AskDefine | Define serendipity

Dictionary Definition

serendipity n : good luck in making unexpected and fortunate discoveries

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. Coined by Horace Walpole, 1754. Serendip is an old etyl fa name for Sri Lanka.
  • 1754 Horace Walpole, The Project Gutenberg Etext of The Letters of Horace Walpole, vol. 2, Letter 90, To Sir Horace Mann, Arlington Street, Jan. 28, 1754.
This discovery, indeed, is almost of that kind which I call Serendipity, a very expressive word, which, as I have nothing better to tell you, I shall endeavour to explain to you: you will understand it better by the derivation than by the definition. I once read a silly fairy tale, called "w 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: for instance, one of them discovered that a mule blind of the right eye had travelled the same road lately, because the grass was eaten only on the left side, where it was worse than on the right--now do you understand Serendipity? 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 Shaftsbury, 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.


  • a UK /ˌsɛ.rɛn.ˈdɪp.ə.ti/ /%sE.rEn."dIp.@.ti/
  • a US /ˌsæ.rən.ˈdɪ.pə.ti/ /%s

Extensive Definition

Serendipity is the effect by which one accidentally discovers something fortunate, especially while looking for something else entirely. The word has been voted as one of the ten English words that were hardest to translate in June 2004 by a British translation company. However, due to its sociological use, the word has been imported into many other languages (Portuguese serendipicidade or serendipidade; French sérendipicité or sérendipité but also heureux hasard, "fortunate chance"; Spanish serendipia; Italian serendipità; Dutch serendipiteit; German Serendipität; Swedish, Danish and Norwegian serendipitet; Romanian serendipitate).


The word derives from Serendip, the old Persian name for Sri Lanka, and was coined by Horace Walpole on 28 January 1754 in a letter he wrote to his friend Horace Mann (not the same man as the famed American educator), an Englishman then living in Florence. The letter read,
"It was once when I 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: for instance, one of them discovered that a camel blind of the right eye had travelled the same road lately, because the grass was eaten only on the left side, where it was worse than on the right—now do you understand serendipity? 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 Shaftsbury, 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."

The role of serendipity in science and technology

One aspect of Walpole's original definition of serendipity that is often missed in modern discussions of the word is the "sagacity" of being able to link together apparently innocuous facts to come to a valuable conclusion. Thus, while some scientists and inventors are reluctant about reporting accidental discoveries, others openly admit its role; in fact serendipity is a major component of scientific discoveries and inventions. According to M.K. Stoskopf "it should be recognized that serendipitous discoveries are of significant value in the advancement of science and often present the foundation for important intellectual leaps of understanding".
The amount of contribution of serendipitous discoveries varies extensively among the several scientific disciplines. Pharmacology and chemistry are probably the fields where serendipity is more common.
Most authors who have studied scientific serendipity both in a historical, as well as in an epistemological point of view, agree that a prepared and open mind is required on the part of the scientist or inventor to detect the importance of information revealed accidentally. This is the reason why most of the related accidental discoveries occur in the field of specialization of the scientist. About this, Albert Hofmann, the Swiss chemist who discovered LSD properties by intentionally ingesting it at his lab, wrote:
"It is true that my discovery of LSD was a chance discovery, but it was the outcome of planned experiments and these experiments took place in the framework of systematic pharmaceutical, chemical research. It could better be described as serendipity."
The French scientist Louis Pasteur also famously said: "In the fields of observation chance favors only the prepared mind." This is often rendered as "Chance favors the prepared mind."
History, of course, does not record accidental exposures of information which could have resulted in a new discovery, and we are justified in suspecting that they are many. There are several examples of this, however, and prejudice of preformed concepts are probably the largest obstacle. See for example for a case where this happened (the rejection of an accidental discovery in the field of self-stimulation of the brain in humans).

Examples of serendipity in science and technology



Medicine and Biology

Physics and Astronomy


  • Discovery of the principle behind inkjet printers by a Canon engineer. After putting his hot soldering iron by accident on his pen, ink was ejected from the pen's point a few moments later.
  • Vulcanization of rubber, by Charles Goodyear. He accidentally left a piece of rubber mixture with sulfur on a hot plate, and produced vulcanized rubber
  • Safety glass, by French scientist Edouard Benedictus. In 1903 he accidentally knocked a glass flask to the floor and observed that the broken pieces were held together by a liquid plastic that had evaporated and formed a thin film inside the flask.
  • Corn flakes and wheat flakes (Wheaties) were accidentally discovered by the Kelloggs brothers in 1898, when they left cooked wheat untended for a day and tried to roll the mass, obtaining a flaky material instead of a sheet.
  • The microwave oven was invented by Percy Spencer while testing a magnetron for radar sets at Raytheon, he noticed that a peanut candy bar in his pocket had melted when exposed to radar waves.
  • Pyroceramic (used to make Corningware, among other things) was invented by S. Donald Stookey, a chemist working for the Corning company, who noticed crystallization in an improperly cooled batch of tinted glass.
  • The Slinky was invented by US Navy engineer Richard James after he accidentally knocked a torsion spring off his work table and observed its unique motion.

Serendipitous ideas

Some ideas and concepts that came to scientists through accidents or even dreams are also considered a kind of serendipity. Some examples (coincidentally all are regarded with suspicion by science historians):

Other examples of serendipity

Stories of accidental discovery in exploration abound, of course, because the aim of exploration is to find new things and places. The principle of serendipity applies here, however, when the explorer had an aim in mind and found another unexpectedly. Some classical cases were discoveries of the Americas by explorers with other aims. The first European to set foot on North America was Leif Ericsson, who was trying to escape from a storm. The Americas were also accidentally re-discovered (see Leif Ericsson) by Christopher Columbus, who was actually looking for a new way to India. South-America was also discovered by accident, first by Spaniard Vicente Pinzon, who was only exploring the West Indies previously discovered by him and Columbus, and stumbled upon the Northeast of Brazil, in the region now known as Cabo de Santo Agostinho, in the state of Pernambuco. He also discovered the Amazon and Oiapoque rivers; and Pedro Álvares Cabral, a Portuguese admiral, who was sailing with his fleet to India via the South African route discovered by Vasco da Gama and was deviated to the coast of Brazil.

Uses of serendipity

Serendipity is used as a sociological method in Anselm L. Strauss' and Barney G. Glaser's Grounded Theory, building on ideas by sociologist Robert K. Merton, who in Social Theory and Social Structure (1949) referred to the "serendipity pattern" as the fairly common experience of observing an unanticipated, anomalous and strategic datum which becomes the occasion for developing a new theory or for extending an existing theory. Robert K. Merton also coauthored (with Elinor Barber) The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), which traces the origins and uses of the word "serendipity" since it was coined. The book is "a study in sociological semantics and the sociology of science", as the subtitle of the book declares. It further develops the idea of serendipity as scientific "method" (as juxtaposed with purposeful discovery by experiment or retrospective prophecy).

The exact meaning of serendipity

There are three interrelated debates regarding the meaning of the word serendipity:
  • The first debate: are the events referred to by Walpole in his letter to Mann, good examples of serendipity, as defined by Walpole? Expanding on this debate, are any of the adventures of the Three Princes, good examples of Walpole's definition of serendipity?
  • The second debate: if the examples of serendipity cited by Walpole are not good examples of serendipity, what should determine the meaning of the word serendipity, Walpole's precise definition, or a definition derived from the adventures of the Three Princes?
  • The third debate: given the range of current definitions for the word serendipity, from Walpole's precise or strict definition to extremely loose definitions, what events should be cited as actual occurrences of serendipity?

Quotations on serendipity

  • "In the field of observation, chance favours only the prepared mind." Louis Pasteur
  • "I find that a great part of the information I have was acquired by looking up something and finding something else on the way." (Franklin P. Adams, 1881-1960)
  • "Serendipity. Look for something, find something else, and realize that what you've found is more suited to your needs than what you thought you were looking for." Lawrence Block
  • "The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka!', but 'That's funny …'" Isaac Asimov
  • "In reality, serendipity accounts for one percent of the blessings we receive in life, work and love. The other 99 percent is due to our efforts." Peter McWilliams
  • "Serendipity is looking in a haystack for a needle and discovering a farmer's daughter." Pek van Andel
  • "Serendipity is putting a quarter in the gumball machine and having three pieces come rattling out instead of one—all red." Peter H. Reynolds
  • "--- you don't reach Serendib by plotting a course for it. You have to set out in good faith for elsewhere and lose your bearings ... serendipitously." John Barth, The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor
  • "Serendipity is the art of making an unsought finding." Pek van Andel (1994)
  • "Serendipity is the title of a romantic film: Serendipity (film) (2001)
  • "Serendipity is the faculty of finding things we did not know you were looking for." Glauco Ortolano (2008)

Related terms

William Boyd coined the term zemblanity to mean somewhat the opposite of serendipity: "making unhappy, unlucky and expected discoveries occurring by design". It derives from Novaya Zemlya (or Nova Zembla), a cold, barren land with many features opposite to the lush Sri Lanka (Serendip). On this island Willem Barents and his crew were stranded while searching for a new route to the east.
Bahramdipity is derived directly from Bahram Gur as characterized in the "Three Princes of Serendip". It describes the suppression of serendipitous discoveries or research results by powerful individuals.


  • 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. University of Oklahoma Press, 1965. LCC 65-10112
  • Robert K. Merton, Elinor Barber: The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity: A Study in Sociological Semantics and the Sociology of Science. Princeton University Press, 2004. ISBN 0-691-11754-3. (Manuscript written 1958).
  • Patrick J. Hannan: Serendipity, Luck and Wisdom in Research. iUniverse, 2006. ISBN 0-595-36551-5
  • Royston M. Roberts: Serendipity: Accidental Discoveries in Science. Wiley, 1989. ISBN 0-471-60203-5
  • Pek Van Andel: "Anatomy of the unsought finding : serendipity: origin, history, domains, traditions, appearances, patterns and programmability." British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 1994, 45(2), 631-648.


  • "The view from Serendip", by Arthur C. Clarke, Random House, 1977.

See also

External links

serendipity in Catalan: Serendípia
serendipity in Danish: Serendipitet
serendipity in German: Serendipity
serendipity in Spanish: Serendipia
serendipity in Esperanto: Serendipo
serendipity in French: Sérendipité
serendipity in Korean: 세렌디피티
serendipity in Italian: Serendipità
serendipity in Dutch: Serendipiteit
serendipity in Japanese: セレンディピティ
serendipity in Polish: Serendypność
serendipity in Portuguese: Serendipidade
serendipity in Russian: Серендипити
serendipity in Swedish: Serendipitet

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

accidentality, actuarial calculation, adventitiousness, break, bringing to light, casual discovery, casualness, catching, chance, chance discovery, destiny, detection, determination, determining, disclosure, discovery, distinguishment, espial, excavation, exhumation, exposure, fate, find, finding, finding out, flukiness, fortuitousness, fortuity, fortune, gamble, good fortune, good luck, hap, happenstance, happy chance, heedless hap, how they fall, indeterminacy, indeterminateness, invention, law of averages, locating, location, lot, luck, lucky strike, moira, opportunity, principle of indeterminacy, probability, problematicness, random sample, recognition, rediscovery, revelation, risk, run of luck, spotting, statistical probability, strike, the breaks, theory of probability, treasure trove, trouvaille, trove, uncertainty, uncertainty principle, uncovering, unearthing, whatever comes
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