Serendipity is the act of discovering something quite unexpected and it has an unusual role in science.
Perhaps the best example of Serendipity is the discovery of Penicillin, which resulted from a mistake that most people would have simply thrown in the bid. Little did Alexander Fleming realise that, when he accidentally left the lid off a petri dish with Staphylococcus in it, he was about to stumble upon antibiotics. He returned to his lab to find some mould had got into his experimental dish and killed the bacteria, the mould was Penicillin and it has saved hundreds of millions of lives since then.
And there are numerous other examples of serendipity in science, like Percy Spencer walking past a radar tube and noticing that the chocolate bar in his pocket had melted. Rather than throwing the candy bar mindlessly in the rubbish, Percy realised the potential and the microwave oven was born.
Recently, here in Australia, there has been a fascinating serendipitous discovery. A team of scientists working in the rainforests of Northern Queensland observed that various marsupials would eat the flesh of fruit from the blushwood tree and then bury the seed. The scientists, intrigued by this behaviour, wondered what the plant did that could cause these animals to, essentially, bury seeds on its behalf. They found the seed was incredibly bitter. Remarkably, close examination found a compound in the seed that activates the body’s own immune system to attack cancerous tumours. So far, trials on animals have shown astonishing results. Who would have thought that such a remarkable discovery could come from so simple an observation?
It’s tempting to thing that serendipitous discoveries are quite obvious and no big deal, but that’s only because they appear obvious after the fact. It’s a bit like knowing a magic trick, it all seems so obvious once the mystery is removed. But how many people have pulled numerous annoying little seed pods from their socks or their pets fur without thinking velcro?
Serendipity brings up an interesting point about science and that is that we should not limit the range of discoveries possible. Remedies for cancer, as an example, could come from an entirely different, unrelated field. The key point is that research is the essential ingredient. Cut back on science spending and you’re cutting off innovation.
Even with all its challenges, the Hubble Space Telescope has exceeded everyone’s expectations, revealing the depth of the universe in astounding detail. The deep field view revealed thousands of galaxies stretching back billions of light years in a patch of sky the size of a pen nib held at arm’s length. Overnight, our appreciation of the universe was transformed by one, simple, serendipitous observation.
When it comes to scientific research like SETI there is a temptation to see the effort as a frivolous exercise, wasting time and money chasing after shadows, but these concerns ignore (a) the transformational implications of discovering intelligent extraterrestrial life and (b) any unanticipated serendipitous spin-offs from this research.
Science begats science.
The quest for scientific knowledge, from the efforts of Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Darwin and Einstein, etc, has radically transformed our world for the better. Perhaps the greatest serendipitous benefit of the scientific revolution has not been in science or technology, but rather in the social re-engineering that has propelled the western world ahead for the past five hundred years. Science, inadvertently, has been the catalyst for all the great social revolutions, from the Renaissance through to the Enlightenment and the emergence of today’s Global Village.
Serendipity will continue to enhance and enrich our lives into the future.