The Three Princes of Serendip or Valuing the Unintended Consequences of Our Actions

It is a charming story that Sir Horace Walpole recounted in a letter to Horace Mann of January 28, 1754, coining serendipity as he made a passing observation on a sociopolitical event of the day: “this discovery, indeed, is almost of that kind which I call Serendipity, a very expressive word.” He derived it from Serendip, an old name for Sri Lanka, where it was part of the title of a “silly fairy tale, called The Three Princes of Serendip; as their highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of … 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 Shaftesbury, 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.”

Now, this is not the kind of serendipity that interests me much, but it may have captured the imagination of the 4th Earl of Orford. Yet, the role of serendipity in all things human remains underrated to an almost shocking extent, and so I encountered with great interest the posthumous oeuvre of Robert King Merton & Elinor Barber, The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity: A Study in Sociological Semantics and the Sociology of Science (2004). It was penned by two great Columbians: while Barber gave early thought to scholarly diversity, Merton, a founding father of modern sociology, put sociology of science on the map, for which he received the National Medal of Science. My fascination with the topic, prodded along with a Times Higher Education review bringing up Helga Novotny’s memories of Sir Karl Popper Memorial Lecture at LSE in 2013, brought me to her The Cunning of Uncertainty (2015).  

Alexander Fleming was one of those who could not complain about disfavor by Lady Luck. In 1928, the Scottish bacteriologist noticed that his staphylococci cultures had been contaminated by fungal mold spores of the genus penicillium notatum that happened to kill the germs he had cultured to study causation of pneumonia. Fleming’s discovery was, of course, just one of several possible outcomes: the spores could not have entered or not have taken hold in his culture. He could have found a different method to attack bacterial germs. Or another scientist could have ventured across mold spores in due time.

Sir Isaac Newton saw an apple fall from a tree and started thinking about gravity, perhaps the single most serendipitous use of this fruit since Eve.

And serendipity’s cornucopia is not without conditions and demands: fortuitous accident serves us only if we recognize its significance – and here, Walpole made a major point: “for you must observe that no discovery of a thing you are looking for comes under this description,” and there are many who are all too obsessed with what they are looking for so they neglect solutions of equal or greater value outside their current focus. High-temperature superconductivity was discovered by a French team before Johannes Georg Bednorz and Karl Alexander M├╝ller did at IBM Labs and fetched the 1987 Nobel Prize in Physics – but they had failed to notice its significance.

In 1922, an unhealthy habit of inhaling strong cigar smoke enabled Otto Stern and Walter Gerlach to make quantum spin observable: as the German scientists channeled silver atoms through a magnetic field, the chain smokers continued to chuff cigars. Sulphur in cigar smoke reacted with the silver atoms, enabling them to make directional spin of particles visible for the first time.  Bretislav Friedrich and Dudley Herschbach, then at Harvard, proved in a 2003 paper “Stern and Gerlach: How a Bad Cigar Helped Reorient Atomic Physics.”

As foundational research is increasingly under pressure by governments and research funding to produce applied results, open innovation and distributed innovation are breaking new ground for serendipity that remains indispensable to pure science. 

But for almost any area of policy, even more essential than serendipity – if closely related to it conceptually (as outcomes not foreseen and intended by purposeful action, as, again, Merton described them) – are unintended consequences, a seriously neglected aspect in any area of research and development.  They include unexpected benefits, unexpected detriments (“blowbacks”), and what may be described as “perverse results,” virtuous as well as vicious circles of complex chains of events that reinforce themselves through feedback loops. I plan to write more here about these phenomena in the coming year, as part of a more generalized theory of rational choice, Black Swan events, diverse priorities, and the influence of probability and randomness on different branches of logic.