The faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for.

Origin of the word “Serendipity“

In 1754, Henry Walpole created the word serendipity from an old name for Sri Lanka (Ceylon) – Serendip. He explained that this name was part of the title of a “silly fairy tale” called “The Three Princes of Serendip”.

As their highnesses traveled, they shrewdly or accidently made unexpected discoveries. For example, one of them inferred that a mule blinded in its right eye had recently travelled the road they took because the grass was eaten only on the left side and it was shorter than that on the right.

Scientific serendipity can be illustrated in the legend of Archimedes who allegedly discovered the principle of buoyancy while taking a bath. Archimedes realized that his body gradually decreased in weight as he got into his filled bathtub. At the same time, a volume of water of similar weight spilled from the tub. He excitedly jumped out of the bath and ran naked into the streets yelling “Eureka!” (I found it). What he found was a method of comparing the density of real gold with the “gold” crown given to the king and suspected to be a fake.

Not only have some of the greatest scientific discoveries had serendipitous roots, many minor (but very profitable) technological contributions also fall within that category. Take the adhesive used in those very popular self-sticking “Post it” notes as an example. The glue was found unacceptable by the discoverers. It was a lousy glue. A keen reevaluation of the concept removed it from the failures drawer when the product was optimized by changing the mission to producing a note that would be easily removed from where it was posted.

Many of the innovations of the “Age of Technology” result not from focused experimentation but from playing around with natural phenomena then attempting to take advantage of the observed characteristics.