A Paean to Serendipity

This article was first published in Dawn of the Unread, an online graphic novel serial exploring Nottingham’s literary history. In March 2015 it won the Teaching Excellence Award at the Guardian Education Awards. It was created by James Walker, who is also a Director of Nottingham’s bid to become a UNESCO City of Literature.  www.dawnoftheunread.com

One of the fascinations of languages are that on occasions they throw up words that are so connected with the spirit of the culture that they defy both translation and even definition. ‘Serendipity’ is a word imbued with something peculiarly English, which is largely untranslatable and indefinable. It is as if the meaning were conveyed through its connotations, as a type of felt-experience. This does not mean that definitions have not been offered, but in my opinion they largely fall short. For example, two chosen at random from the many online offerings, “the fact of finding interesting or valuable things by chance” (Cambridge) and “an aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident” (dictionary.com), both have shortcomings. The second is better than the first; it focuses on ‘aptitude’, a talent that is potentially learnable and improvable, and on ‘discovery’, which, as I will argue, when considered in relationship to serendipity is an association that can enrich an understanding of both terms. However, the focus on “chance” and “accident” reinforces the idea that its occurrence is random. I believe it is more correct to refer to it as an emergent property of certain conditions.

The origin of the idea to which serendipity gives its name can be traced through a literary historiography and like many such terms has a wonderfully layered texture, a sort of stratigraphy of narrative, interpretation and contingency, almost as though the concept was an example of the very thing it named. The term was coined by Horace Walpole, an art historian, writer and political figure of the eighteenth century, based on a Persian fairy tale called The Three Princes of Serendip, (Serendip being the Persian name for Ceylon/Sri Lanka). The tale concerns three exiled princes who survived and prospered by their wits. Actually it has little to do with serendipity as we understand it today; it details something more like the application of deductive logic to evidence, a proto- semiotics. In the most famous story, the princes, by reading telltale signs, are able to describe a stolen camel that they have never seen – understandably leading to suspicion falling on them – before explaining their method and saving their own necks. The story is part of a collection, called the Hasht Bihisht, written in the 14th century, which itself draws on Persian tales of several centuries earlier (1). The story was introduced to English readers through Italian and French translations initially. But the tale has had most influence through Voltaire’s book Zadig, the story of a Babylonian wanderer based on The Three Princes of Serendip, which examines the interplay of reason, signs and fate and went on to influence the development of both scientific method and detective fiction (2).

Serendipity has been immensely important in science, and it is largely though scientific anecdotes that the meaning of the term as we know it today has been shaped (3). Even though science is equated in the popular mind with being a rational activity, rationality only plays a part. The core of science is discovery, and for Karl Popper, probably the most influential philosopher of science of the twentieth century – paradoxically, in a book entitled The Logic of Scientific Discovery – science develops firstly through bold imaginative leaps, which are then subject to rigorous testing (the rational part), which he insisted be attempts at refutation rather than searching for confirmatory evidence. I am not a scientist, but I have experience of research. What Popper says seems partly true, but also to exaggerate the element of leaping in the dark. It ignores, to my mind, the aspect of immersion (4). Discovery in any enterprise takes place in the messy physicality of the world, whether that is the scientist’s lab, the artist’s studio or the writer’s desk, through immersion in the discourse of the discipline and problematic issues to which one is dedicated to finding a solution. No one who is not immersed in science makes a scientific breakthrough, or in music writes a musical masterpiece.

It is in literature, though, that the idea gestated and still provides the most accessible experiential context. A bookshop in a Derbyshire village that I visit from time to time embodies perfectly the conditions for serendipitous discovery. A narrow shop front that could be from another age opens up into a labyrinthine interior. Visitors typically spend several hours there, undoubtedly absorbed in the books but also possibly in wondering how to extricate themselves. If you have read Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose or Jorge Luis Borges’ short story The Library of Babel, you will get the idea, although the point is not so much the indecipherability of the floor plan or the magnitude of its extent as the sheer profusion of books and, in particular, the chaotic nature of their display (5). I use the term ‘chaotic’ advisedly: I do not mean there is no order; on the contrary, books are themed as they are in all bookshops. But the owners have taken the maximisation of space to such extraordinary lengths, utilising every possible volume, area and intersection that a wonderfully chaotic complexity arises. On each floor narrow aisles lead to other aisles, which lead to tiny alcoves or to culs de sac. There are books shelved on the stairways to the upper floors, on the landing of each floor, in the restaurant (entered through a bookcase) and even in the toilets (although perhaps my imagination has got the better of me there). In moving through the shop, even if looking for something particular, you are never more than an arm’s length from something completely different. And this is the point: you cannot miss being exposed to such a myriad of alternative influences, that a fortuitous discovery becomes likely (6). I rarely come out of this shop without having bought something, and usually something that I neither knew existed nor realised that I had any interest in.

Although serendipity does not allow of simple descriptions or pat definitions, it is possible to say something meaningful about it. Firstly, it is putting oneself in the way of discovery, but without any guarantee of discovery. In other words, though chance is involved, it is not a random happening. It is to be immersed in the concerns of a particular field of human activity. Secondly, it is to be in an environment of ordered chaos, whether that be by design or accident, where unrelated things lie in proximity, and to have the capacity to see something previously unseen in that juxtaposition, whether a causal relation or merely a suggestive pattern. Thirdly, another element of serendipity, not captured in the definitions, is the element of surprise. Something cannot truly be serendipitous unless its appearance is a surprise; the searched-for thing turns out not quite to be the searched-for thing after all, but something other whose appearance is a revelation. One might say it is one of the vestiges of the sacred which has survived into the scientific age; at least, until now.

I wonder if the serendipitous nature of discovery is under threat from the increasingly technocratic way in which information is processed, both as a society and also personally. The modern approach to knowledge is instrumental. We increasingly no longer put ourselves in the way of discovery. We decide what we want and instigate a search on the web. This is wonderful in its own way, but does not allow the joy of unexpected discovery. Search engines are logical and literal in their search; in order to accommodate news ideas they must be programmed with new search terms. But in this way we are only extending what we already know, or projecting from what we know into the less known. But there is no route into the great realms of ignorance, that which we truly do not know, the ignorance of which we are profoundly ignorant. Even in the age of the world-wide-web most new ideas and recommendations come through personal synergy. As many others have noted, the digitisation of data, and its access through search engines, not only circumvent the contexts within which serendipity operates, but also increase bureaucratic and commercial control of our lives. Under the banners of convenience and choice our time and our choices are increasingly delimited, by increased capacity for administrative delegation and through algorithmically generated feedback on a set of data-deficient decisions, respectively.

A final thought: could it be that the untranslatability of the term ‘serendipity’ renders it a uniquely English experience, in the way that the Inuit experience of snow is able to call on a rich vocabulary unparalleled by any other culture? Neither the cross-cultural context of the term’s origins nor the universality of human experience suggests that this is true. And yet there are hints that English culture has a unique relationship to the idea. English common law arose through a process of judicial discovery of a ‘truth’ in the particular case, which then became the precedent in resolving similar future disputes, unlike the Napoleonic codes based on Roman law prevalent throughout the rest of Europe, which are the imposition of an executive-derived body of law through fiat. Then there is the observation, which does seem to be supported by evidence, that the English are good at scientific discovery, but rather poorer at developing finds into practical technology, which requires greater rationalisation. English society has always existed in the hinterland between order and chaos, which perhaps renders it favourable to a culture of discovery. Yet what has bonded that society is partly a shared literary and discursive tradition that has allowed the cross-fertilisation of ideas. Worryingly, this is disappearing as the tactile, shared and concrete is increasingly displaced by the virtual, solipsistic and evanescent, and the sages of the Internet age have exhibited no capacity, as yet, to see this as problematic.



  1. The tale of The Three Princes of Serendip was translated from Persian into Italian during the late Renaissance, and into French and German in the eighteenth century, but not into English until the 1960’s. The collection of stories of which it is a part goes back to the eleventh century, but is based around an epic interpretation of the fifth century Persian monarch Bahram V. Though the origins go back to pre-Islamic Persia, there are variants of the stories throughout the Middle East, the Balkans, India, Russia and China.

T. G. Remer, Ed. (1965). Serendipity and the Three Princes of Serendip; Trans. from Michele Tramezzino, Peregrinaggio di tre giovani figliuoli del re di Serendippo (1557). University of Oklahoma Press.

2. Voltaire’s Zadig inspired Georges Cuvier, one of the founders of the science of palaeontology, to see inference of an extinct animal’s nature and environment from minimal evidence, as a valid form of reasoning.

Thomas Henry Huxley (1880), On the Method of Zadig: Retrospective Prophecy as a Function of Science. Popular Science Monthly‎, Volume 17‎ (August 1880).

  1. Not only technological innovations, but also theoretical breakthroughs and archaeological finds have often had a strong element of ‘luck’ or ‘good fortune’ in their discovery.

Royston M. Roberts (1989), Serendipity: Accidental Discoveries in Science. New York: Wiley.

  1. Serendipitous discovery has much in common with Thomas Kuhn’s concept of the ‘paradigm shift’ that occurs when an existing paradigm within which normal scientific research takes place no longer accommodates the weight of new and challenging data. Kuhn considers the historical context in which discovery is made, whereas Popper is looking from an epistemological perspective.

Thomas Kuhn (1962). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Karl Popper (1959). The Logic of Scientific Discovery. London: Routledge.

  1. Eco and Borges were not addressing the topic of serendipity; if anything they were making the opposite point that knowledge and the world are opaque to understanding. However, it is their images of libraries of enormous complexity or infinite extent that stay in the mind.

Eco, Umberto (1983). The Name of the Rose. Harcourt.

Jorge Luis Borges (1981). Labyrinths. New York: Penguin.

  1. There have been many attempts to structure the workplace in order to maximise creative interaction among the workforce in companies in the hope of generating serendipitous innovations:

Rachel Emma Silverman (April 30, 2013), The Science of Serendipity in the Workplace. The Wall Street Journal. Online at: http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424127887323798104578455081218505870


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