Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) supposedly started a riot when he discovered that, contrary to what the church taught and everyone believed, the earth revolves around the sun. The Copernican Revolution helped “science suddenly burst forth when a weakened Christianity could no longer prevent it.”1 This makes for a great story except for one niggling detail. It didn’t happen that way. Huh? Don’t worry. Stumbling over truth can be fun, Horace Walpole said—but only if you know what to do after losing your footing.
Sir Horace Walpole (1717-1797) was an English playwright who, in 1754, received a portrait of the second wife of Duke Francesco de Medici from his friend Horace Mann. In planning a frame for the portrait, Walpole accidentally stumbled upon an old Venetian coat of arms with a fleur-de-lis added to a blue ball denoting a forgotten alliance by marriage between two great Italian families, the Medicis and Capellos. This unexpected discovery moved Walpole to express his delight with a new word.
“This discovery, indeed, is almost of that kind which I call Serendipity.” From where did Walpole draw this word? “I once read 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 …”2 Walpole said a wealth of wisdom is available to those who are ready to see the unforeseen. Serendipity became the faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident.
This added a bit of lilt, or bounce, to the enterprise of learning. Yet sadly, serendipity is in shrinking supply today. Think about how we do research. I can remember trudging to the campus library and having to read an entire book to follow the argument and find the best quote. In so doing however I was occasionally accosted by an argument I didn’t necessarily agree with. Today you can skip the library and google a word or simply turn to Amazon.com’s “Search Inside the Book” to find a quote. But the satisfaction of finding “just what you’re looking for” hides from you the simple fact that you have not found anything you weren’t looking for, says Wheaton College professor Alan Jacobs.3
Serendipity’s sunset means fewer accidental stumbles over new ideas and higher rates of “availability bias.” In 2002 Daniel Kahneman and the late Amos Tversky were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their work on “availability bias.” This is the human tendency to judge the validity of an idea by how easily or naturally it fits with preconceived notions.4 Let’s say you imagine that all religions essentially say the same thing and it is intolerant to judge between them. Serendipity is willing to trip over new truths while availability bias will kick out anything disturbing. This would be a great loss, says Evan Williams.
Evan Williams is one of Silicon Valley’s most successful innovators. In the late 1990s his team set out to build a complex software tool to let people collaborate. The project flopped but the group accidentally stumbled on a product—a simple diary they used during development to keep in touch. The software tool was tossed but Williams morphed the diary into the first web service that let people create a blog in a few clicks (called Blogger). Google bought it in 2003.5 From this experience, Williams believes that genuinely new ideas are more often accidentally stumbled upon than sought out.
Michael Sveda and Roy Plunkett would agree. In 1937, while doing lab work for his doctorate at the University of Illinois, Sveda brushed his lips without having washed his hands and found that his fingers tasted sweet. He stumbled upon artificial sweeteners. As a researcher for DuPont in 1938, Dr. Roy Plunkett was looking to find a better refrigeration gas. He left a batch of gas in a container overnight, and on returning the next day, the gas had become a waxy solid. He stumbled upon Teflon. Serendipity.
After Blogger, Evan Williams launched a website called Twitter that experts initially rejected as hare-brained and frivolous. By 2007 it had become the third “next big thing” in Silicon Valley—after the iPhone and Facebook. Through these two experiences, Williams has serendipitously learned two more lessons: “that new ideas are by definition hard to explain to others, because words can express only what is already known.”6 Yes indeed. This is why Albert Einstein and C. S. Lewis painted pictures to express new ideas. Williams has also learned that “good ideas seem obvious in retrospect.”7 True again. So he’s developed Obvious, a website trying to make accidents a regular occurrence—like accidentally stumbling upon the myth of Copernicus.
Winston Churchill once observed that men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing ever happened. The most important step after stumbling is seeing whether you found anything you weren’t looking for. For example, most educated people of Copernicus’s time, including Roman Catholic prelates, said the earth was round. The Venerable Bede (ca. 673-735) taught that the world was round, as did Bishop Virgilius of Salzburg (ca. 720-784), Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), and Thomas Aquinas (ca. 1224-1274).8 If this trips you up, maybe you should put a little spring, or serendipity, in your step.
1 Rodney Stark, For The Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003), p. 135.
2 As given by W.S. Lewis, ed., Horace Walpole’s Correspondence, Yale edition, in the book by Theodore G. Remer, ed.: Serendipity and the Three Princes, from the Peregrinaggio of 1557, Edited, with an Introduction and Notes, by Theodore G. Remer, Preface by W.S. Lewis (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1965). LCC 65-10112
3 Alan Jacobs, “Serendipity: In Praise of Accidental Sagacity,” Books and Culture, April 2, 2007.
4 Holman Jenkins, Jr., “The Science of Gore’s Nobel,” The Wall Street Journal, December 5, 2007.
5 “Evan Williams: “The Accidental Innovator,” The Economist, December 2, 2007, p. 110.
6 Williams, “Accidental”
7 Williams, “Accidental”
8 Stark, p. 122.