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The photo was intended to be of a black-crowned night heron; the photographer was initially unaware of the pileated woodpecker flashing through.

Serendipity means an unplanned, fortunate discovery.[1]

The notion of serendipity is a common occurrence throughout the history of scientific innovation. Examples are Alexander Fleming's accidental discovery of penicillin in 1928, the invention of the microwave oven by Percy Spencer in 1945, and the invention of the Post-it note by Spencer Silver in 1968.

In June 2004, a British translation company voted the word to be one of the ten English words hardest to translate.[2] However, due to its sociological use, the word has since been exported into many other languages.[3]


The first noted use of "serendipity" in the English language was by Horace Walpole in 1754. In a letter he wrote to his friend Horace Mann, Walpole explained an unexpected discovery he had made about a (lost) painting[4] 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".[5] The name comes from Serendip, an old name for Sri Lanka (Ceylon), hence Sarandib by Arab traders.[6] It is derived from the Sanskrit Siṃhaladvīpaḥ (Siṃhalaḥ, Sri Lanka + dvīpaḥ, island).[7]

Business and strategy

M. E. Graebner describes serendipitous value in the context of the acquisition of a business as "windfalls that were not anticipated by the buyer prior to the deal": i.e., unexpected advantages or benefits incurred due to positive synergy effects of the merger.[citation needed]

Ikujiro Nonaka[8] points out that the serendipitous quality of innovation is highly recognized by managers and links the success of Japanese enterprises to their ability to create knowledge not by processing information but rather by "tapping the tacit and often highly subjective insights, intuitions, and hunches of individual employees and making those insights available for testing and use by the company as a whole".

Serendipity is postulated by Napier and Vuong (2013) as a 'strategic advantage' with which a firm can tap its potential creativity.[9]

Serendipity is a key concept in competitive intelligence because it is one of the tools for avoiding blind spots (see Blindspots analysis).[10][clarification needed]


Serendipity is used as a sociological method in Anselm L. Strauss' and Barney G. Glaser's grounded theory, building on ideas by sociologist Robert K. Merton, who in Social Theory and Social Structure (1949) referred to the "serendipity pattern" as the fairly common experience of observing an unanticipated, anomalous and strategic datum which becomes the occasion for developing a new theory or for extending an existing theory. Merton also co-authored (with Elinor Barber) The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity,[11] which traces the origins and uses of the word "serendipity" since it was coined. The book is "a study in sociological semantics and the sociology of science", as the subtitle of the book declares. It further develops the idea of serendipity as scientific "method" (as juxtaposed with purposeful discovery by experiment or retrospective prophecy).

Related terms

William Boyd coined the term zemblanity in the late twentieth century to mean somewhat the opposite of serendipity: "making unhappy, unlucky and unexpected discoveries occurring by design".[12] 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). On this island Willem Barents and his crew were stranded while searching for a new route to the east.

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.[13]

See also


  1. ^ "Serendipity". Oxford dictionary. Retrieved 23 April 2018.
  2. ^ "Words hardest to translate – The list by Today Translations. Also defined in modern times as "An unexpected discovery occurring by design". Unknown reference updated on 12/14/2014 by Isaac Lucero, Santa Fe, NM USA". Global Oneness. 21 April 2009. Archived from the original on January 25, 2009.
  3. ^ For example: Portuguese serendipicidade or serendipidade; French sérendipicité or sérendipité but also heureux hasard, "fortunate chance"; Italian serendipità (Italian Dictionary Hoepli, cfr.); Dutch serendipiteit; German Serendipität; Japanese serendipiti (セレンディピティ); Swedish, Danish and Norwegian serendipitet; Romanian serendipitate; Spanish serendipia, Polish: Serendypność; Finnish serendipiteetti
  4. ^ "Lost artworks". Wikipedia. 2017-09-04.
  5. ^ 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
  6. ^ 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 0691126305.
  7. ^ "serendipity" – via The Free Dictionary.
  8. ^ 1991, p. 94 November–December issue of Harvard Business Review
  9. ^ Napier, Nancy K., and Vuong Quan Hoang. "Serendipity as a strategic advantage?." Strategic Management in the 21st Century; edited by Timothy J. Wilkinson., 2013, 1, 175–199.
  10. ^ Serendipity in Competitive Intelligence by Yves-Michel Marti, Egideria Archived August 27, 2011, at the Wayback Machine.
  11. ^ Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003
  12. ^ Boyd, William. Armadillo, Chapter 12, Knopf, New York, 1998. ISBN 0-375-40223-3
  13. ^ (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.


  • "The view from Serendip", by Arthur C. Clarke, Random House, 1977.
  • "Momentum and Serendipity: how acquired leaders create value in the integration of technology firms", by Melissa E. Graebner, McCombs School of Business, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, Texas, U.S.A. 2004.

Further reading

  • 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 0-691-11754-3. (Manuscript written 1958).
  • Frédéric Darbellay et al., Interdisciplinary Research Boosted by Serendipity, Creativity Research Journal, Volume 26, Issue 1, 2014.
  • Hannan, Patrick J. (2006). Serendipity, Luck and Wisdom in Research. iUniverse. ISBN 0-595-36551-5.
  • Roberts, Royston M. (1989). Serendipity: Accidental Discoveries in Science. Wiley. ISBN 0-471-60203-5.
  • Andel, Pek Van (1994). "Anatomy of the unsought finding : serendipity: origin, history, domains, traditions, appearances, patterns and programmability". British Journal for the Philosophy of Science. 45 (2): 631–648. doi:10.1093/bjps/45.2.631.
  • Gaughan, Richard (2010). Accidental Genius: The World's Greatest By-Chance Discoveries. Metro Books. ISBN 978-1-4351-2557-5.
  • Solomon, Y., & Bronstein, J. (2016). Serendipity in legal information seeking behavior: Chance encounters of family-law advocates with court rulings, Aslib Journal of Information Management, 68(1), 112-134. doi: 10.1108/AJIM-04-2015-0056

External links

  • Accidental discoveries. PBS
  • Top Ten: Accidental discoveries. Discovery Channel at the Wayback Machine (archived October 11, 2007)
  • Accidental Genius Book – anecdotes of serendipitous scientific discoveries.
  • ACM Paper on Creating serendipitous encounters in a geographically distributed community.
  • Serendipitous Information Retrieval : An Academic Research Publication by Elaine G. Toms
  • Programming for Serendipity – AAAI Technical Report FS-02-01
  • The Serendipity Equations
  • Serendipity and the Internet from Bill Thompson at the BBC
  • Serendipity of Science – a BBC Radio 4 series by Simon Singh
  • Psychology today's main article about serendipity
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