Paper Review: Anatomy of the Unsought Finding. Serendipity: Origin, History, Domains, Traditions, Appearances, Patterns and Programmability

Today I read a paper which was published in 1994, titled “Anatomy of the Unsought Finding. Serendipity: Origin, History, Domains, Traditions, Appearances, Patterns and Programmability” by Pek Van Andel, a Dutch researcher. The reason why I read this paper is because I want to deeply understand the term serendipity, which is part of my research theoretical foundations. Now I am going to review and summarize this paper.

The contribution of this paper is as follows:

1. Definition of serendipity: the art of making an unsought finding.

2. Origin of the word: Jan. 28 1754 by Horace Walpole. He read a persian fairy tale called “The Three Princes of Serendip” — three princes were always making discoveries by accident and sagacity of things that they were not in quest of.  And he called this phenomenon “serendipity”.

3. Actually this paper is mainly about serendipity of discovery in four domains:

(1) Science (discover something new and true) (2)Technology (new and useful ) (3) Art (new and facinating) (4)Daily life . However, how true/ usefu/fascinating can not be proved in one day, maybe in the future.

4. The author discribminate three appearances of serendipity.

(1) Positive serendipity: A surprising fact or relation is seen and followed by a correct abduction, for example, the discovery of X-ray

(2) Negative serendipity: A surprising fact or relation is seen but not investigated by the discoverer, Columbus’s New Word’ for example.

(3) Pseudoserendipity: To discover, invent, create something you were looking for in a surprising way, Fleming discovered penicillin after he had discovered lysozyme.

The author also identify three kinds of reasoning. Deduction, induction and retroduction (abduction). Deduction proves that something must be; Induction shows that something actually is operative; Abduction merely suggests that something may be. Its only justification is that from its suggestion deduction can draw a prediction which can be tested by induction, and that, if we are ever to learn anything or to understand phenomena at all, it must be by abduction that this is to be brought about.

5. Patterns of serendipity

The author summarized 17 patterns of serendipity. I will not list all of them, just a few: Analogy, one suprising observation, repetition of a surprising observation, successful error, etc.

6. In practice, when serendipity plays a role, this role is normally secondary (supporting) but essential. Several studies indicate that commercially successful innovations for example are for about eighty percent answers to an already pre-existing and known problem, like the “pill”, but in the remaining twenty percent, it appears that something was discovered before there was a demand for it, like X-rays.

7. Can we programme serendipity? Serendipitious luck may come unexpectedly, but it does so only in a mind “prepared” by previous interest, thought and/or experience, as in the examples of pseudoserendipity, e.g. Fleming. The very moment we can programme is, that, if the unforeseen happens, the system alerts the user and incites him to observeand act by himself by trying to make a correct abduction of the surprising fact or relation. And I can ask the programme to specify as far as possible the conditions of the unexpected fact or relation, for example: is it incidental or structural? Thinking of a brainstorming support interface, I think this conclusion will help.

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