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Serendipity is an unplanned fortunate discovery. [1] Serendipity is a common occurrence throughout the history of product invention and scientific discovery. Serendipity is also seen as a potential design principle for online activities that would present a wide array of information and viewpoints, rather than just re-enforcing a user's opinion.



The first noted use of "serendipity" in the English language 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 [2] 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." [3] The name comes from Serendip , an old name for Sri Lanka (Ceylon), hence Sarandib by Arab traders. [4] It is derived from the Sanskrit Siṃhaladvīpaḥ (Siṃhalaḥ, Sri Lanka + dvīpaḥ, island). [5]

The word has been exported into many other languages, with the general meaning of “unexpected discovery” or “fortunate chance”. [6] [7]



The term "serendipity" is often applied to inventions made by chance rather than intent. Andrew Smith, editor of TheOxford 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. [8]

Other examples of serendipity in inventions include:


The serendipitous discovery of a new species of lacewing, Semachrysa jade, was made on Flickr Semachrysa jade female habitus (Morphbank 791597) - ZooKeys-214-001-g002.jpg
The serendipitous discovery of a new species of lacewing, Semachrysa jade , was made on Flickr

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 personalization, 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." [13]

Online activity

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." [14] The idea has potential application in the design of social media, information searches, and web browsing. [15] [16]

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". [17] A zemblanity is, effectively, an "unpleasant unsurprise". It derives from Novaya Zemlya (or Nova Zembla), a cold, barren land with many features opposite to the lush Sri Lanka (Serendip).

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. [18]

See also


  1. "Serendipity". Oxford dictionary. Retrieved 23 April 2018.
  2. Silvia Davoli (2 July 2018). "The creation of the word 'serendipity'". Strawberry Hill House & Garden. Archived from the original on 2018-07-06. Strawberry Hill Treasure Hunt.
  3. Remer, Theodore G., ed. (1965). Serendipity and the Three Princes, from the Peregrinaggio of 1557. Edited, with an Introduction and Notes, by Theodore G. Remer. Preface by W. S. Lewis. University of Oklahoma Press. p. 6. LCC 65-10112
  4. Barber, Robert K. Merton, Elinor (2006). The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity : A Study in Sociological Semantics and the Sociology of Science (Paperback ed.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. pp. 1–3. ISBN   978-0691126302.
  5. "serendipity" via The Free Dictionary.
  6. 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.
  7. Collins Chinese Dictionary. New York: HarperCollins Publishers. 2005. p. 90, 391. ISBN   0-00-720432-9.
  8. 1 2 "The Power Of Serendipity". CBS News. Retrieved 2019-02-17.
  9. "The story of serendipity". Understanding Science. University of California Museum of Paleontology. Retrieved 2019-02-18.
  10. "This Month in Physics History: February 9, 1990: Death of George de Mestral". American Physical Society. February 2004. Retrieved 2019-02-18.
  11. Thomas, J. Thorson (2017). Serendipity: Seemingly Random Events, Insignificant Decisions, and Accidental Discoveries that Altered History. Windy City Publishers. ISBN   9781941478592.
  12. "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.
  13. Starr, Karla (September 12, 2012). "How to Not Find What You're Looking For". Scientific American Blog Network. Retrieved 2019-02-18.
  14. Pazzanese, Christina (March 24, 2017). "Danger in the internet echo chamber". Harvard Law Today. Retrieved 2019-06-24.
  15. Race, Tammera M.; Makri, Stephann (2016-06-13). Accidental Information Discovery: Cultivating Serendipity in the Digital Age. Elsevier. ISBN   9781780634319.
  16. 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.
  17. Boyd, William. Armadillo, Chapter 12, Knopf, New York, 1998. ISBN   0-375-40223-3
  18. (a) Sommer, Toby J. "'Bahramdipity' and Scientific Research", The Scientist, 1999, 13(3), 13.
    (b) Sommer, Toby J. "Bahramdipity and Nulltiple Scientific Discoveries," Science and Engineering Ethics, 2001, 7(1), 77–104.

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Further reading