Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Of Serendipity, Churchill, Fleming and Simon Singh

Sir Robert Walpole
The word "serendipity" was coined in 1754 by the politician and writer Sir Robert Walpole, who used it in a letter in which he recounted an accidental but fortunate discovery about an acquaintance:

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. I once read a silly fairy tale, called "The Three Princes of Serendip;" as their Highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of.  [1]

In his 2004 book Big Bang Simon Singh shows that the history of science and technology is littered with serendipity.  In 1948 George de Mestral went for a stroll in the Swiss countryside, found some prickly seeds on his trousers, noticed how their spiny hooks had got caught on the loops of the fabric and was inspired to invent Velcro.  In another example of sticky serendipity, Art Fry was trying to develop superglue when he accidentally concocted a glue that was ludicrously weak. A keen member of his local church choir, he coated slips of paper with his failed superglue and used them to mark pages in his hymnbook. So was the Post-it note born. For medical serendipity we can look to Viagra, initially developed as a treatment for heart problems. Researchers became suspicious that it might have a positive side-effect only when patients who had taken part in a clinical trial steadfastly refused to hand back their unused pills.

Just the kind of results that Walpole had in mind when he defined serendipity as arising from “accidents and sagacity.” Or in the words of Louis Pasteur, who himself (says Singh) benefited from serendipity, “Chance favours the prepared mind”.

It is said that Winston Churchill once observed:

Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing had happened. 

A detestable old Tory and oppressor of the working class he may have been; but to achieve all he did, and to come up with this quote into the bargain. Wow!

He meant that most of us would merely brush down our seed-covered trousers, pour our unsticky superglue down the sink, or abandon a failed medical trial.  [2]

Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin depended on a speck of penicillium mould floating in through the window, landing in a petri dish and killing off a bacterial culture.  Singh suggests it is highly likely that many microbiologists before Fleming had had their bacterial cultures contaminated by penicillium mould in like manner, but those others merely discarded their contaminated cultures and started a new batch.  Fleming was the one to see the opportunity to discover an antibiotic and save millions of lives. 

By the way there's an urban legend that Churchill’s father paid for Fleming’s education and that years later the debt was repaid when Churchill himself was saved by penicillin. Both of these are false, sad to relate.  But if you want to read the legend for yourself, it’s here.

Singh in April 2010 after winning his legal battle with the British Chiropractic Association,
which sued him for saying it 'happily promotes bogus treatments'.
Photograph: Fiona Hanson/PA
I highly recommend Simon Singh’s book. The excursion into serendipity comes on page 408 in the hardback edition and forms a prelude to several serendipitous discoveries in radio astronomy.

This is the same Simon Singh who lately became a science hero when he risked financial ruin in the interests of exposing false science and how the UK libel law works to protect rich companies against comments they don't want the public to hear. In 2010 Singh won his case which became a cause cel├Ębre. A petition gained over 20,000 signatures, including Nobel Prize winners, the Poet Laureate, and the Astronomer Royal, condemning the British libel laws and arguing that Singh had a right to express his opinion in print.

[1] Letter to Sir Horace Mann, Arlington Street, Jan. 28, 1754. One instance (rather thin, it sees to me) of the princes' serendipitous discoveries was that a mule blind of the right eye had travelled the same road lately, because the grass was eaten only on the left side, where it was worse than on the right. The serendipitous information Walpole himself obtained that night is exceptionally dull, and not worth repeating.

[2] Disappointingly, Churchill may not have said these exact words, and may not have had this meaning in mind. For a discussion if what he did say, see Quote Investigator. This note added subsequently (May 2012)