Serendipity – Concept, origin, uses and historical examples

We explain what a serendipity is, the origin of the term and its current use. Also, examples of serendipity in history and science.

Alexander-Fleming serendipity
A serendipity is a valuable but unexpected finding, like the discovery of penicillin.

What is a serendipity?

It is known as serendipity to a fortuitous, that is, accidental find or discovery, unforeseen, which is due to chance and not to what was originally planned, but which in itself is valuable, sometimes more than what one really intended.

The history of humanity is full of cases of serendipity, especially in the scientific field, although they are also considered the literary works that they imagine at the time, and with a significant degree of accuracy, realities that will later be scientifically demonstrated.

The word serendipity is a loan from the English language, in which it is said serendipity, and in turn comes from Farsi Serendip, which is the name that the Persians used to give to the island of Ceylon, in Sri Lanka.

That term was coined as a neologism in the English language in 1754, by the British politician and writer Horace Walpole (1717-1797), taking it from a traditional Persian story in which the princes of Serendip came by chance and at random to seek the solution of their most varied problems.

This account was first published in the West in the 1302 book of poems, Hasht Bihisht (Eight paradises), by the Sufi poet and musician Jursan Amir (1253-1325), and brought into English through a Venetian book of 1557, Peregrinaggio di tre giovani figliuoli del re di Serendippo (“Pilgrimage of three young sons of the King of Serendip”), translated by Cristoforo Armeno.

It is a term little used in common language, which was put back into circulation in recent times, thanks to different literary and cinematographic works, as well as the interest in this type of phenomena that self-help and other aspects of New Age thought have shown. .

In them, serendipity is usually interpreted as the ability of the individual to recognize the crucial but accidental findings or learning that we are given in life, despite the fact that these differ from what was initially expected.

Examples of serendipity

Some famous examples of discovery by serendipity are as follows:

  • It is said that the Greek philosopher and mathematician ArchimedesIn ancient times, he was forced by the tyrant of Syracuse, Hiero II, to determine the portion of pure gold that was in his crown, suspecting that the goldsmith had used silver. Since he could not damage or melt the crown, Archimedes was about to give up, and he went to take a plunge bath: in the bathtub he noticed that the water level rose as he entered it, in a proportional way to the volume of the water. body introduced into it, and thus discovered the so-called “Archimedean Principle.”
  • Columbus’s arrival on the American shores in 1492 was an accident happy, since the Genoese navigator set out to reach India, and instead discovered an entire continent for the Spanish crown.
  • The pigment called Prussian Blue It was accidentally discovered in 1704, when Swiss paint manufacturer and inventor Heinrich Diesbach was trying to achieve a bluish-red color. It didn’t achieve its original purpose, but it did achieve a new shade of blue that has been widely used ever since.
  • Another example was the accidental discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming in 1922, which was the result of accidental contamination of a bacterial plate with a fungus. Fleming noted that the fungus was capable of secreting a bactericidal substance, since the bacteria grew everywhere except around it. He then proceeded to isolate the substance and came up with the first antibiotic in history, which would forever change the course of modern medicine.
  • The discovery of Teflon in 1938 by dr. Roy J. Plunkett It was also an accidental finding, as the scientist was studying new cooling methods, and a failed experiment led to the appearance of this type of plastic, called polytetrafluoroethylene.