As happens to lucky individuals ;-), it only took a little while before my inquiry about serendipity began to yield results I was not actively looking for, like this fascinating Scientific American article, “The Role of Luck in Life Success is Far Greater Than We Realized.”
The article is full of questions and a few very useful charts, pointing to potentially quite practical applications, such as reasons for even-handed and diverse distributions of funds contributing to the overall good of societies over time. Happy alarm bells went off for me however, upon mention of a biochemist named Ohid Yaqub, who was recently awarded a grant of almost a million and a half dollars, to study serendipity’s role in science.
My earlier post mentioned serendipity as a serious inquiry in science for years, which had surprised me when I did my light research on the topic, but my main focus there had been the mere contemplation of serendipity in one’s personal life, and that as a worthwhile venture. Underneath my questions were considerations of the way writing often happens, with disparate strings resonating from the end of a story backwards, or the way, if you’ve ever worked on a free-form mosaic or painting, a clear and meaningful picture often emerges.
That this is a current serious scientific inquiry at such a high level, tickles me like crazy.
First, he defines serendipity in a way that goes beyond happy accidents, by classifying it into four basic types (O. Yaqub Res. Policy 47, 169–179; 2018). The first type is where research in one domain leads to a discovery in another — such as when 1943 investigations into the cause of a mustard-gas explosion led to the idea of using chemotherapy to treat cancer. Another is a completely open hunt that brings about a discovery, such as with Röntgen’s X-rays. Then there are the discoveries made when a sought-for solution is reached by an unexpected path, as with the accidental discovery of how to vulcanize rubber. And some discoveries find a solution to a problem that only later emerges: shatterproof glass for car windscreens was first observed in a dropped laboratory flask.
He has also identified a few ways these seem to come about (please refer to the article), an intriguing one of which of which is ‘controlled sloppiness’, which I hear as PLAY. To me, play seems our natural inclination as humans, chicken-and-egg with imagination and expansion. We play with ideas and conduct tests and experiments to find our way around all the time.
To go beyond the shore, one usually has to first see beyond the shore. Maybe lucky individuals are born with a wider range of reference points and ideas of options. Or maybe they experience lots of love and support, so life appears to have a very sturdy or bouncy net, which may give greater permission to leap.
Or, or perhaps also, everyone has some spots of luck in their life, some bright cards to play.