CTK Insights

08 Jun

Serendipity and Luck

English is not my mother tongue; much of it I learned from reading books and watching movies. When you are sufficiently advanced, the meaning of a new word often becomes clear from the context such that you can move on without recourse to a dictionary. I encountered the word "Serendipity" some time before watching the eponymous movie. If you ever read of the travels of the three princes of Serendip, it could not be very difficult to form a notion of what the word might stand for. The movie reinforced my understanding of the word. Serendipity - in my view - designates an occurrence of an apparently unanticipated event that came about while one was intensely looking for something else, perhaps as a side effect. I, therefore, was very much in agreement with a view expressed by Steven Strogatz in his book Sync:

Serendipity is not just an apparent aptitude for making fortunate discoveries accidentally, as my dictionary defines it.

It took me by surprise that dictionaries may promote such an inadequate meaning of the word. I checked my dictionaries and the ones available online. All of them define serendipity essentially as a human faculty of making fortunate discoveries by accident. (The Merriam-Webster admits also the second meaning as an instance of such a discovery. The online version is a blog where readers could add their views to form a sort of a thesaurus.)

Let me give a more complete quote from the Sync:

Some of the pivotal discoveries in the history of science were made by serendipity. Think of Alexander Fleming, who, as we all know, discovered penicillin when an airborne mold contaminated his experiment and killed the bacteria he was studying. Or take Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, scraping pigeon droppings off their giant radio antenna at Bell Laboratories, trying to eliminate the annoying background hiss that seemed to be coming from outer space in every direction, until they realized that they were hearing the birth cry of the universe, the l4-billion-year old echo of the big bang.

Although the role of serendipity is familiar, what's not so well appreciated is how different serendipity is from luck. Serendipity is not just an apparent aptitude for making fortunate discoveries accidentally, as my dictionary defines it. Serendipitous discoveries are always made by people in a particular frame of mind, people who are focused and alert because they're searching for something. They just happen to find something else.

So it was with the discovery of inanimate sync.

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