The first noted use of "serendipity" was by Horace Walpole on 28 January 1754. In a letter he wrote to his friend Horace Mann, Walpole explained an unexpected discovery he had made about a lost painting of Bianca Cappello by Giorgio Vasari by reference to a Persian fairy tale, The Three Princes of Serendip. The princes, he told his correspondent, were "always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of." The name comes from Serendip, an old Persian name for Sri Lanka (Ceylon), hence Sarandib by Arab traders. It is derived from the Sanskrit Siṃhaladvīpaḥ (Siṃhalaḥ, Sri Lanka + dvīpaḥ, island).
The term "serendipity" is often applied to inventions made by chance rather than intent. Andrew Smith, editor of The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink, has speculated that most everyday products had serendipitous roots, with many early ones related to animals. The origin of cheese, for example, possibly originated in the nomad practice of storing milk in the stomach of a dead camel that was attached to the saddle of a live one, thereby mixing rennet from the stomach with the milk stored within.
Other examples of serendipity in inventions include:
- The Post-It Note, which emerged after 3M scientist Spencer Silver produced a weak adhesive, and a colleague used it to keep bookmarks in place on a church hymnal.
- Silly Putty, which came from a failed attempt at synthetic rubber.
- The use of sensors to prevent automobile air bags from killing children, which came from a chair developed by the MIT Media Lab for a Penn and Teller magic show.
- The microwave oven. Raytheon scientist Percy Spencer first patented the idea behind it after noticing that emissions from radar equipment had melted the candy in his pocket.
- The Velcro hook-and-loop fastener. George de Mestral came up with the idea after a bird hunting trip when he viewed cockleburs stuck to his pants under a microscope and saw that each burr was covered with tiny hooks.
- The Popsicle, whose origins go back to San Francisco where Frank Epperson, age 11, accidentally left a mix of water and soda powder outside to freeze overnight.
- Polymer teflon, which Roy J. Plunkett observed forming a white mass inside a pressure bottle during an effort to make a new CFCs refrigerant.
- The antibiotic penicillin, which was discovered by Sir Alexander Fleming after returning from a vacation to find that a Petri dish containing staphylococcus culture had been infected by a Penicillium mold, and no bacteria grew near it.
- The effect on humans of the psychedelic lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) was discovered by Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann in 1943, after unintentionally ingesting an unknown amount, possibly absorbing it through his skin.
Serendipity contributed to entomologist Shaun Winterton discovering Semachrysa jade, a new species of lacewing, which he found not in its native Malaysia, but on the photo-sharing site Flickr. Winterton's discovery was aided by Flickr's ability to present images that are personalized to a user's interests, thereby increasing the odds he would chance upon the photo. Computer scientist Jaime Teevan has argued that serendipitous discovery is promoted by such personalisation, writing that "people don't know what to do with random new information. Instead, we want information that is at the fringe of what we already know, because that is when we have the cognitive structures to make sense of the new ideas."
Serendipity is a design principle for online activity that would present viewpoints that diverge from those participants already hold. Harvard Law professor Cass Sunstein argues that such an "architecture of serendipity" would promote a healthier democracy. Like a great city or university, "a well-functioning information market" provides exposure to new ideas, people, and ways of life. "Serendipity is crucial because it expands your horizons. You need that if you want to be free." The idea has potential application in the design of social media, information searches, and web browsing.
Several uncommonly used terms have been derived from the concept and name of serendipity.
William Boyd coined the term zemblanity in the late twentieth century to mean somewhat the opposite of serendipity: "making unhappy, unlucky and expected discoveries occurring by design". The derivation is speculative, but believed to be from Nova Zembla, a barren archipelago once the site of Russian nuclear testing.
Bahramdipity is derived directly from Bahram Gur as characterized in The Three Princes of Serendip. It describes the suppression of serendipitous discoveries or research results by powerful individuals.
In addition, Solomon & Bronstein (2018) further distinguish between perceptual and realised pseudo-serendipity and nemorinity.
- Felix culpa
- Lateral thinking
- Multiple discovery
- Role of chance in scientific discoveries
- Serendipity Sapphire
- Side effect
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- "serendipity" – via The Free Dictionary.
- For example: Portuguese serendipidade or serendipismo; Spanish serendipia; German Serendipität; French sérendipité or also heureux hasard (fortunate chance); Italian serendipità (Italian Dictionary Hoepli by Aldo Gabrielli, cfr.); Dutch serendipiteit; Swedish, Danish and Norwegian serendipitet; Romanian serendipitate; Finnish serendipisyys or serendipiteetti; Russian sieriendipnost (Серендипность); Japanese serendipiti (セレンディピティ); Chinese yìwài fāxiàn (意外发现 that is "unexpected discovery").
Others use directly the term serendipity, like Polish.
- Collins Chinese Dictionary. New York: HarperCollins Publishers. 2005. pp. 90, 391. ISBN 0-00-720432-9.
- "The Power Of Serendipity". CBS News. Retrieved 2019-02-17.
- "The story of serendipity". Understanding Science. University of California Museum of Paleontology. Retrieved 2019-02-18.
- "This Month in Physics History: February 9, 1990: Death of George de Mestral". American Physical Society. February 2004. Retrieved 2019-02-18.
- Thomas, J. Thorson (2017). Serendipity: Seemingly Random Events, Insignificant Decisions, and Accidental Discoveries that Altered History. Windy City Publishers. ISBN 9781941478592.
- US 2230654, Plunkett, Roy J, "Tetrafluoroethylene polymers", issued 4 February 1941
- "Alexander Fleming: Fleming's serendipitous discovery of penicillin changed the course of medicine and earned him a Nobel Prize". Science History Institute. December 5, 2017. Retrieved 2020-04-28.
- Hofmann, Albert (2009). LSD, my problem child: reflections on sacred drugs, mysticism, and science (Fourth English Language ed.). Santa Cruz, CA. ISBN 978-0-9798622-2-9. OCLC 610059315.
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- Reviglio, Urbano (2019-01-02). "Serendipity as an emerging design principle of the infosphere: challenges and opportunities". Ethics and Information Technology. 21 (2): 151–166. doi:10.1007/s10676-018-9496-y. ISSN 1572-8439. S2CID 57426650.
- Boyd, William. Armadillo, Chapter 12, Knopf, New York, 1998. ISBN 0-375-40223-3
- Boyle, Richard (2009-03-12). "Serendipity and Zemblanity". Himal Southasian. Retrieved 2020-12-28.
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(b) Sommer, Toby J. "Bahramdipity and Nulltiple Scientific Discoveries," Science and Engineering Ethics, 2001, 7(1), 77–104.
- Solomon, Yosef, & Bronstein, Jenny. "Information Serendipity, Pseudo-Serendipity, Zemblanity, Disruptive Discovery and Nemorinity: Revisiting Donizetti's and Romani's Opera Buffa L'elisir d'Amore", iConference Proceedings, 2018, 1–4
- Merton, Robert K.; Barber, Elinor (2004). The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity: A Study in Sociological Semantics and the Sociology of Science. Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0691117546. (Manuscript written 1958).
- Hannan, Patrick J. (2006). Serendipity, Luck and Wisdom in Research. iUniverse. ISBN 978-0595365517.
- Roberts, Royston M. (1989). Serendipity: Accidental Discoveries in Science. Wiley. ISBN 978-0471602033.
- Isabelle Rivoal and Noel B. Salazar (2013). Contemporary ethnographic practice and the value of serendipity, Social Anthropology, 21(2): 178–85.