Harnessing power of serendipity | Sunday Observer

Harnessing power of serendipity

8 November, 2020

I have always been fascinated by the word ‘serendipity’ not because ’Serendip’ is a former name for Sri Lanka. If you delve deep into the meaning of serendipity, you will realise that it is the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way. The word was coined (in 1754) by Horace Walpole and was suggested by ‘The Three Princes of Serendip,’ the title of a fairytale in which the heroes were always making discoveries by accident and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of. A synonym for serendipity is luck, but it lacks the real depth of the meaning. If a beggar finds a diamond while rummaging a heap of garbage for something to eat, it is a clear example of serendipity. What is important to note is that serendipity can happen anywhere, any time.

Maureen Fallon who had devoted a major part of her life to the Gyuto monks, representing their monastery in Australia and organising annual tours for Tibetan Buddhist devotees, was relaxing on the beach with them. A local filmmaker – Mark Gould – who was looking for a test audience for his documentary film ‘Tibet, Murder in the Snow,’ saw them. While conversing with Gould, Fallon told him that she was looking for a treatment for a stomach ailment that has troubled the Tibetan monks. Later Fallon and Gould travelled to Tibet with a medical team to treat the Guyto monks. The treatment had the desired effect and it proved to be an incident of serendipity.

Human life has been drastically changed by chance happenings. If English physicist Isaac Newton had never sat under an apple tree, he would not have discovered the Theory of Gravity. There were many other scientists who had discovered many things by chance. For instance, Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin when he contaminated an experiment. Even the invention of the microwave oven and Velcro’s x-rays has been credited to serendipity. While searching for double stars, William Herschel accidentally discovered the planet Uranus. Christopher Columbus who was looking for a new trade route to India discovered America quite unexpectedly.


Apart from such major discoveries, most of us have had strokes of good luck. While working as a liaison officer in a government department I did not have much work except answering a few telephone calls and collecting some statistics. To while away the time I used to write feature articles to a national newspaper. I may have contributed a large number of features and most of them were published. One day I received a note from the editor asking me to meet him. Thinking that I had made a blunder, I met him with some trepidation. He looked at me asked, “Do you like to join us as a sub editor?” It was an offer I had never expected from a newspaper editor. After giving one month’s notice to my employer, I joined the newspaper world not knowing where I would end up. That was a major event of serendipity in my life.

I remember a similar event that took place in Australia. Amanda Brotchie was writing an episode of ‘Lowdown’ for the Australian TV.

She wanted to cast Matt Preston as a detective but he was working for a rival TV channel. One day she went to a café where she met Preston quite by accident. When she told him about the role he said he was available between commitments. That was a moment of serendipity for Amanda.

Sometimes, the moment of serendipity will come after a long time. A Princeton chemist Osamu Shimomura discovered green fluorescent protein (GFP) in jellyfish in 1961. He had been doing experiments for several months to understand what made jellyfish glow. As he made no progress, he threw away the chemical solution into the laboratory sink. He was surprised to see a bright blue flash coming out of it. The sea water had reactivated the bioluminescence. Shimomura won the prestigious Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his discovery of GFP.

Chance meeting

Although a chance meeting with a stranger or a telephone call from someone in authority will bring you surprises, do not be fooled by unscrupulous people who will call you to say that you have won a big lottery prize. They will ask you to make an advance payment to send the prize money. They are not moments of serendipity at all.

It is strange but true that some people are more open to serendipity than others. They find themselves in situations where something unexpected always happen. Sometimes you may pick a lottery ticket lying on the road. When you check the results you come to know that you have won a big prize. That is a case of pure serendipity because you have won a prize without buying a sweep ticket.

Sometimes people ask whether it is possible to make serendipity happen. Dr Stephann Makri of University College, London says, “The key is to recognise it.” He has been researching for a long time to determine the significance of serendipity as a natural phenomenon. This kind of research cannot be done in a laboratory.

Therefore, his research was confined to a series of interviews. He had met several people who have had unexpected events which turned out to be moments of serendipity.

‘Cross fertilisation’

Some big companies in the West have been trying to harness the power of serendipity through a technique called ‘Cross fertilisation.’ Accordingly, all the employees including the top executives are required to walk through a communal space. This is supposed to be an effective way to promote interaction among all the employees. However, in most of our companies lower and middle grade employees never see their bosses. As a young man I worked in a big company for three years but I never met the chairman or any other top executives.

Consumer Electronic giant Apple and Google Corporation are streets as far as interpersonal relationships are concerned.

At Google Corporation employees spend at least 20 per cent of their work time on new projects. This has boosted the efficiency of the workers. According to Marki, “People are starting to realise that serendipity can set people free, it can help to make them more creative and more agile and less stressed.”

Unlike others, scientists in developed countries are trying to harness serendipity.

They say most of the scientific discoveries are due to serendipity. In fact, a United States and a Canadian team are publishing the ‘Journal of Serendipitous and Unexpected Results.’ It collects and publishes surprising or unexpected results of scientific experiments. Its website quotes the late US science fiction author and Bio-chemistry Professor Isaac Asimov: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ but that’s funny…”

Avoid routine

Most of us miss moments of serendipity as we follow a certain routine. We take the same route to reach our office. We see the same old faces in buses and trains. We speak to the same people every day. We buy the same newspaper and go to the same café to have a cup of coffee.

When there is no variety your life becomes dull and uninteresting. Once in a while change your routine. Buy a different newspaper and walk into a new café. If you care to do so, you are most likely to come across moments of serendipity.

You are not going to strike gold if you are confined to your room. Most people still want job security, old-age pension and health insurance. You have to be a little more adventurous and take risks.

Look at children. They do not like to follow a routine. They want to meet new friends, climb trees, play, laugh, dance and enjoy life. Menella Bute Smedley in the following poem depicts what a child is thinking:

“I’ll have a nursery up in the stars

I’ll lean through windows without any bars

I’ll sail without my nurse in a big boat

I’ll have no comforters tied round my throat.

I‘ll have a language with not a word spell’d

I’ll ride on horseback without being held

I’ll hear Mamma say, ‘My boy good as gold’

When I’m a grown-up man sixty years old.

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