, and the concentration of funding into very few traditional lines of research that are already proven to be successful. A healthy, slow science can sometimes encourage not only more thoughtful verification of experimental results, but also the more risky experimentation of more innovative lines of research.

As the philosopher Karl Popper wrote, true ignorance is not the absence of knowledge, but the refusal to acquire it. Scientists know that they do not know. Not only that, but the more things they know and discover, the more they realise they do not know.
Scientific enterprise is a thrilling adventure of knowledge in which the question marks, over time, increase rather than decrease.

Serendipity also reminds us that pure, unbiased research is often a source of unpredictable discoveries that have later had extraordinary technological and clinical effects. It follows that it would be futile, or even counterproductive, to try to control or direct scientific research too rigidly. It is better to give it free rein, and simply intercept the serendipitous illuminations. Serendipity teaches us, above all, that nature is greater than our imagination, and it is always ready to surprise us.


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Fortune is an attitude.
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