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on September 8, 2013
Serendipity is an interesting concept and term that has an interesting history. It pretty much means "unintended fortunate find or discovery" and it has caught on in many fields from literature to the social and natural sciences. It's an important part of science that is often overlooked or not really emphasized in popular science writings. Discoveries in science are not linear or expected most of time and the serendipitous/complex reality that is encountered by actual scientists in their daily work is often ignored for more ideal and simple narratives of how science works in real time. This particular book was cited in Nobel Prizes and Life Sciences which emphasized the influence on serendipity on Nobel prize winning discoveries.

"The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity" is a pretty extensive book in looking at the etymology and the history of the term from its origin in the 1700s so it will be very useful for those interested in etymologies and how words travel through time. Furthermore, though this book was originally written in 1958 and was barely published in 2002 and 2003, with its original text intact and essentially unaltered, it may not be up to date to the beginning of the 21st century. Nonetheless, the practical use "serendipity" had already reached popularity in the late 1950s and the autobiography by Merton does provide some insights as to the use of the word up to the year 2000. Of particular interest to me was the origin of the term. Who would have thought that a fairy tale would inspire a cultural and scientific concept? There was no word in English that successfully captured what serendipity was able to catch in such a practical and simple way. Go figure. Even William Whewell, the wordsmith who coined many important technical scientific terms (neologism) which we are familiar with (i.e. physicist, anode, cathode, ion, etc) in the 19th century including the term "scientist" in 1834, seemed to have missed the opportunity to conceptualize the phenomenon of accidental discoveries/insights that do occur in scientific research. For sure it took a long time before the idea and the term caught on. It was dormant for 79 years after Horace Walpole had coined it in 1754 in a letter to Horace Mann. In 1833 this letter was published and the rest is history.

Here are all the chapters and some of the things that are discussed (not exhaustive):

Chapter 1 - The Origins of Serendipity

Discusses the origin of the term "Serendipity" in the 1700s - Horace Walpole coined the term in a letter to Horace Mann in 1754 describing "serendipity" and that it was based on a "silly fairy tale" called "The Travels and Adventures of Three Princes of Sarendip" ["Serendip" in the original letter]; the relevant part of the letter on "serendipity" is quoted; the fairy tale and some variants of the tale are summarized; discusses the fascination of British and other European intellectuals were having with "oriental writings" such as "Arabian Nights" and other writings from China, India, and other places; provides some insights on the variety of meanings the term has acquired such as happy accidental discovery, accidental sagacity, fortunate unintended discovery

Chapter 2 - Early Diffusion of Serendipity

Discusses the varying receptions of Walpole's writings and correspondences in the 19th and early 20th centuries

Chapter 3 - Accidental Discovery in Science: Victorian Opinion

Collectors of books and antiques were among the first to appreciate the use of "serendipity"; scientists in the 1940s and 1950s began to use the term more frequently even though there were numerous unintended discoveries in the 19th century; 19th century debates between William Whewell and others on if discoveries can be accidental or, if given the right circumstances and a prepared mind, inevitable are mentioned; William Whewell's importance and expertise in coining important technical scientific terms in the 19th century are noted along with others who coined scientific terms (neologisms) we know today; "serendipity" diffused more into literature than in science in the 19th century

Chapter 4 - Stock Responses to Serendipity

Continuation of diffusion through literature and finally into the sciences; how some decided to discover the history of the term

Chapter 5 - The Qualities of Serendipity

Phonetic and linguistic qualities; opinions on the awkwardness of the term

Chapter 6 - Dictionaries and "Serendipity"

Short history of dictionaries; another look at Walpole's derivation of "serendipity"; "serendipity" in dictionaries

Chapter 7 - The Social History of Serendipity

Different social spheres where the term has floated around (i.e. collectors, literature, social sciences, natural sciences, etc)

Chapter 8 - Moral Implications of Serendipity

Unintended good and evil; implications of good luck and moral deeds

Chapter 9 - The Diverse Significance of Serendipity in Science

Biographical insights from the history of science on serendipity; debates among some in the scientific community that agree and disagree about the degree of prominence of serendipity in scientific discoveries; many seem to believe that chance and accidents play some important role in discoveries, but is useless without a prepared mind (which has been extensively trained) to seize the opportunities; serendipity should not be viewed as all blind chance

Chapter 10 - Serendipity as Ideology and Politics of Science

Dangers in institutions defining research projects rigidly; general research goals are good to produce room for potential and unexpected discoveries

A Note on Serendipity as a Political Metaphor

A Note on Serendipity in the Humanities

Afterword: Autobiographical Reflections on "The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity" by Robert K. Merton

Overall, this book deserves a wide audience and I recommend it to those who are interested in learning about the complex situations faced by rank and file scientists in their daily work.
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on January 25, 2004
This delightful book explores the journey of the word SERENDIPITY, from its exotic 18th Century origins to much wider use including a recent movie.
The late author, Robert K. Merton was an influential and ground breaking sociologist who developed such concepts as the "Focus Group" and "Self-Fufilling Prophecy".
This book is a must-have for every home, library and dorm room.
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on March 20, 2014
I bought this book originally for an enjoyable read. I found it to be dense and full of history that I wasn't expecting. I'm only 2 Ch's in so it's not the best time to review, but I will revise this after completing it.
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on February 3, 2014
I had a particular interest in this book which would not be generally applicable. It is a niche book for those interested in historical sociology.
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