After I finished proof reading yesterday’s post about Alternate Personal Histories, I thought about how we begin our lives as a series of coincidences. Children are produced by the serendipity of whatever brought the parents together, and the serendipity of the merging of the gametes. Infants have no say-so regarding their most fundamental relationships.
The word “serendipity” means “pleasant surprise”. It’s also one of the words with a serendipitous etymology. English politician Horace Walpol coined the word in 1754, after reading the Persian fairy tale “The Three Princes of Serendip”. Serendip is the antique Arabian name for the island of Sri Lanka. In that fairy tale, the princes made amazing discoveries by accident and discernment in the process of searching for something else.
These days, serendipity is becoming so commonplace that it is in danger of disappearing. Its demise is the Internet. For example, yesterday I heard Vangelis’ theme for “Chariots of Fire” on the sound system at the supermarket. When I returned home, I decided to investigate how Vangelis composed that piece of music. On the search engine page, I saw a link to an article about chariots. I clicked on it and was brought to an intriguing essay about horse racing in the circuses of Ancient Rome. I learned a great deal of absorbing information regarding Roman social life, totally by accident. These types of accidental surprises happen to most of us every day while surfing the Web.
The problem with the serendipity of the Internet is that it is awash with an overabundance of surprising information from arcane sources. The vast amount of surprises on the Internet dulls our joy of discovery. The playing field is leveled to mediocrity. For instance, when the “New Horizons” space probe neared Pluto, last month, I was eager to view the latest photographs it was sending back to Earth from the far depths of the Solar System. For some reason, links to vintage Disney cartoons about “Goofy” were listed on the Google page. Naturally, I had to click on one of them. Now, YouTube has supplied me with a steady supply of suggested “Goofy” cartoon selections on my page.
I enjoy cartoons as a guilty pleasure as much as the next person, but it was frustrating to have my attention diverted from the historical discoveries being made by “New Horizons” to the banal world of vintage cartoons. The Internet made no value judgment about old cartoons and the momentous current scientific event. I wonder how many people did not realize the importance of the images of Pluto nor how long the space craft took to reach that part of the Solar System, due to this overabundance of data. Undoubtedly, many were distracted by serendipitous discoveries about Hollywood celebrities or old cartoons.
I like to think of serendipity in a more traditional way. There is a fairly well-known story about a manager at Raytheon Industries in Massachusetts. The company is a major military contractor that sold radar to the allied forces in World War Two.
The man, Percy Spencer, was supervising one of the labs one day in 1945. He happened to stand next to a magnetron, the tube that generates microwave frequency energy used in radar units. Spencer felt a tingling sensation in his breast pocket. He discovered that the candy bar he was carrying was hot and had melted. He was intrigued enough to investigate further. He ordered a small bag of unpopped popcorn seeds. He held the bag near the magnetron and the popcorn popped. After working on a practical application for his discovery, Spencer applied for a patent for the microwave oven.
This is a classic case of scientific serendipity. Spencer didn’t just get lucky, he had the knowledge and the means to investigate and develop his surprise into something useful.
In a general way, most of us think of serendipity in less scientific terms and more as lucky happenstance. For instance, one very windy afternoon, several years ago, I had just returned from the Post Office. A strong gust of wind caught my stack of mail and blew it towards the river bank near my home.
As I collected the errant envelopes, I heard something mewing. I looked up at a tree branch. There was a young, grey and white kitten staring at me. It was stranded in the tree and was afraid to come down. I took the mail into the house and carried out a small ladder. Soon, the kitten was in my hands, safe and sound. Even though I’m not allowed to have pets at my house, the little cat adopted me. I made sure he had cat food and water. He answered to the name “Felix”.
So, when you stumble across something or someone nice today on the Internet or in actual life. Stop awhile to feel the joy and gratitude.