Today I submit for your introspection a folk tale from Persia. A long time ago Three Young Princes of Serendip decided to go forth into the world in search of glory and Treasures to honour their father and gain his favour. They decided to not travel as High born princes but like everyman, so that no one would seek to curry favour with them or to give them any special privileges. They found that by travelling in this manner they found much hardship and human suffering along the way. But they also discovered, quite unexpectedly, great and wonderful good in the most unlikely of situations, places and people. Upon their return home after a number of years of travelling, and telling their father and his court of all they saw and experienced, they decided to commemorate the experience of finding valuable and agreeable things not specifically sought by creating a word.
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It is only recently that serendipity has acquired its rather grand and mysterious significance. And these new findings are often not the products of cold logic. Sometimes, great discoveries are made because of a serendipitous situation or observation. One excellent example of a serendipitous observation which led to a great discovery occurred in , when Alexander Fleming, suffering from a particularly juicy cold, happened to sneeze into a Petri dish full of bacteria.
He absent-mindedly placed the dish on his cluttered desk. Some days later, as he was straightening his desk, he noticed to his great surprise that the bacteria in the dish had been destroyed. Convinced that more potent agents might exist, Fleming began searching for other environmental antibacterials, eventually coming up in with penicillin, for which he won the Nobel Prize in He shared the prize with Florey and Chain, who made the mass administration of the drug to humans practical.
In his characteristic understated manner he was after all the son of a Scottish farmer , Fleming commented,. He was puzzled, since the only conceivable source of energy in the room was the tube, which was not emitting visible light. He termed the new radiation X-rays. Within a year after this discovery in , X-rays were being applied in diagnostic medicine. It was there that he acquired what would be a lifelong fascination with butterflies.
In fact, although he became a physician, he kept up his interest in inheritance of butterfly wing patterns, and made several original observations in this field. A friend of his suggested that he might also examine human blood groups from a genetic standpoint, and this serendipitous suggestion ultimately led Clarke to an understanding of blood group inheritance in humans, and to the development of an injectable antibody inhibitor Rhogam for Rh disease in newborns. More recently, the multi-billion dollar biotechnology industry in great measure found its origins in a spontaneous, serendipitous detour:.
Unfortunately, this would not be true. On his first visit to Yellowstone, Brock became intrigued with the multi-coloured algae mats in the hot springs, and on a whim, took some samples back to analyze in his laboratory.
In , Brock and Freeze reported the discovery of Thermus aquaticus ; this bacterium became one early source from which the heat-stable enzymes were purified - the key tools in recombinant DNA technologies. And the pharmaceutical industry has benefited many times from serendipitous observations.
Perhaps the best-known contemporary case is that of Viagra, which was originally tested as a treatment for angina. It was almost immediately found to be less effective than nitroglycerine for coronary artery dilatation, but then the patients in the first clinical trial reported an unusual, not at all undesirable and now well-known side effect. It is no wonder that the patients became depressed when the first clinical trials were brought to an end, and it was requested that the unused pills be returned to Pfizer.
The company noted that never had so many unused clinical trial pills been reported as lost, misplaced, or accidentally flushed down the toilet But sometimes the serendipitous insight eludes the original experimenter, and alights instead on the reader of the experimental report, or how embarrassing! The fascinating experiments with sponge cells performed by H. Wilson in the early part of the 20th century fall in this category, and in a stunning way. Wilson set out to create chimeric sponges by dissociating cells of three sponge species, and placing them in the same dish to coalesce as combinatorial new species.
To his extreme disappointment, the cells from each distinct species only sought each other out to aggregate with, and Wilson was unable to induce any chimeras to form. He wrote:. These experiments were based on the assumption that if the dissociated cells of a species will recombine to form a regenerative mass and eventually a new sponge, the dissociated cells of two different species may be made to combine and thus form a composite mass bearing potentially the two sets of species-characteristics It is the first cell region to receive impressions from the outside world; through its delicacy of adjustment and fineness of reaction, it constitutes the first link in the chain of cytoplasmic reactions and sets the path for the orderly succession of events comprising the course in the differentiation of development.
Just, The Biology of the Cell Surface. Competitors may be annoying recipients of the serendipitous insight. In , Santiago Ramon y Cajal visited Dr. Luis Simarro Lacabra, a psychiatrist friend of his who had a histological laboratory in his cellar medical students harken - his hobby was histology! Cajal had been formulating the principles of the neuron doctrine, an extension of the cell theory of Schleiden and Schwann, but had not as yet found a way to verify his hypothesis that each neuron was a self-contained entity.
All was sharp as a sketch with Chinese ink Golgi had had the data right in front of him, but was unable to interpret it correctly. The two shared the Nobel Prize in , were on the same stage in Stockholm, but never uttered a word to each other.
Serendipity still plays a major role in discovery and invention. It is the manifestation of inspiration, and of being in the right place at the right time.
To some, it has a certain magic about it that suggests predetermination or intervention by the supernatural, or as Shakespeare wrote:. In the end, though, probably the best way to sum up the phenomenon was most thoughtfully stated by Julius Comroe:. National Center for Biotechnology Information , U. Journal List Mcgill J Med v. Mcgill J Med. David R. Author information Copyright and License information Disclaimer.
The Three Princes of Serendip is the English version of the story Peregrinaggio di tre giovani figliuoli del re di Serendippo published by Michele Tramezzino in Venice in Tramezzino claimed to have heard the story from one Cristoforo Armeno , who had translated the Persian fairy tale into Italian, adapting Book One of Amir Khusrau 's Hasht-Bihisht  of The story first came to English via a French translation, and now exists in several out-of-print translations. The story has become known in the English-speaking world as the source of the word serendipity , coined by Horace Walpole because of his recollection of the part of the "silly fairy tale" in which the three princes by "accidents and sagacity" discern the nature of a lost camel. He had three sons who were very dear to him.
“The Three Princes of Serendip” Fairy Tale: The Origins of Serendipity
The tale that gave us the word serendipity , and possibly the classic detective story. Once upon a time, in the land of Serendip, there ruled a wise and powerful king, Giaffer. He had three sons whom he loved very much, and he wanted to leave them not only his kingdom, but all the knowledge and virtues that the rulers of a great kingdom should have. So he gathered great scholars from all over his realm, each with a different specialty, and set them as tutors to his sons. The king bade each tutor to instruct the princes so well that any expert who encountered them would immediately recognize who their teacher was. And so the tutors did.