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Serendipity is the effect by which one accidentally stumbles upon something fortunate, especially while looking for something entirely unrelated. The word has been voted as one of the ten English words that were hardest to translate in June 2004 by a Britishmarker translation company."Words hardest to translate: Encyclopedia II – Words hardest to translate – The list by Today Translations." Global Oneness – The meeting place for Cultural Creatives – Articles, News, Community, Forums, Travel & Events and much more. 21 Apr. 2009 />. However, due to its sociological use, the word has been imported into many other languages (Portuguese serendipicidade or serendipidade; French sérendipicité or sérendipité but also heureux hasard, "fortunate chance"; Italian serendipità; Dutch serendipiteit; German Serendipität; Swedish, Danish and Norwegian serendipitet; Romanian serendipitate; Spanish serendipia).


The word derives from Swarnadip, the Sanskrit language name for Sri Lankamarker, and was coined by Horace Walpole on 28 January 1754 in a letter he wrote to his friend Horace Mann (not the same man as the famed American educator), an Englishman then living in Florence. The letter read,

"It was once when I read a silly fairy tale, called The Three Princes of Serendip: as their highnesses traveled, 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 camel blind of the right eye had traveled 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? One of the most remarkable instances of this accidental sagacity (for you must observe that no discovery of a thing you are looking for, comes under this description) was of my Lord Shaftsbury, who happening to dine at Lord Chancellor Clarendon's, found out the marriage of the Duke of York and Mrs. Hyde, by the respect with which her mother treated her at table."

Role in science and technology and life

One aspect of Walpole's original definition of serendipity that is often missed in modern discussions of the word is the "sagacity" of being able to link together apparently innocuous facts to come to a valuable conclusion. Thus, while some scientists and inventors are reluctant about reporting accidental discoveries, others openly admit its role; in fact serendipity is a major component of scientific discoveries and inventions. According to M.K. Stoskopf "it should be recognized that serendipitous discoveries are of significant value in the advancement of science and often present the foundation for important intellectual leaps of understanding".

The amount of contribution of serendipitous discoveries varies extensively among the several scientific disciplines. Pharmacology and chemistry are probably the fields where serendipity is more common.

Most authors who have studied scientific serendipity both in a historical, as well as in an epistemological point of view, agree that a prepared and open mind is required on the part of the scientist or inventor to detect the importance of information revealed accidentally. This is the reason why most of the related accidental discoveries occur in the field of specialization of the scientist. About this, Albert Hofmann, the Swiss chemist who discovered LSD properties by unintentionally ingesting it at his lab, wrote
It is true that my discovery of LSD was a chance discovery, but it was the outcome of planned experiments and these experiments took place in the framework of systematic pharmaceutical, chemical research.
It could better be described as serendipity.

The French scientist Louis Pasteur also famously said: "In the fields of observation chance favors only the prepared mind." This is often rendered as "Chance favors the prepared mind." William Shakespeare expressed the same sentiment 250 years earlier in act 4 of his play Henry V: "All things are ready if our minds be so."

History, of course, does not record accidental exposures of information which could have resulted in a new discovery, and we are justified in suspecting that they are many. There are several examples of this, however, and prejudice of preformed concepts are probably the largest obstacle. See for example [4457] for a case where this happened (the rejection of an accidental discovery in the field of self-stimulation of the brain in humans).

Examples in science and technology


M. E. Graebner describes serendipitous value in the context of the acquisition of a business as "windfalls that were not anticipated by the buyer prior to the deal": i.e., unexpected advantages or benefits incurred due to positive synergy effects of the merger.



Medicine and Biology

Physics and Astronomy


The chocolate chip cookie was invented through serendipity

Serendipitous ideas

Some ideas and concepts that came to scientists through accidents or even dreams are also considered a kind of serendipity. Some examples (coincidentally all are regarded with suspicion by science historians):

Examples in exploration

Stories of accidental discovery in exploration abound, of course, because the aim of exploration is to find new things and places. The principle of serendipity applies here, however, when the explorer had one aim in mind and found another unexpectedly. In addition, discoveries have been made by people simply attempting to reach a known destination but who departed from the customary or intended route for a variety of reasons. Some classical cases were discoveries of the Americas by explorers with other aims.

Uses of serendipity

Serendipity is used as a sociological method in Anselm L. Strauss' and Barney G. Glaser's Grounded Theory, building on ideas by sociologist Robert K. Merton, who in Social Theory and Social Structure (1949) referred to the "serendipity pattern" as the fairly common experience of observing an unanticipated, anomalous and strategic datum which becomes the occasion for developing a new theory or for extending an existing theory. Robert K. Merton also coauthored (with Elinor Barber) The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), which traces the origins and uses of the word "serendipity" since it was coined. The book is "a study in sociological semantics and the sociology of science", as the subtitle of the book declares. It further develops the idea of serendipity as scientific "method" (as juxtaposed with purposeful discovery by experiment or retrospective prophecy).

Quotations on serendipity

  • "In the field of observation, chance favours only the prepared mind." Louis Pasteur
  • "I find that a great part of the information I have was acquired by looking up something and finding something else on the way." (Franklin P. Adams, 1881–1960)
  • "Serendipity. Look for something, find something else, and realize that what you've found is more suited to your needs than what you thought you were looking for." Lawrence Block
  • "The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka!', but 'That's funny…'" Isaac Asimov
  • "In reality, serendipity accounts for one percent of the blessings we receive in life, work and love. The other 99 percent is due to our efforts." Peter McWilliams
  • "Serendipity is looking in a haystack for a needle and discovering a farmer's daughter." Julius Comroe Jr. (1976)
  • "Serendipity is putting a quarter in the gumball machine and having three pieces come rattling out instead of one—all red." Peter H. Reynolds
  • "--- you don't reach Serendib by plotting a course for it. You have to set out in good faith for elsewhere and lose your bearings… serendipitously." John Barth, The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor
  • "Serendipity is the art of making an unsought finding." Pek van Andel (1994)
  • "Serendipity is the faculty of finding things we did not know we were looking for." Glauco Ortolano (2008)
  • "Serendipity is when you find things you weren't looking for because finding what you are looking for is so damned difficult." Erin McKean 2007
  • "The greatest art is unrepeatable serendipity." Ethan Pichardo (2009)
  • "Serendipity is like lurking the internet for a terrible movie, but finding MarkityMark's stream" Zach Braff (2008)

Related terms

William Boyd coined the term zemblanity to mean somewhat the opposite of serendipity: "making unhappy, unlucky and expected discoveries occurring by design". It derives from Novaya Zemlyamarker (or Nova Zembla), a cold, barren land with many features opposite to the lush Sri Lanka (Serendip). On this island Willem Barents and his crew were stranded while searching for a new route to the east.

Bahramdipity is derived directly from Bahram Gur as characterized in the "Three Princes of Serendip". It describes the suppression of serendipitous discoveries or research results by powerful individuals.(a) Sommer, Toby J. "'Bahramdipity' and Scientific Research", The Scientist, 1999, 13(3), 13.

(b) Sommer, Toby J. "Bahramdipity and Nulltiple Scientific Discoveries," Science and Engineering Ethicss, 2001, 7(1), 77–104.


  • Theodore G. Remer, Ed.: Serendipity and the Three Princes, from the Peregrinaggio of 1557, Edited, with an Introduction and Notes, by Theodore G. Remer, Preface by W.S. Lewis. University of Oklahoma Press, 1965. LCC 65-10112
  • Robert K. Merton, Elinor Barber: The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity: A Study in Sociological Semantics and the Sociology of Science. Princeton University Press, 2004. ISBN 0-691-11754-3. (Manuscript written 1958).
  • Patrick J. Hannan: Serendipity, Luck and Wisdom in Research. iUniverse, 2006. ISBN 0-595-36551-5
  • Royston M. Roberts: Serendipity: Accidental Discoveries in Science. Wiley, 1989. ISBN 0-471-60203-5
  • Pek Van Andel: "Anatomy of the unsought finding : serendipity: origin, history, domains, traditions, appearances, patterns and programmability." British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 1994, 45(2), 631–648.

See also


  1. OED, serendipity.
  2. As given by W. S. Lewis, ed., Horace Walpole's Correspondence, Yale edition, in the book by Theodore G. Remer, ed.: Serendipity and the Three Princes, from the Peregrinaggio of 1557, Edited, with an Introduction and Notes, by Theodore G. Remer, Preface by W.S. Lewis. University of Oklahoma Press, 1965. LCC 65-10112
  3. Observation and cogitation: how serendipity provid...[ILAR J. 2005] – PubMed Result
  4. Original French, as at Louis Pasteur: Dans les champs de l'observation le hasard ne favorise que les esprits préparés.
  5. Accidental Discovery Produces Durable New Blue Pigment for Multiple Applications
  6. Boyd, William. Armadillo, Chapter 12, Knopf, New York, 1998. ISBN 0-375-40223-3

  • "The view from Serendip", by Arthur C. Clarke, Random House, 1977.
  • "Momentum and Serendipity: how acquired leaders create value in the integration of technology firms", by Melissa E. Graebner, McCombs School of Business, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, Texas, U.S.A. 2004.

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