Are you having fun today?

Lorraine Daston

  • The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity: A Study in Sociological Semantics and the Sociology of Science by Robert Merton and Elinor Barber
    Princeton, 313 pp, £18.95, February 2004, ISBN 0 691 11754 3

On 28 January 1754, Horace Walpole coined a pretty bauble of a word in a letter to Horace Mann, apropos of a happy discovery made while browsing in an old book of Venetian heraldry: Mann had just sent him the Vasari portrait of the Grand Duchess Bianca Capello, and Walpole stumbled on the Capello coat of arms. He thought this accident to be no accident, but rather a special talent of his, ‘by which I find everything I want, à point nommé, wherever I dip for it. 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.’ Walpole had read The Travels and Adventures of Three Princes of Sarendip, a 1557 Italian romance (itself purporting to be a translation from the Persian) that had made it into English via a French translation (pilfered by Voltaire for Zadig) by 1722. The mellifluous ‘Sarendip’ or ‘Serendib’ preceded ‘Ceylon’, which in turn preceded ‘Sri Lanka’, as the ancient name of the South Asian island, redolent for European readers of the exotic Orient. The three princes travel, Rasselas fashion, in search of the wisdom that only experience can provide, having completed an excellent education of the more bookish sort at home. They astonish their hosts along the way with Sherlock-Holmes-like inferences from sharply observed particulars strewn in their path; Walpole’s homegrown example for this sort of ‘accidental sagacity’ was ‘of my Lord Shaftesbury, 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’.

Walpole’s new word did not exactly catch on, or at least not for a good two centuries. His letters to Mann were first published in 1833, and a few antiquarians and literati piqued themselves on knowing the linguistic rarity in the latter half of the century; it first made it into a dictionary in 1909 (and into the OED in the 1912-13 edition). Until the 1950s, it had appeared in print probably only twenty times, and each occurrence was accompanied by a definition that often stretched all the way back to the Walpole citation. Thereafter, however, the popularity of ‘serendipity’ grew steadily, even exponentially. Quite exceptionally for the diffusion of a new word, especially in a language as fertile in novelties as English, it is possible to track who used the word in which context and how these strategic usages generated a kind of linguistic contagion, localised to certain professions and circumstances. One such vector, to continue the epidemiological metaphor, was the Harvard physiologist Walter Cannon, who entitled a chapter of The Way of an Investigator (1945) ‘Gains from Serendipity’; another was the Columbia sociologist of science Robert Merton, who in a 1946 article described the ‘serendipity pattern’ in sociological research. For the next decade or so, ‘serendipity’ (which by then had narrowed its meaning to a pleasing and unexpected discovery made while looking for something else) first spread selectively, among alumni of Harvard Medical School, Columbia-trained sociologists, and research scientists, and then to English-speakers at large. Google ‘serendipity’ and you will be flooded with entries (more than 800,000 of them), many apparently linked more to the music of the word than to its meaning.

Merton (who was himself a gifted minter of new words and phrases, including ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ and ‘focus group’), and Elinor Barber, a historian, set out to chart the picaresque career of ‘serendipity’ in the 1950s, when the word had crossed over from the realm of literary arcana to that of scientific buzzwords, but had not yet begun its steep ascent towards word-of-the-week fame. The perfect moment to publish a monograph that wore its learning lightly, or so one might think. For reasons never completely explained, either in James Shulman’s graceful introduction or in Merton’s gallant afterword, written at 91 after four operations for cancer and with a fifth impending, the manuscript was shelved at Merton’s behest (he mentions Barber’s gracious indulgence on this score) and left untouched for decades. Shulman suggests that in retrospect the manuscript looks like a kind of dress rehearsal for a book Merton did publish, the erudite and elegant On the Shoulders of Giants: A Shandean Postscript (1965), which followed the zigzag fortunes of a quotation made famous by Isaac Newton (‘If I have seen further, it is by standing on ye shoulders of Giants’). This may well be true, but it hardly explains Merton’s reluctance to publish an earlier manuscript in the same vein. In 2002, the unrevised manuscript finally made it into print, but in an Italian translation; the English original appeared only in 2004, posthumously for both authors.

At some point, Merton began to think of the manuscript as a ‘time capsule’, which editing and updating could only corrupt. This is regrettable, at least in its effect on readability. The same quotations appear over and over again; there is considerable repetition in the analysis; patches of rough writing have not been planed and polished. Although the respective contributions of the co-authors are nowhere identified, the later, sociological chapters bear Merton’s clear signature. If I had to guess, I would assign at least the first two chapters, on the origins and early diffusion of the word in the 18th and 19th centuries, to Barber; like her The Bourgeoisie in 18th-Century France (1955), these chapters on the sine curve of Walpole’s literary reception exhibit a silver ear for literary and cultural nuance. The book as a whole exudes an antique odour, sometimes of lavender, sometimes of musty camphor.

Much of it follows the twists and turns in the definition as well as the dissemination of ‘serendipity’. Its meaning was never stable, though dictionary entries did help fix it by the early 20th century, if only by the usual parroting of one dictionary by another. Before then, the meaning meandered, though always within the broad river-bed of empiricism. The elements of agreeable surprise and accident clung to Walpole’s word, but the sagacity that had been uppermost in the tale of the three wandering princes and in Walpole’s own example about Lord Shaftesbury’s shrewd social deduction faded and ultimately vanished. By the time Poe and Conan Doyle were writing about lynx-eyed detectives and their lightning deductions, it would have been Pickwickian and perhaps insulting to describe the feats of Dupin and Holmes as ‘serendipitous’.

Yet the luck of serendipity was never completely blind. First, the beneficiary had to be in search of something, all faculties and senses bent to the quest. Second, the alertness that predisposed the seeker to serendipity was usually directed towards details and particulars, rather than generalisations. The attention is that of the hunter, on the qui vive for the slightest trace – a broken branch, a paw print, a rustle of leaves – that the quarry has passed this way. Carlo Ginzburg has argued that it is this faculty of noting and adding up clues that links the perspicacity of Holmes untangling the secret of the Red-Headed League, Morelli scrutinising a possible art forgery and Freud penetrating the psychoanalytic significance of jokes. Finally and crucially, the hunter must know what to make of the clues, immediately recognising their import even though they don’t bear on the original object of the search. Pasteur’s dictum that ‘chance favours the prepared mind,’ quoted ad nauseam by scientists worried that their discoveries might be set down to sheer dumb luck, does not really capture the essence of serendipity. The mind of the discoverer must be not just prepared: it must be broadly enough prepared to register a clue to the solution of a completely different problem. Serendipity calls for a paradoxical combination of focused attention and peripheral intellectual vision. There is no serendipity without a flash of insight from left field, an oblique eureka effect.

It was both the defensiveness of the scientists – avid for new discoveries yet embarrassed to be classed with gamblers as devotees of chance – and the lack of intention that caught Merton’s eye. He had begun his career as a sociologist of science with a dissertation on the role of Puritanism in the rise of the new experimental science in 17th-century England. Although nothing in Puritan doctrine directed the faithful to observe and experiment, Merton argued that the exhortation to glorify God through the study of his works and a charitable concern for material welfare in this world encouraged Puritans to participate disproportionately in Baconian natural philosophy, with its empirical, practical bent. The Merton thesis, as it came to be called, remains controversial among historians and sociologists of science, but explanations based on the long-term unintended consequences of human actions form the backbone of the modern social sciences. Adam Smith’s invisible hand, Hegel’s List der Vernunft and Weber’s spirit of capitalism were all sterling examples of how conduct inspired by one set of motives (e.g. the vanity that impels the feudal robber baron to squander his fortune on diamond buckles, or the anxiety that leads the pious Calvinist to work hard and accumulate wealth in order to reassure himself that he is among God’s elect) produces an unforeseen and entirely different outcome (the warlords are pacified because they can no longer afford private armies; the Calvinists become successful capitalists in spite of themselves). For the most part, these ingenious accounts of deflected intentionality ended with the same kinds of fruitful surprise as serendipity did. Of course, no one really intended to invent modernity, least of all those rampaging feudal lords, ascetic Calvinists and God-fearing Puritans; and yet, voilà: the demise of feudalism, the triumph of capitalism, the emergence of modern science. No wonder serendipity, always pulling rabbits out of the most unlikely hats, beckoned to Merton.

Like Weber in Wissenschaft als Beruf, Merton cultivated a lifelong interest in the ethos of science. What were the distinctive values that scientists must internalise in order to make their collective undertaking possible? Merton’s own rather idealistic answers to this question, formulated in the 1940s and 1950s, came to seem increasingly implausible in the light of subsequent detailed historical and sociological studies of how scientists actually behaved, and tell-all exposés by scientists themselves – The Double Helix is one example. Still, his question persists: no community of practitioners can cohere without shared norms by which to judge good and bad practice and to apportion praise and blame accordingly. Merton thought serendipitous discoveries posed an uncomfortable conundrum for scientists seeking to assign (and collect) credit where it was due. On the one hand, the official empiricist methodology of science in vogue during the middle decades of the 20th century decreed that science progressed through discoveries; splashy discoveries in lab and field therefore ought to net fame and fortune for the discoverer. This was also the ideology enshrined in Alfred Nobel’s 1895 testament: prizes in physics were to be awarded for ‘the most important discovery or invention’, not for theoretical advances. Einstein officially won the 1921 prize ‘for his services to Theoretical Physics, and especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect’, a wording calculated to get around Nobel’s empiricist bequest. On the other hand, discoveries, especially those made by serendipity, depend partly on luck, and scientists schooled in probability theory are loathe to ascribe personal merit to the merely lucky.

This tension resulted in beaverish efforts by scientists to domesticate serendipity. (The historians and literary scholars who struck serendipitous gold in the archives did not seem so eager to make a science out of their good fortune, and Walpole himself would no doubt have found the notion risible.) Happy-go-lucky serendipity was to be redeemed by hard work and corporate organisation. General Electric, Merck and Standard Oil were among the big companies with research divisions that pounced on serendipity, word and thing, and tried to institutionalise it. Willis Whitney, director of General Electric’s research laboratory, introduced the word into GE parlance and tried to promote the thing by daily asking every scientist in his charge: ‘Are you having fun today?’ Although Merton took a wry view of these earnest attempts to manage and predict the by definition unmanageable and unpredictable, he did come to believe that certain milieux were more welcoming to serendipity than others (‘serendipitous sociocognitive microenvironments’, he called them). His own examples were the Harvard Society of Fellows, founded in 1933 to offer the best young scholars and scientists three-year fellowships to pursue whatever research they pleased, unfettered by the specialist expectations of their home disciplines, and the Stanford Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, which Merton helped conceive and which aimed, in his words, to ‘provide opportunity for sustained sociocognitive interaction between talents in different social science disciplines and subdisciplines that would prove to be symbiotic’. The recipe for planned serendipity was: allow very smart people from diverse disciplines maximum freedom to research whatever they like, on the sole condition that they fraternise with one another.

Today’s research landscape is oddly divided between institutions that rigorously regiment and specialise (university departments, grant agencies, the Research Assessment Exercises, corporate laboratories) and those (far fewer) that offer select scholars and scientists a delirious year off from these constraints with excellent research support, and with the proviso that they participate in obligatory communal lunches and colloquia with colleagues from other disciplines (the Stanford Center, the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin). Presumably, each institutional form is meant to counteract the excesses of the other: they function in tandem rather than in opposition. Neither waives the routines of academic evaluation. The passport to a year’s freedom at an institute for advanced study usually takes the form of at least three letters from specialist colleagues certifying that the candidate is indeed very clever. Both sorts of institution, even the studiously unregulated (except for those lunches) institutes for advanced study, are efforts to plan research, and both strive to produce concrete results, the showier the better. Grant agencies and evaluation committees may be more candid about expectations, but institutes for advanced study are equally keen that the casual conversations of political scientists and historians, biologists and poets, anthropologists and mathematicians, bear strange and wondrous fruit.

To my knowledge, no one has ever conducted a systematic study as to which sort of institution produces the best research (easy to imagine the squabbles over that perennial apple of academic discord, ‘best’). Institutes for advanced study proudly hold up this or that example of cross-fertilised brilliance that blossomed under their auspices (Merton’s favourite is the case of Thomas Kuhn, for whom the Harvard Society of Fellows and the Stanford Center provided the opportunity and the stimulation to write The Structure of Scientific Revolutions). But whether serendipity (or any other variety of successful research) flourishes better under conditions of nose-to-the-grindstone specialisation or free-range exploration and discussion remains an open question.

Unanimity reigns, however, as to which mode of research is the more pleasant, and this is not irrelevant to serendipity, whose surprises are always happy. For many centuries, curiosity was a forbidden pleasure (recall Eve and Pandora), but a pleasure nonetheless. It was precisely its aimless yet addictive quality that rendered curiositas suspect among medieval and Renaissance theologians; when Thomas Aquinas wrote of the scholarly virtues, he preferred sedentary studiositas, with its diligent Sitzfleisch associations, to roaming curiositas. Even after curiosity was redeemed as an intellectual virtue in the 17th and 18th centuries, its most enthusiastic proponents admitted that it was voracious; Hobbes called it ‘a Lust of the mind, that by a perseverance of delight in the continuall and indefatigable generation of Knowledge, exceedeth the short vehemence of any carnall Pleasure’. Like avarice, curiosity is dangerously insatiable; like lust, it is capricious and changeable in its objects. Like the scientific research it propels – and like fashion – it is hungry for novelties. Serendipity of Walpole’s sort is nourished by cavalier curiosity, and its distinctive pleasures, like those of curiosity, are those of the perpetual hunt. In hot pursuit of prey, the watchful hunter is diverted by the bigger prize spotted in the thicket. Observant of minute details, open to opportunity and distraction, and quick to put two and two together, the masters of serendipity are, like the princes of Sarendip, on the move, if only from one book to another.

Merton claimed that research errant, both its restlessness and its mistakes, was systematically suppressed in the modern standard scientific article (or SSA, as he abbreviated it), which resulted in obliterated scientific serendipities (OSS). The claim also applies to articles by humanists who do empirical research: historians regale their colleagues with tales of the archives in coffee breaks and memoirs, not in learned journals. Compared to the articles published in the earliest scientific journals of the 17th century, such as the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society or the Acta eruditorum, the latest issues of Science and Nature make for tame reading. Curious to know why a borrowed diamond glowed in the dark, Robert Boyle reported at some length in 1663 how he had gouged it, spat on it, immersed it in oil and finally nestled it ‘upon a warm part of my naked body’ in bed. By contrast, the raciest touch that Watson and Crick, self-styled Bad Boys of the Cavendish Laboratory, could manage in their fanfare 1953 Nature article on DNA was: ‘This structure has novel features which are of considerable biological interest.’ Boyle was for the most part a snore of a stylist, and Watson and Crick could be, in other contexts, irreverent and witty. But much more of the stumble-blunder rhythm and the ludic pleasures of research comes through in Boyle’s reports than in almost any modern scholarly or scientific article. Scientific memoirs – in which luck, competition and the headlong pursuit of the prize power the narrative – contain all these left-out elements to excess. But they are in their own way just as stylised and selective as the SSA.

What the standard scientific article and its complementary memoir have in common is drive. This is easier to spot in the streamlined efficiency of the article, where, ideally, all the data lead inexorably to the conclusion. There are no false starts, blind alleys or detours of any description. The chatty memoir may seem, in contrast, all anecdote and excursus, but the same locomotive propels the personalities and the plot. The drive to unravel the secret, to publish it first, even to have fun on the side, leaves no time for dawdling, browsing, puttering or any of the other activities linked to serendipity.

Walpole believed serendipity to be a peculiar talent of his. He was so lacking in drive that Victorian readers of his correspondence thought him frivolous and lazy. Hazlitt pronounced Walpole’s heart and mind as cluttered with curios as his house at Strawberry Hill; Macaulay was exasperated by his sloth and snobbery: ‘Serious business was a trifle to him, and trifles were his serious business.’ ‘Serious upon trifles’ is a reproach that has been hurled at naturalists and antiquarians fascinated by empirical minutiae since at least the 17th century. Leisured, rambling curiosity, indulged over decades, turned serendipity into a habit for Walpole. Despite Merton’s hopes for serendipitous ‘microenvironments’, there is hardly an extant institution of higher learning that would tolerate research as a lifelong random walk. Modern university research subscribes to the motto ‘survival of the driven’, and I have never met a relaxed fellow of an institute for advanced study. No sooner have they unpacked their computers than they are nervously counting the days remaining of their fellowship dispensation, like Cinderella watching the clock nearing midnight. You won’t catch any of them leaving manuscripts unpublished for years on end. The language of serendipity stresses instantaneity, the moment of revelation. Yet ‘moment’ may be the wrong unit of time to capture the pace and workings of serendipity. There is no straight line to serendipity, only a slow, erratic amble.