The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity: A Study in Sociological Semantics and the Sociology of Scienceby Robert K. Merton, Elinor Barber
From the names of cruise lines and bookstores to an Australian ranch and a nudist camp outside of Atlanta, the word serendipity--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/i>… See more details below
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From the names of cruise lines and bookstores to an Australian ranch and a nudist camp outside of Atlanta, the word serendipity--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 abused serendipity. 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 of serendipity is fascinating; that of The 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 influential On 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.
The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity is a vivid study in how words reflect their times and offers an extra delight: Merton's new afterword tracing the journey of the word since he first wrote about it. . . . Merton was a sociologist in the same way Shakespeare could be called a theater person.
The word 'serendipity' was coined in 1754 by Horace Walpole. . . . Walpole would appreciate the many digressions and diversions that shape the travels and adventures of his lighthearted coinage and the delight with which Merton and Barber tell its story.
"And so serendipity began its life--a saga of misunderstandings, neglect, resurrection, distortion, celebration and controversy, all of which is chronicled with heroic enterprise and humble wit in The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity.... The history remains intact, and the intellectual trajectory outlines by Merton has, if anything, continued with even greater force."--Edward Rothstein, New York Times
"An intellectual text, both a pleasure to read and a genuine contribution to scholarship."--Andrew Scull, Times Literary Supplement
"A fascinating text that captivates the reader from the start. . . . In the course of following the evolution of the word serendipity, Merton and Barber provide many interesting insights into how new knowledge is produced, not only in the sciences but also in the humanities."--Cristina Gonzalez, Science
"A humane, learned and very wise book. It was finished in 1958 and lay in Merton's files until just a few years ago. . . . It is a pity that we had to wait so long for it, since The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity is the great man's greatest achievement."--Steve Shapin, American Scientist
"The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity is a vivid study in how words reflect their times and offers an extra delight: Merton's new afterword tracing the journey of the word since he first wrote about it. . . . Merton was a sociologist in the same way Shakespeare could be called a theater person."--Jay Tolson, U.S. News and World Report
"The sociologist Robert K. Merton, who died a year ago this month at the age of 92, had a genius for plucking fascinating phenomena out of thin air, giving them names, and changing the way we see the world. . . . Merton might have had his name linked to one more concept, 'serendipity,' but for a peculiar decision of his. He wrote a book on the subject in the 1950s, together with Elinor G. Barber, a Columbia University researcher. Then he had second thoughts and stuffed the manuscript in a drawer. Now as a capstone to the man's brilliant career, Princeton University Press has brought the abandoned book out into English for the first time."--Christopher Shea, Boston Globe
"This long awaited, long unpublished manuscript proffers enough of its own pleasures that no connoisseur of eccentric erudition will want to forgo them."--Michael Dirda, Washington Post Book World
"This is the best written and most entertaining book of sociology ever written."--Philip Howard, The Times (London)
"The word 'serendipity' was coined in 1754 by Horace Walpole. . . . Walpole would appreciate the many digressions and diversions that shape the travels and adventures of his lighthearted coinage and the delight with which Merton and Barber tell its story."--Craig Calhoun, Bookforum
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The Travels and Adventures of SerendipityA Study in Sociological Semantics and the Sociology of Science
By Robert K. Merton Elinor Barber
Princeton University PressPrinceton University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Origins of Serendipity
The letters that passed between Horace Walpole and Horace Mann form what Wilmarth S. Lewis calls the Andean range of the Walpole correspondence. 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," a chronicle of important political and social events. Inevitably, and as a matter of his characteristic taste, many "unimportant" incidents crept into his letters, too, and one such item came to mean much more to a small and growing segment of posterity than Horace Walpole could possibly have anticipated.
Writing to Mann on January 28, 1754, apropos of the arrival in England of the Vasari portrait of the Grand Duchess Bianca Capello, which Mann had had sent to him, Walpole told of how he made a "critical discovery" about the Capello arms in an old book of Venetian arms:
This discovery I made by atalisman, which Mr. Chute calls the sortes Walpolianae, by which I find everything I want, a pointe nommee [at the very moment], wherever I dip for it. This discovery, indeed, is almost of that kind which I call Serendipity, a very expressive word, which, as I have nothing better to tell you, I shall endeavour to explain to you: you will understand it better by the derivation than by the definition. I once read a silly fairy tale, called the three Princes of Serendip: as their Highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of: for instance, one of them discovered that a mule blind of the right eye had travelled the same road lately, because the grass was eaten only on the left side, where it was worse than on the right-now do you understand Serendipity? One of the most remarkable instances of this accidental sagacity (for you must observe that no discovery of a thing you are looking for comes under this description) was of my Lord Shaftsbury, who happening to dine at Lord Chancellor Clarendon's, found out the marriage of the Duke of York and Mrs. Hyde, by the respect with which her mother treated her at table.
Since he had "nothing better to tell," therefore, Walpole was reporting to his friend a bit of whimsy, a word he had coined. His attitude toward it was half-pleased (the word is "very expressive"), half-mocking and deprecatory. Had Mann looked into the fairy tale that helped Walpole to mint the word, he might have been confused, for its story line scarcely resembles Walpole's account of it or the allegedly parallel examples he provides. Walpole was looking for information about the Capello arms and only happened, by "serendipity," to find it at just the right moment, but the three princes of the fairy tale found nothing at all, but merely gave repeated evidence of their powers of observation. Moreover, Lord Shaftesbury actually did make a useful discovery that he had not anticipated, one that he could not have made without considerable "sagacity" about the minutiae of the symbols of respect and deference, just as one now gauges impending changes in the status of Soviet leaders by noting their location in the Kremlin ensemble on public occasions. The complexity of meaning with which Walpole endowed serendipity, carelessly and inadvertently, at its inception, was permanently to enrich and to confuse its semantic history.
The "silly fairy tale" that Walpole referred to was called The Travels and Adventures of Three Princes of Sarendip. According to the title page, it was "translated from the Persian into French, and from thence done into English," and printed in London for Will. Chetwode in 1722. As far as Walpole knew it was anonymous, but we shall have more to say later about its authorship and history. The three princes of the title are the sons of Jafer, the philosopher-king of Sarendip (or Serendib, which is the ancient name for Ceylon). King Jafer had seen to it that his three promising sons received the best possible education from the wisest men in the kingdom, and now he wished them to travel in order that they might gain in experience to complement their book learning. Above all, he wanted them to learn about the customs of other peoples. There is never any mention of a search for treasure, which has so often been ascribed to them by those who know the tale at second or third hand.
"As their Highnesses travelled" they had various adventures and made certain "discoveries." Their adventures resulted from the use they made, and that other people made, of their keen wits; and their "discoveries," which were of the nature of Sherlock Holmesian insights rather than more conventional "treasures," often proved valuable to those whom they encountered. In two episodes they used their ability to make careful observations and subtle inferences, practicing this skill for the sheer pleasure its exercise afforded. In another episode, they did their host, the Emperor Behram, a valuable service, when, by virtue of their keen observations and their intuitive understanding of human psychology and physiology, they were able to save him from the vengeance of a treacherous minister. At still another court they visited, they passed yet another age-old test of wit, the solution of riddles, both humorous and serious. In all these adventures they conducted themselves with great courtesy and modesty.
Of all these many incidents, the one that seems to have impressed Horace Walpole the most is one of the princes' exploits of observation and inference. (It is, in fact, the first incident that occurs in the course of their travels; perhaps Walpole never got any further in this "silly fairy tale.") As the princes were riding along, they met a camel driver who had lost one of his camels and asked if they had seen it. Since they had seen various clues that might indicate the lost animal, they asked him the following three questions: Was the animal blind in one eye? Was it lacking one tooth? And was it not lame? The driver answered all these questions affirmatively, so they in turn told him that they had passed his animal and that it must have gone quite far by now.
The camel driver searched the road for twenty miles without finding his missing animal, so he returned and again came upon the three youths. He told them that he thought they had merely been teasing him, so they gave him further evidence: that the camel was laden with butter on one side and honey on the other, that it was being ridden by a woman, and that this woman was pregnant. Now the driver was sure that the princes must have stolen the camel, and he had them brought to justice before the Emperor Behram. The princes confessed that they had never really seen the camel and that they had only told the driver of inferences drawn from the clues they had observed, which happened to coincide with the facts.
The incident ended happily when the camel was found. The emperor, now vastly impressed, wished to know how the princes had so accurately inferred its characteristics. They explained to him their guess that the camel must be blind in the right eye because the grass had been cropped on the left side of the road, where it was worse than on the right; that they had found bits of chewed grass on the road, of a size indicating that they had fallen out between the animal's teeth where a tooth was missing; that its footprints showed that it was lame and was dragging one foot; that its load of honey and butter could be inferred from the trail of ants on one side of the road, for ants love butter, and of flies on the other, for flies love honey; that at one place they saw footprints that they attributed to a woman rather than a child because they also felt carnal desires there; and finally, that this woman must be pregnant, because they had seen the imprints of her hands on the ground, where, in her heavy state, she had used them to get to her feet again.
It was the "discovery" of the blind right eye that Walpole evidently remembered best and which he used to illustrate the princes' peculiar talents. By the time he was "deriving" serendipity for Mann's benefit, however, his memory had transformed the camel of the original story into a mule. As an Englishman he was certainly more familiar with mules than with camels; perhaps this is why the alien camel was transformed into the more familiar mule. For this story in its essentials is, as we shall see, an old one. As it was told in India, for example, it involved an elephant, while in Palestine and Arabia it generally was the camel, as in the tale of our three princes. In each case the cultural background produced at least this small variation in the protagonists of the story. In like manner, the already complex meaning of Horace Walpole's "very expressive word" was on many future occasions to be slightly or drastically modified by the social context of its use.
These, then, were the immediate occasions of the invention of serendipity: an episode in a story of three princes of Serendip in which they displayed their powers of observation and found certain clues they had not been looking for; Horace Walpole's unexpected discovery of an item missing from his knowledge of heraldry, one among many such accidental discoveries; and, finally, Walpole's letter to Sir Horace Mann, in which he indulges himself by elaborating on the nature of certain aspects of the process of discovery. But all this tells nothing of how it was that Horace Walpole, living in England, in the year 1754 came to merge these particular ingredients to fill a minute space in the English language by creating this strange new word, serendipity. From all indications, this was the result of two unrelated sets of circumstances: One is the great efflorescence of interest in the Orient in the eighteenth century; the other, Walpole's idiosyncratic propensities, which he brought to the reading of the tale of the three princes of Serendip.
Both England and France had had some contacts with the East and with Oriental history and literature in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but the great upsurge of interest did not come until Antoine Galland translated the Arabian Nights into French, between 1704 and 1717. His translation of the Arabian Nights was quickly followed by Petis de la Croix's translation of La histoire de la Sultane de Perse ... (1717) and Les Mille et un Jour [sic] (1710-1712). In France, these tales from the Orient were welcomed for several reasons: they provided an escape from the restrictions from classicism, they were found to be a useful device for social criticism (Montesquieu's Lettres persanes and Voltaire's Zadig are, perhaps, the most famous examples), and they provided writers such as Crébillon ... fils with a takeoff point for his contes licencieux, which satirized the then-popular contes morals.
The response in England to the tales from the Orient was in some respects similar to that in France. "The magical atmosphere, the rich variety of dramatic incident, the spirit of adventure, and the brilliant background" of the Arabian Nights, the telling of a story for its own sake, and the food these stories provided for peoples' "imagination, their fancy, their emotion" were congenial with the incipient romanticism of the period, in England as in France. In England, the social and literary satire that used oriental tales was, however, far milder than the French: "French satire, more pervasive and more penetrating, expressed-especially when touched by the genius of Voltaire and Montesquieu-something of the deep unrest of France in the eighteenth century, the era before the Revolution ... The typical English writer of philosophic oriental tales, on the contrary, dwelt in an imaginary country of pure speculation, and entered the world of fact only for the purpose of moralizing." The moralizing tendency was extremely powerful in England in this period and it stifled the oriental tale. "Too exotic to become easily acclimated, such tales were regarded as entertaining trifles, to be tolerated seriously only when utilized to point a moral." Except for their romantic appeal, then, the chief reason for the vogue of the oriental tale in Francophile England was its vogue in France.
Walpole's interest in and familiarity with oriental tales was no greater than might be expected of a literary man of his time. Nor was his mockery of these tales unusual, in the later eighteenth century especially, and it is, in part, his longevity that is responsible for the gamut of his attitudes. Walpole was fond of the Arabian Nights, and the contempt he expressed for the Three Princes was, as Mancroft suggests, at least partly feigned. Walpole himself, in his Letter from Xo-Ho (1757), made use of the oriental tale for satiric ends, commenting on the contemporary scene by means of the pseudoletters of an oriental observer. The Letter from Xo-Ho was successful and went through five editions in a fortnight. "It is a brief, witty satire, aimed chiefly at the injustice of the system of political rewards and punishments, as exemplified in Admiral Byng's recent execution ... The oriental disguise is extremely thin, but it is cleverly used to point the satire." Nearly thirty years later, in 1785, Walpole mocked the literary worth of the oriental tales in his parody, the Hieroglyphic Tales. The preface to these tales, according to Miss Conant, "is rather a clever satire on the pretentious, highly moralistic, and would-be scholarly prefaces to oriental tales ... Walpole's tone of supercilious mockery toward the oriental tales was typical of critical opinion generally between the middle of the century and the end of our period (c. 1786)."
Two of the moral themes of eighteenth-century oriental tales are worth isolating here, because they lead us back, more or less directly, to The Word, serendipity. One of these recurring moral themes is that of the hedonistic paradox. In two of Hawkesworth's tales, for example, the heroes find "that the attempt to be happy at any cost ends in greater pain. Both tales represent an idea that was persistent in the philosophy of the eighteenth century, and was to find its most artistic expression in Rasselas and The Vanity of Human Wishes." Walpole seems to be falling in with this moralistic theme when he stresses the importance of not looking for the object of discoveries by serendipity. Yet, it must also be said that the oriental tales are philosophically and morally hostile to the notion of the operation of chance. In Miss Edgeworth's moral tale, "Murad the Unlucky," modeled on the oriental pattern, ill-luck turns out to be identified with imprudence; and in Voltaire's Zadig, one of the most important themes is "the part played in human life by destiny-the apparent supremacy of Chance and the real supremacy of a foreknowing and overruling Providence." Walpole was undoubtedly familiar with this moral and philosophical problem (he had read Zadig in the English translation in 1749), but he seems to have rejected the current formulations of the answer. It was not, perhaps, sheer whimsy that made him substitute serendipity for "what Mr. Chute calls sortes Walpolianae," for, whether sortes is translated as "luck" or "fate," it lacks the mixture of those two ingredients that Walpole irrevocably included in the complex meaning of serendipity: accident and sagacity. It may be that, of the two, Walpole preferred to accent sagacity rather than accident, and it is certainly true that in the future many users of the word were to try to minimize the accidental component in the meaning of serendipity. But whether he so intended it or not, Walpole's new word has done much to emphasize the role of accident in the process of certain kinds of discovery.
Excerpted from The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity by Robert K. Merton Elinor Barber Excerpted by permission.
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Roald Hoffmann, Department of Chemistry, Cornell University, and Nobel Laureate in Chemistry
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Meet the Author
Robert K. Merton, who died in 2003, was one of the leading sociologists of the twentieth century. His many books include "Social Theory and Social Structure" and "On the Shoulders of Giants". Elinor Barber was, at the time of her death, Research Associate at Columbia University. She is a coauthor of "Bridges to Knowledge" and "Increasing Faculty Diversity". James L. Shulman is Executive Director of ARTstor and a coauthor of "The Game of Life" (Princeton).
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