There is nothing like starting off with a bang. In 1867 Alfred Nobel accidentally discovered dynamite after putting a popular but flammable salve on a cut finger.
Call it serendipity.
Rubber was an unreliable, smelly mess until Charles Goodyear mixed it with sulfur and accidentally dropped it on a hot stove. Again, serendipity.
From the X-Ray to Ex-Lax, nylon to NutraSweet, penicillin to the popsicle, and velcro to viagra, the list of serendipity stories is as long as the history of discovery.
Radiologist Dr. Morton Meyers accidentally figured out how cancer metastasizes in the stomach, by watching where dye he injected for X-rays would spread and then collect. He’s written “Happy Accidents: Serendipity in Modern Medical Breakthroughs.”
“Serendipity refers to looking for one thing and stumbling over something else that proves to be of greater value,” he told Sunday Morning correspondent Martha Teichner. “What serendipity means is misadventure, an inadvertent observation, a happenstance that a sharp, open mind can exploit to find its true benefit.”
In other words, one must have the brains to recognize an “a-ha!” moment. Dr. Don Ingber seized on that moment when he was studying molecular biophysics at Yale.
“I remember seeing students walking around on campus who were holding sculptures that were made out of cardboard that looked like jewels, and they looked very much like viruses to me in my textbooks,” he said.
So he talked himself into an art class where the professor would collapse the object. Watching the model resume its former shape, he had a revelation.
“The professor would talk and let go and it would be flat and it would bounce up high in the air and come back down,” he said.
The models behaved exactly like the cells he was culturing him a science class.
“So they attach to the dish they pull themselves out against it,” he said. “They spread flat and when you want to remove them you clip the resistant site and they spring back and they go from flat to round and bounce off, just like this toy!”
Ingber’s entire career, predicting cell behavior, has been built on that chance observation.
We have Horace Walpole, an 18th century English writer and politician to thank for the word serendipity. Walpole was inspired by a fairy tale, called “The Three Princes of Serendip.” The princes travel far and wide turning every potential disaster into a triumph. Serendip is the old Persian name for what is now Sri Lanka, otherwise known as Ceylon, as in tea, which brings us to coffee.
“So the story goes that Caldi, who happened to be a goat herder, stood back and watches goats eating coffee beans in Ethiopia.” Andrew Smith, editor of the “Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink,” said. “He saw that they really engaged in some strange behavior afterwards because of the caffeine.”
Animals, according to Smith, played an important role in early food serendipity. You like cheese? Think dead camels’ stomachs. Nomads filled them with milk and hung them from their saddles as they rode live camels.
“So you got the shaking motion of the camels, you got the rennet in the stomach, you got the milk in the stomach, and that really is the beginning of cheese,” Smith said.
Smith said he would guess that 100 percent of products we purchase today are rooted in serendipity, like popsicles.
The Post-It Note was also born from serendipity. In 1968, a scientist at 3M made an adhesive that wasn’t very sticky. Eventually somebody else at 3M thought maybe it would keep bookmarks from falling out of his hymnal at church; 1,000 Post-it products later a world without them seems inconceivable.
After the fact, serendipity seems so obvious.
Imagine “Casablanca” without Ingrid Bergman. She wasn’t Warner Brothers’ first choice. The song, “As Time Goes By,” almost was cut from the movie. The man who wrote the film’s score hated it and tried to substitute one he wrote but Bergman had already cut her hair for her next film so the scene couldn’t be re-shot.
Speaking of show business serendipity, consider Penn and Teller’s magic chair. It was created for their magic show by the MIT media lab. Sensors in the chair allow its occupant to play music. If that isn’t amazing enough, here’s the serendipity part: what happened when an electronics executive trying to stop automobile airbags from killing children saw it.
“He said, what if you could use sensors in a wireless way to actually determine who was in the seat, what their position was, and then feed it back to the computer in the car and cut off the airbag,” said Frank Moss, who runs the MIT media lab. “And today, almost all airbags in the world, or many of them, are controlled by the device that was originated here at the media lab.”
If there ever was a place literally in the serendipity business, the MIT media lab is it. Its creative culture is carefully nurtured by corporate sponsors who pay for the right to try and spot the next big thing.
“The whole idea is to bring together people with vastly different backgrounds – artists, scientists, engineers, designers, biologists, – have them interact in open play-like environments, not to be afraid of failure, and to build,” Moss said.
Such “breakthroughs” allow Dan Elsey, who has cerebral palsy – who cannot move anything but his head, who cannot talk – not only to compose but to perform symphonies.
“I think only serendipity can change the world,” Moss said. “I think when you open the environment up to where connections can be made that you couldn’t imagine, that the great innovations come that can make a difference for people in society. I think serendipity is mandatory. It’s not – it’s not a luxury.”
But it can be fun. During World War II, G.E., tried to make synthetic rubber, and failed. Nobody could figure out what to do with it until a marketing genius named Peter Hodgson gave it a name (yes, Silly Putty), put it in a little plastic egg and sold it as a novelty toy.
More than 300 million little eggs have been sold.
Here’s the best part, when Silly Putty turned 50 in the year 2000, it got the white glove treatment as it was solemnly installed in the Smithsonian Institution.