Thereby hangs a tale

Jane R. Goodall, University of Western Sydney

Robert K. Merton & Elinor G. Barber, The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity: A Study in Sociological Semantics and the Sociology of Science, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2004 (313 pp). ISBN 0-69111-754-3 (hardcover) RRP $60.95.

When Franklin D. Roosevelt took office as President in 1933, the United States was in the throes of the Great Depression. So, as an inaugural gesture towards salvaging the nation’s economy, he declared a bank holiday: an indefinite bank holiday, but strictly for the banks. Other businesses were supposed to go on working, as best they could, getting their custom from people with no access to their own bank accounts. For many this was a disconcerting start to the New Deal, but enterprising retailers responded to the situation by offering credit. One such retailer was a Harvard bookstore, whose customers included a young researcher with an odd sort of fixation on the Oxford English Dictionary. In a moment of recklessness, born of the suspicion that he might never see the money in his bank balance again anyway, this young man promptly bought himself a complete set of the OED, in the latest expanded edition, at a cost of $90, then nearly ten per cent of his annual income.

As I was reading about this in The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity, BBC World’s Hardtalk was on the television, and Bill Barnard of Democrats Abroad was being quizzed about the longer term cultural impact of the destruction of New Orleans. This might well be a turning point, Barnard said. For a generation, Americans had been caught up in the race for material success, as they were in the 1920s, and that all finished when a disaster hit in the form of the Great Depression. Then there was the New Deal, which led to a refocusing on the common interests that bind us all. Did it? Will it? And if so, what—apart from the odd topical coincidence of the current affairs program with my reading matter—has this to do with serendipity? Thereby hangs a tale.

Happy Discoveries

The man who bought the dictionary was Robert Merton, later to become one of the pioneer sociologists of his generation. Merton’s professional interest was in ‘the unanticipated consequences of purposive social action’ and his hobby was reading dictionaries: not just looking things up in them, but reading through the entries as pieces of discursive knowledge, picked out randomly. In one of these forays, he came upon the word serendipity and liked the sound of it. Its derivation was a story in itself. The eighteenth century writer Horace Walpole who, like Merton, enjoyed foraging through reference works for choice fragments of information, chanced upon what he called ‘a silly fairy tale’ that caught his imagination. It was a story about the three Princes of Serendip who, travelling in search of treasure, became sharp observers of the scenes through which they passed. Stopping at an inn one evening, they met a distraught man who had lost his camel. They responded instantly. Was it blind in one eye?—Then it went thataway. They knew this, because the grass was cropped on only one side of the road on which they’d been travelling. Long before the time of Sherlock Holmes, the princes had learned to notice what they were actually seeing, and to draw conclusions accordingly.

Merton’s hobby was reading dictionaries.

Further refinements of the deduction process are included in some elaborations of the story, but for Walpole, and later for Merton, that was enough to make the mental bulb light up because they, like the three princes of Serendip, were able to see aside from what they were looking for to what they had actually found. This is where the story begins to get more involved. While the value of finding the camel was a clear and simple matter, the value of the principle of serendipity depends upon social and cultural factors. In 1754, Walpole shared his discovery in a letter to a friend, as a piece of idle amusement spiced with an ‘Aha!’ factor that only like-minded dilettantes might appreciate.

The time capsule

After that, the word remained dormant until the publication of Walpole’s correspondence in 1833 and then, over the next century, trickled down through circles of literary curiosity hunters and scientists fascinated by accidental discoveries. In 1903, an antiquarian book dealer decided ‘Serendipity’ would be a good name for his shop. The word itself had the reputation of a lucky charm. It was ‘an attractive word’ (p. 76). In a culture organised with increasing sophistication by the imperatives of the industrial revolution, serendipity was a way of labelling what falls off the edge of the rationalist’s table. No deep investment in lore or superstition was involved; the serendipity principle acknowledged chance, coincidence and lucky accident but supposed no occult design in human affairs. Those who attracted serendipity were lucky in small, incidental ways. After all, one might remember, the princes were in search of treasure and what they found was an old, blind camel.

By the time Merton lights on the word, though, its happy streak has become more pronounced. Forget the poor old camel. To experience serendipity is ‘to dip successfully in the very place where treasure may be found.’ The story of serendipity is read as one about mood and attitude. Success, happiness, pleasure, ingenuity, inventiveness, fun, recreation, gift: these are the words that cluster around any entrances made by that light-footed lucky word with ‘dip’ in the middle of it (p. 58). No wonder it appealed to a young adult starting to experiment with his credit rating during the Great Depression.

The defeat of Hoover by Roosevelt represented a defeat of pessimism by a new optimism that according to a Democrat Congressman of the time, Emanuel Celler, ‘charged the air with the snap and zigzag of electricity’ (Celler, p. 32). Subsequent economic and social commentators have characterised the New Deal as a recipe for serendipity in the lives of ordinary people who were ‘always discovering interesting, or amusing or delightful things, while hunting for something quite different’ (p. 83). Merton himself comments: ‘When out of uncertainty and the absence of control there emerge good things, they are doubly welcome—they suggest that the gods are smiling’ (p. 82). But the response of twentieth century scientists and economists to the emergence of good things is, inevitably, to figure out how to repeat them so that no such gods are required. As one science writer put it, they started ‘watching for the unexpected’ (p. 147).

A key debate in modern science concerns the relative importance of accident and genius in scientific discovery.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Merton’s book is the way he links the concept of serendipity with the changing zeitgeist. The book itself is a ‘time capsule,’ having been written in the later 1950s in collaboration with a colleague, Elinor Barber, then ‘ruthlessly suppressed’ until Merton was finally prevailed upon to put it into the hands of a publisher 45 years later, near the end of his life. In an Afterword, he charts some of the changes in meaning and currency in its transition ‘from arcanum to popular science and the vernacular’ (p. 285). As a specialist in the sociology of science, he engages particularly closely with the significance of these changes in relation to cultures of science and discovery. It is in science that the most consequential and contentious issues arise with regard to the idea of serendipity.

Accident and the scientific genius

Merton’s postgraduate work focused on the relationship between ascetic Protestantism and the rise of the modern science. There are only brief references to Calvinism in this book, but behind the debates it traces is an awareness of the deep investment in providential design that accompanies Protestantism, which does not favour the attribution of events in human life to luck or chance. How does serendipity, interpreted as chance success, fit with Protestant notions of individual responsibility, skill and just deserts? One of the key debates in modern science concerns the relative importance of accident and genius in scientific discovery, a matter on which trenchant opinions were being expressed well before the word serendipity was introduced. In 1679 Robert Hooke wrote of ‘the greatest part of Invention being but a lucky bitt of chance’ (p. 161). A century later, Joseph Priestley was similarly convinced that ‘more is owing to what we call chance, that is, philosophically speaking, to the observation of events arising from unknown causes, than to any proper design or preconceived theory in this business.’ Evidently this view of scientific discovery had wide appeal, and later commentators felt the need to attack it accordingly. William Whewell decried ‘the common love of the marvellous’ and insisted that those who saw accident in scientific discovery were misinterpreting the role of the scientist (a word he himself coined in 1834). ‘Who, except Newton,’ he challenged, ‘ever followed the accident to such consequences?’ (p. 44).

The discussion becomes more interesting as commentators extract themselves from either/or positions and try to account for the ways in which discoveries result from the intersection of exceptional thinking with random circumstances. Favourite examples include Newton’s encounter with the falling apple, James Watts’ conjectures about steam in response to the behaviour of the lid on a teapot, and Fleming’s discovery of penicillin as a result of observing bacteria being killed by mould. In these cases, there is actually nothing exceptional or unexpected about the circumstances themselves. Rather, what they have in common is their apparent triviality, which is precisely what accounts for most people’s failure to see them.

Merton points to the effect of organizational factors on scientific potential.

An article in a 1935 issue of the Journal of Bacteriology suggests that the capacity to spot the significance of such things is one of the features that differentiates the mind of a skilled scientist from that of a novice, whose tendency is generally to discard whatever does not fit the preconceived plan of the enquiry. The other side of this is the plan itself: how it came to be framed in the way it is, and who has been responsible for making and managing it. As a sociologist, Merton points to the effect of organisational factors on scientific potential. Scientists employed by government and industry are under greater control than those working in Universities, and so may be less open to what Merton calls ‘the serendipity pattern.’

Blind spots

As a reader of the resurrected Travels and Adventures of Serendipity, one has to keep reminding oneself of the timewarp factor in this kind of discussion. Since the authors are writing what might broadly be labelled a cultural history, most of their account is contextualised in a chronological perspective, but when Merton speaks with his sociologist’s hat on, as a commentator on present circumstances, we suddenly have to remember that the present here is the 1950s. What’s the message for a culture that has almost eroded the distinction between university-based science and science managed according to the requirements of government and industry? Most forms of experimental science now are impossible without a grant, and the culture of grant-based science is one that demands an outcomes-driven approach. Methodologies are strictly controlled by aims, and benefits must be predetermined within government specified parameters. If the capacity to observe and associate apparently unrelated facts (one definition of the serendipity factor) belongs to the mature expert and the natural tendency of the novice is to discard whatever doesn’t fit the preconceived research design, what does this say about a way of doing science that reserves the expert (chief investigator) for the designer role and employs novice researchers to carry through the specific tasks?

There is a tendency in current research culture to pay lip service to serendipity as something that will be taken care of within the framework of a sophisticated approach, or that has actually been surpassed as if it were some kind of immature version of scientific method. The website for the ARC Centre for Functioning Nanomaterials features a header statement making just such a claim. ‘Instead of discovering new materials by serendipity and trial-and-error, nanoscientists can now design novel materials in a systematic way, tailoring the materials to have desired functionalities and properties.’ You could read this as a recipe for serendipity avoidance, but to do so raises issues that go beyond the terms of any particular scientific enterprise. One of the key messages of the serendipity story is that we are victims of our own confidence and dupes to our own intentions. The stronger the conviction that we have got it right, that we know how to do this, the less the likelihood that we may be able to swing round and catch sight of what lies in our own blind spot. It is this extraordinary movement of the mind that characterises the great ‘serendipitous’ discoveries of modern science, not some kind of premethodological bumbling.

Can nothing short of a cultural hurricane cause us to shift our collective field of vision?

Is there maybe a hidden joke in the figure of the old blind camel that was the original treasure-trove of serendipity? Aren’t most of us humans, even the most expert of us, when all is said and done, a bit one eyed? Can nothing short of a cultural hurricane cause us to shift our collective field of vision because, all of a sudden, our survival depends on it? The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity stops short of posing the questions quite so starkly but undoubtedly they are there, lurking at the edges of the story, and tugging suggestively at another question: why was the book left unpublished for 45 years? James L. Shulman offers various speculations about this ‘mystery’ in his introduction: that Merton disliked the oversimplifying aura that envelops published arguments; or that he was taken over by a tide of inspiration for another book, so the serendipity work became ‘merely another casualty of the ongoing romance of investigation’ (p. xxiv). This might explain why it was ‘set aside’ by mutual agreement of the authors, as Merton says in his Preface. But further on, he refers to it as ‘ruthlessly abandoned’ (p. 233) and ‘suppressed’ (p. 244); there was also a strict embargo on quoting or abstracting from the manuscript. More must have been at stake.

The role of the co-author Elinor Barber in all this is impossible to deduce from the information provided in this volume, but the inference is clearly that it was Merton’s decision to keep the work under wraps. One might be tempted to trot out a version of the favourite explanation for Darwin’s suppression of On the Origin of Species—that the topic was too hot to handle in the public domain —but that doesn’t really wash (if it ever did in Darwin’s case, but that’s another story). There’s no heavy-duty controversy here. There is, though, a sense that serendipity is a Pandora’s box. Merton flicked up the lid and a swarm of daunting cultural fundamentals rose out of it. Was this a whimsical study of happy accident in intellectual endeavour, an indulgence in the lightness of being? Or had he caught a loose end of some strange, unending and colossal story about cultural change, something too burdensome to lift? The answer, I’d say, is both.


Barnard, B., 2005, The cost of Hurricane Katrina, Interview with David Jessel, Hardtalk, BBC World, 7 September [Online], Available: [2005, Sep 15].

Celler, E., 1953, You Never Leave Brooklyn: The Autobiography of Emanuel Celler, John Day Co., New York.

Australian Centre for Functional Nanomaterials, ARC Centres of Excellence [Online], Available: [2005, Sep 16].

Jane Goodall is Associate Professor in the School of Humanities at the University of Western Sydney. Her research interests include cultural history and the history of science. Her most recent novel is The Visitor (2005, Hodder).