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The Accidental Scientist

Steve Shapin

The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity: A Study in Sociological Semantics and the Sociology of Science. Robert K. Merton and Elinor Barber. xxviii + 313 pp. Princeton University Press, 2004. $29.95.

A paradox lies close to the heart of scientific discovery. If you know just what you are looking for, finding it can hardly count as a discovery, since it was fully anticipated. But if, on the other hand, you have no notion of what you are looking for, you cannot know when you have found it, and discovery, as such, is out of the question. In the philosophy of science, these extremes map onto the purist forms of deductivism and inductivism: In the former, the outcome is supposed to be logically contained in the premises you start with; in the latter, you are recommended to start with no expectations whatsoever and see what turns up.

As in so many things, the ideal position is widely supposed to reside somewhere in between these two impossible-to-realize extremes. You want to have a good enough idea of what you are looking for to be surprised when you find something else of value, and you want to be ignorant enough of your end point that you can entertain alternative outcomes. Scientific discovery should, therefore, have an accidental aspect, but not too much of one. Serendipity is a word that expresses a position something like that. It's a fascinating word, and the late Robert King Merton—"the father of the sociology of science"—liked it well enough to compose its biography, assisted by the French cultural historian Elinor Barber.

The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity opens with an account of the word's origin. Writing on January 28, 1754, to the British diplomat Sir Horace Mann, Horace Walpole—an antiquarian and son of Prime Minister Robert Walpole—boasted about a recent discovery he had made in an old book of Venetian arms:

This discovery I made by a talisman, . . . by which I find every thing I want, a pointe nommée [at the very moment], whenever I dip for it. This discovery, indeed, is almost of that kind which I call Serendipity.

As Walpole himself was the author of the term, he felt obliged to give Mann its derivation:

I once read a silly fairy tale, called The Three Princes of Serendip [the ancient name for Ceylon, or Sri Lanka]: as their Highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of: for instance, one of them discovered 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—now do you understand Serendipity?

The word did not appear in the published literature until the early 19th century and did not become well enough known to use without explanation until sometime in the first third of the 20th century. Antiquarians, following Walpole, found use for it, as they were always rummaging about for curiosities, and unexpected but pleasant surprises were not unknown to them. Some people just seemed to have a knack for that sort of thing, and serendipity was used to express that special capacity.

The other community that came to dwell on serendipity to say something important about their practice was that of scientists, and here usages cut to the heart of the matter and were often vigorously contested. Many scientists, including the Harvard physiologist Walter Cannon and, later, the British immunologist Peter Medawar, liked to emphasize how much of scientific discovery was unplanned and even accidental. One of Cannon's favorite examples of such serendipity is Luigi Galvani's observation of the twitching of dissected frogs' legs, hanging from a copper wire, when they accidentally touched an iron railing, leading to the discovery of "galvanism"; another is Hans Christian Ørsted's discovery of electromagnetism when he unintentionally brought a current-carrying wire parallel to a magnetic needle. Rhetoric about the sufficiency of rational method was so much hot air. Indeed, as Medawar insisted in The Art of the Soluble, "There is no such thing as The Scientific Method," no way at all of systematizing the process of discovery. Really important discoveries had a way of showing up when they had a mind to do so and not when you were looking for them. Maybe some scientists, like some book collectors, had a happy knack; maybe serendipity described the situation rather than a personal skill or capacity.

Yet what Cannon and Medawar took as a benign nose-thumbing at Dreams of Method, other scientists found incendiary. To say that science had a significant serendipitous aspect was taken by some as dangerous denigration. If scientific discovery were really accidental, then what was the special basis of expert authority?

In this connection, the aphorism of choice came from no less an authority on scientific discovery than Louis Pasteur: "Chance favors the prepared mind." Accidents may happen, and things may turn up unplanned and unforeseen, as one is looking for something else, but the ability to notice such events, to see their potential bearing and meaning, to exploit their occurrence and make constructive use of them—these are the results of systematic mental preparation. What seems like an accident is just another form of expertise. On closer inspection, it is insisted, accident dissolves into sagacity.

But the conjunction of chance and expertise was, indeed, part of Walpole's original definition: The three princes made their discoveries "by accidents and sagacity," and the example of the mule was one that Sherlock Holmes, or Umberto Eco's William of Baskerville, using what the philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce called "abductive inference," would have been proud of. Some scientists using the word meant to stress those accidents belonging to the situation; some treated serendipity as a personal capacity; many others exploited the ambiguity of the notion.

Here, as in so many instances, it was the very equivocality of the word that assisted its dispersal across the cultural landscape, just as one can use the word noble to describe a status by birth (whose members may behave ignobly) or a type of virtuous behavior (which may be manifested by those of ignoble birth). The trade-offs permitted by this ambiguity are useful: They allow all sorts of claims and contests, criticisms and celebrations. Lots of dictionaries got serendipity wrong too, if, indeed, one can say that dictionaries do get it wrong: Some forgot the "sagacity" bit; some subsumed the "accident" bit into something like "genius"; many, less materially, mangled the story about Walpole and his source.

The context in which scientific serendipity was most contested and had its greatest resonance was that connected with the idea of planned science. If you thought that scientific research could be confidently planned—as many Marxists, and some corporate capitalists and Pentagon functionaries, did—then you were making a massive bet against serendipity. If, on the other hand, you considered that efforts to organize, regiment and plan science were ill-advised, then you could recruit serendipity to your cause. The serendipitists were not all inhabitants of academic ivory towers. As Merton and Barber note, two of the great early-20th-century American pioneers of industrial research—Willis Whitney and Irving Langmuir, both of General Electric—made much play of serendipity, in the course of arguing against overly rigid research planning.

Langmuir thought that misconceptions about the certainty and rationality of the research process did much harm and that a mature acceptance of uncertainty was far more likely to result in productive research policies. For his own part, Langmuir said that satisfactory outcomes "occurred as though we were just drifting with the wind. These things came about by accident." If there is no very determinate relationship between cause and effect in research, he said, "then planning does not get us very far." So, from within the bowels of corporate capitalism came powerful arguments, by way of serendipity, for scientific spontaneity and autonomy. The notion that industry was invariably committed to the regimentation of scientific research just doesn't wash.

For Merton himself—who one supposes must have been the senior author—serendipity represented the keystone in the arch of his social scientific work. In 1936, as a very young man, Merton wrote a seminal essay on "The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action." It is, he argued, the nature of social action that what one intends is rarely what one gets: Intending to provide resources for buttressing Christian religion, the natural philosophers of the Scientific Revolution laid the groundwork for secularism; people wanting to be alone with nature in Yosemite Valley wind up crowding one another. We just don't know enough—and we can never know enough—to ensure that the past is an adequate guide to the future: Uncertainty about outcomes, even of our best-laid plans, is endemic. All social action, including that undertaken with the best evidence and formulated according to the most rational criteria, is uncertain in its consequences. As Robert Burns put it, "The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men / Gang aft agley, / An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain, / For promis'd joy!"

It is a humane vision, and this biography of serendipity is a humane, learned and very wise book. It was finished in 1958 and lay in Merton's files until just a few years ago. His explanation that it was put aside as a mere prologue to another book doesn't carry complete conviction. A plausible alternative is that American academic sociology was then well on its way to taking a radically different direction from that represented in this book: less humane, more rationalistic, less concerned with the vagaries and contingencies of concrete human action, less willing to attend to voices speaking of unanticipated consequences, complexities and, indeed, serendipity.

As his subsequent career illustrates, Merton himself must have had ambivalent feelings about these differences in sociological sensibilities: Scientism pulled him in one direction, humanism in another; and in the subsequent decades, scientism exerted the stronger pull. Perhaps Merton felt that the time for such a book had passed. It is a pity that we had to wait so long for it, since The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity is the great man's greatest achievement.

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