It may seem a little colloquial, but y’know, that’s adolescence for you.
Serendipity – a lovely, mysterious word.
How many of you know the name Albert Hoffman?
Well, he died, about two years ago. He was 102 years old and his claim to fame was that he was the first person to get high on LSD. While working as a research chemist in Switzerland he got some of the drug that that he had isolated from a fungus on his fingers and had to go home early after he started feeling very odd. This happened in 1932 and was the reason why some of your grandparents can’t remember what happened to them between 1965 and 1969.
In 1928, Sir Alexander Fleming, didn’t clean up bacterial culture dishes in his lab when he went on holiday and go a great surprise when a fungus grew on the plates and produced a substance which killed the bacteria. This substance was penicillin.
In Australia, a laboratory technician helped find the bug that causes stomach ulcers when he left quantities of stomach fluid on a growth plate in a heated cupboard for two days longer than asked, when he forgot to clean out the cupboard on a long weekend.
Isaac Newton is said to have thought about gravity when an apple fell on his head while sleeping under a tree…
All of these happy coincidences changed the life of many people. The nice name for these coincidences is ‘serendipity’. In the 18th century, an English writer called Horace Walpole wrote a letter referring to a story called the 3 princes of Serendip, where these princes from Sri Lanka kept finding things of interest that they weren’t looking for. Serendip is an old name for Sri Lanka.
The difference between serendipity and a simple coincidence is that someone is able to recognise the link between the two events. It is said that serendipitous events can only occur with the background of a prepared mind, and thus is very unlikely that, for example, a high school PE teacher could find the secret to the Israel-Palestine conflict, unless they had previously been in the diplomatic service. The French scientist Louis Pasteur is said to have written: “In the field of observation, chance favours only the prepared mind.” That’s a bit like how the Australian cricket team always seems to be able to escape after a batting collapse – they are prepared for anything.
One of way of looking at the difference between a coincidence and serendipity is as follows: It is a coincidence if your headmaster walks past you in the park, just as you light your first cigarette and at that exact moment a nude woman emerges from a bush and he doesn’t notice you coughing in a cloud of smoke. It is serendipity if your friend who has spent years trying to take a really good photograph is fiddling around with his camera and captures the headmaster/smoking/nude moment and wins a prestigious photography prize/internet fame.
The difference between serendipity and another lovely word called synchronicity is that synchronicity describes the kind of gee-whiz coincidence that occurs when two events occur in very close proximity to one another with a common linking factor that cannot be cause or effect. Like when Mr Butler phones to speak to you, just after you look at a Butler’s pizza ad on the back of a magazine.
There are so many examples of serendipitous discoveries in science, that some authorities think that serendipity is a normal part of scientific discovery. A guy called Percy Spencer was working with a device called a magnetron to produce radar detection equipment and noted that a chocolate bar in his pocket melted - the microwave oven was invented!
And as a final point for those of you who want to drive your parents mad – it is not serendipity if your dog eats your homework diary. It is bad luck. It is, however, serendipity if your friend’s dog vomits up pieces of his homework diary on your feet, and the first bit of paper you wipe off your shoes has the phone number of the really cute girl he won’t introduce you to.