The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity

The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity: A Study in Sociological Semantics and the Sociology of Science

Copyright Date: 2004
Pages: 352
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    The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity
    Book Description:

    From the names of cruise lines and bookstores to an Australian ranch and a nudist camp outside of Atlanta, the wordserendipity--that happy blend of wisdom and luck by which something is discovered not quite by accident--is today ubiquitous. This book traces the word's eventful history from its 1754 coinage into the twentieth century--chronicling along the way much of what we now call the natural and social sciences.

    The book charts where the term went, with whom it resided, and how it fared. We cross oceans and academic specialties and meet those people, both famous and now obscure, who have used and abusedserendipity. We encounter a linguistic sage, walk down the illustrious halls of the Harvard Medical School, attend the (serendipitous) birth of penicillin, and meet someone who "manages serendipity" for the U.S. Navy.

    The story ofserendipityis fascinating; that ofThe Travels and Adventures of Serendipity, equally so. Written in the 1950s by already-eminent sociologist Robert Merton and Elinor Barber, the book--though occasionally and most tantalizingly cited--was intentionally never published. This is all the more curious because it so remarkably anticipated subsequent battles over research and funding--many of which centered on the role of serendipity in science. Finally, shortly after his ninety-first birthday, following Barber's death and preceding his own by but a little, Merton agreed to expand and publish this major work.

    Beautifully written, the book is permeated by the prodigious intellectual curiosity and generosity that characterized Merton's influentialOn the Shoulders of Giants. Absolutely entertaining as the history of a word, the book is also tremendously important to all who value the miracle of intellectual discovery. It represents Merton's lifelong protest against that rhetoric of science that defines discovery as anything other than a messy blend of inspiration, perspiration, error, and happy chance--anything other than serendipity.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4152-3
    Subjects: Sociology, Linguistics

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-VI)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. VII-VIII)
  3. Preface
    (pp. IX-X)
    Robert K. Merton
  4. Publisher’s Note
    (pp. XI-XII)
    Peter J. Dougherty
  5. Introduction
    (pp. XIII-XXVIII)
    James L. Shulman

    In a footnote in chapter 47 ofOn the Shoulders of Giants(1965), Robert K. Merton alluded to “a carefully unpublished” manuscript titledThe Travels and Adventures of Serendipity: A Study in Historical Semantics and the Sociology of Science. In this footnote, the author confesses that, though tempted, he cannot quote “the supremely pertinent passages from that manuscript” because of “the warning of its authors that it is ‘not to be quoted, abstracted, or reproduced without specific permission.’” Years went by and some of the many fans ofOTSOG(the acronym by whichOn the Shoulders of Giantsbecame known...

  6. Chapter 1 The Origins of Serendipity
    (pp. 1-21)

    The letters that passed between Horace Walpole and Horace Mann form what Wilmarth S. Lewis calls the Andean range of the Walpole correspondence.¹ The two friends, who were also distant cousins, exchanged these letters over a period of forty-six years (1740–1786), although, after Walpole’s visit to Florence in 1741, he and Mann, who long remained British minister to the Court of Florence, never saw each other again. Walpole wrote all his many letters for posterity, but these letters to Mann were particularly designed to be a “kind of history,”² a chronicle of important political and social events. Inevitably, and...

  7. Chapter 2 Early Diffusion of Serendipity
    (pp. 22-40)

    For seventy-nine years after Horace Walpole explained to his friend Sir Horace Mann, in that letter of January 28, 1754, the nature of certain discoveries that are “of that kind which I callSerendipity,” there is no record of any further appearance of this “very expressive word” in writing. During all those years, serendipity remained dormant in that peculiar limbo of history, the world of unpublished documents. Facts and words lead a passive existence in this limbo: Frozen rather than fruitful, they can be brought back to active life only through publication. In his will, Walpole consigned his correspondence with...

  8. Chapter 3 Accidental Discovery in Science: Victorian Opinion
    (pp. 41-60)

    The social world is not of a piece: It is differentiated into groups, classes, by educational strata, and so on through the entire range of statuses. Among these groups, there are two in particular that are generically concerned with searching and finding: collectors (be they bibliophiles, antique collectors, or antiquarians in general) and scientists. In the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, some bibliophiles and antiquarians were among the first to appreciate the aptness of the word serendipity to describe their experience of making happy accidental discoveries, whether of desired books or of needed scraps of historical or literary information....

  9. Chapter 4 Stock Responses to Serendipity
    (pp. 61-87)

    The cultural diffusion of a word, more particularly the word serendipity, must be traced through the social channels through which this diffusion takes place; the changes of meaning the word undergoes as it diffuses; and the relationship of these changes of meaning to the patterns of thought of the different segments of the intellectual world in which the word spreads. An essential element in the process of diffusion is the initial response to the cultural product that offers itself, as it were, for consumption. Such responses vary in character from out-and-out rejection of the word, to passive recognition of its...

  10. Chapter 5 The Qualities of Serendipity
    (pp. 88-103)

    The responses to serendipity we have considered so far might easily result from any encounter with this unfamiliar, etymologically puzzling, and seemingly expressive word. Responses such as that possessiveness that makes the word peculiarly one’s own, the prompt urge to search out its origin, and the multiplying of ideas about its current usage probably occur quite often among people with a certain self-consciousness about their vocabulary. Should the reactions to the word seem strong, they might nevertheless be proportionate to the degree of the word’s unfamiliarity, its puzzling aspect, and its usefulness.

    Serendipity is, of course, a coined word. Now...

  11. Chapter 6 Dictionaries and “Serendipity”
    (pp. 104-122)

    Among people with a concern for propriety and precision in the use of language, there are few occasions when idiosyncratic erudition or sophistication in these matters takes precedence over the authority of “the dictionary.” This authority is multifold: The dictionary (for the moment, let us assume that any modern dictionary may be so designated) legitimizes by sheer inclusion the use of a word as part of standard literary language; it rules on legitimate meanings that may be attributed to such a word; most dictionaries may be expected to have at least some accurate information about the history and etymological derivation...

  12. Chapter 7 The Social History of Serendipity
    (pp. 123-148)

    Over the past eighty-odd years, since the contributors toNotes and Queriesrescued Horace Walpole’s word-child from oblivion, about 135 different people have used serendipity in print, several of them on more than one occasion. What records we have of the responses and attitudes of these people toward the word have already been described and analyzed in an earlier part of this study (see Chapter 4), but little has been said as yet about the social and intellectual backgrounds of these users or of the routes they traveled, literally and figuratively, which brought them in contact with serendipity. And though...

  13. Chapter 8 Moral Implications of Serendipity
    (pp. 149-157)

    In tracing the social history of the word serendipity, we have told, in effect, the story of the diffusion of serendipity among people in certain social milieux or “statuses,” statuses that heightened the receptivity of their occupants to this particular word. The social history ofserendipityshows that receptivity to a given word does not occur at random in the population: Rather, the run of experience in certain social statuses is so structured that a word may have more or less resonance for people in them, and, consequently, more or less chance for adoption. The sources of such resonance also...

  14. Chapter 9 The Diverse Significance of Serendipity in Science
    (pp. 158-198)

    Among the many conditions necessary for the flourishing of science in a society,¹ is the prevalence of certain beliefs and assumptions. For science to flourish people must believe, for example, in empirical rationality and they must assume the regularity and determinacy of empirical phenomena. They must believe in the possibility and support the desirability of understanding invariable relationships of cause and effect in the material universe. But commitment to these beliefs permits a variety of subordinate views as to the necessary conditions for the advancement of science and the best procedures for promoting science within a set of limiting conditions....

  15. Chapter 10 Serendipity as Ideology and Politics of Science
    (pp. 199-218)

    The problems that serendipity raises in connection with the organization and administration of scientific research are somewhat different from those that are raised by accidental discoveries in the work of individual scientists. As far as individual scientists are concerned, serendipity raises problems having to do with the proper definition of their tasks and the optimal performance of them. In organized scientific research, on the other hand, tasks and goals are not defined exclusivelybythe individual scientists; they are definedforthem, to some extent, by someone with the authority to do so. The administrator of scientific research defines the...

  16. A Note on Serendipity as a Political Metaphor
    (pp. 219-222)

    Although it would be rather surprising to find an American politician explicitly making allowance in his policies for accidental success or serendipity, it would also seem to be the rule in American politics that policies are formulated in a pragmatic and piecemeal fashion. As Irving Langmuir said in his talk on planning in research, it is the totalitarian dictators who have grand and comprehensive plans, while it is the “American way” to make policies step by step, without trying to anticipate too far in advance each step’s consequences. In England, the absence of general plan or principle in the political...

  17. A Note on Serendipity in the Humanities
    (pp. 223-229)

    The interpretations given to serendipity by humanists vary, perhaps, more than do the interpretations in the other social domains that we have discussed. In science, business, and politics, accidental discoveries raised problems of merit and of justification: Some might think that accidental discoveries were useful and justifiable while others rejected them as harmful or discreditable, but all passed some judgment on the implications of accidental discoveries. Among humanists (writers, scholars, collectors of items of literary and historical interest) some also evaluate accidental discoveries and the individuals who make them, but others look upon them as being entirely beyond the scope...

  18. Afterword Autobiographic Reflections on The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity
    (pp. 230-298)

    In long retrospect, it now seems virtually inevitable that I should have decided to track the travels and adventures—or, put in rather more academic terms, the diffusion and reconceptualization—of the word serendipity, and then persuaded the historian of eighteenth-century France and my longtime friend Elinor Barber to join me in that quest. “In long retrospect” because I am writing this Afterword soon after my doubly improbable ninety-first birthday. “Doubly improbable” in both the objective and subjective senses of probability. Objectively improbable, of course, because even in our time of rapidly extended life expectancy, only some 1.5 percent of...

  19. Select References
    (pp. 299-302)
  20. Name Index
    (pp. 303-308)
  21. General Index
    (pp. 309-313)