What Is Serendipity?

The word “serendipity” came into our language from a story by Sir Horace Walpole, who told of three princes of a mythical place called Serendip (or Serendib, an ancient name for Ceylon, now known as Sri Lanka). In the story, the princes were always having accidents, but the accidents always had a happy outcome. We now use serendipity to refer to discoveries made by accident. We are not sure why discoveries in astronomy, biology, chemistry, and physics are accompanied by this bit of luck, but it is almost always there.

Charles Darwin and the Theory of Evolution

One kind of luck or serendipity in science involves simply being the right person in the right place at the right time. A clear example of this is British naturalist Charles Darwin, who proposed the theory of evolution by means of natural selection. Darwin was a quiet individual, from a family of noted physicians. Charles did not want to be a physician or a minister, the respected professions of the day, so he studied natural history at Cambridge.

Somewhat as an afterthought, Darwin was invited to join the crew of the HMS Beagle on its second voyage, which set sail in 1831. Most people are not aware of the purpose of this voyage. A new clock had just been invented that would work aboard a ship. It had been installed on the Beagle, so for the first time it would be possible to know both the exact longitude and latitude of all the ports of call. Previous maps had just been good guesses.

Over the next five years, the Beagle circled the globe, giving Darwin the opportunity (when he wasn't seasick) to see a remarkable diversity of plant and animal life that only a few others had seen before. He was especially intrigued by the fact that on the Galápagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador, there were at least 14 different species of finches, none of which existed anywhere else on Earth. Darwin guessed that over a long period of time an original species of finch must have modified into new species. He had observed that each species ate different foods.

On his return, Darwin wrote a book about the voyage that became a bestseller and brought him some degree of fame. He began to think about the process of natural selection; that is, the way nature rewards those individuals of the species that are able to control the food supply by aggressiveness, size, ability to diversify the diet, or a host of other factors. He continued to collect examples of natural selection and began another book in 1844. In 1859, he published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. It is the most widely published science book in history, with editions in every major language.

We can see the importance of luck in Darwin's discovery. How many people could afford to give five years to an expedition just to see the world? Would another naturalist have seen what Darwin saw? Surely between 1831 and 1993 somebody would have found Darwin's finches, but on the voyage of the Beagle, as luck would have it, the time was right, the place was right, and the man was right. As a result, the world will never be the same.

Vocabulary

  • naturalist: A person who studies plants and animals.

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Activity

  1. What does the word “serendipity” mean?
  2. What was serendipitous about Darwin's discoveries on the Galápagos Islands?
  3. Why do you think that luck is sometimes involved in scientific discoveries? Write a paragraph explaining your opinion.