The word “serendipity” has its roots in an old Persian fairy tale called “The Three Princes of Serendip” written by Michele Tramezzino in 1557. In the story, the three princes are searching for a lost camel and keep making pleasant discoveries by accident which lead them to eventually find the camel.
I’ve been intrigued by the concept of serendipity for a long time and I wondered what made it different from a coincidence. After a little research, this is what I found: A coincidence is when two things happen at the same time and look as though they are connected even though they are not. A serendipitous happening is when we find good things by accident, or when we are not looking for them and might be looking for something else.
Sir Alexander Fleming
A perfect example of this is the discovery of penicillin. Sir Alexander Fleming was a Scottish scientist doing influenza research in 1928 in a lab in London. Fleming had been on holiday with his family for a couple of weeks and when he returned to the lab, he found that he had mistakenly left a petri dish open which caused contamination of his sample. The Staphylococcus culture that he left open had mold growing on it and it was determined that the mold released a substance that repressed the growth of bacteria. This is what eventually led to the discovery of penicillin and which won Fleming a Nobel Prize in Medicine and changed the course of history for us all.
The microwave was discovered by serendipity also. In 1945, an engineer from Howland, Maine named Percy Spencer was doing research on the magnetron for his company, Raytheon. Spencer discovered that the microwave beam had a heating effect when a candy bar in his pocket began to melt. He then tried focusing the beams on popcorn and next on an egg…and once again all of our lives were changed.
Not all instances of serendipity are on such a grand scale. I’ve messed up recipes for things I was trying to cook and found that the accidental recipe was better than the original. These happy accidents are always a delightful surprise!
I attended the North Texas Book Festival in Denton two years ago. I only had an hour to spend there but as I was chatting with one of the authors, I mentioned that I was looking for an artist to illustrate a story I had written. She told me she had an artist friend who might be interested and gave me her name and number. I called Vicki Guess about a month later and we met to talk. Long story short, she did the illustrations for my story but she also became my dear friend in the process. What a pleasant surprise and a fortuitous happenstance!
So is this serendipitous phenomenon of finding pleasant things and especially people by accident, fate, or is it an act of God, or just simply one of those things? What kinds of things have happened to you in your life that you would chalk up to serendipity?
*Author’s note…There’s a fun 2001 movie named Serendipity that stars John Cusack, Kate Beckinsale and Jeremy Piven.