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Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Science and Serendipity Part 1: The Smallpox Vaccine | Robert Chapin, Think Science now

This article ends with a story about how a "delightful accident"--or serendipity--helped British scientist Edward Jenner discover a vaccine for smallpox back in the late 1700s.

But before telling that story, Chapin writes about his research into the topic of serendipity and, most importantly, how to "engineer the environment around me to be more accommodating of serendipity."

Chapin reports on a book he read on serendipity. In it, an "operating accident" might cause someone to find something they're not necessarily in search of OR finding something while you're searching hard for it.

In either case, Chapin writes that for serendipity to happen:
The two keys that emerged for me are 1) knowing an awful lot about your field and related endeavours, and 2) being in a position to create stuff. If you don’t know enough about the area, you won’t know when the mistake you’ve made yields something useful; you won’t be able to separate the good mistakes from the just wasteful ones.
Chapin offers a couple of relevant quotations (emphasis added).

Louis Pasteur:
In the fields of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind.
Paul Flory, Nobel laureate in chemistry:
Significant inventions are not mere accidents …. Happenstance usually plays a part, to be sure, but there is much more to invention that the popular notion of a bolt out of the blue. Knowledge in depth and in breadth are virtual prerequisites. Unless the mind is thoroughly charged beforehand, the proverbial spark of genius, if it should manifest itself, probably will find nothing to ignite.
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