Interdisciplinary society on serendipity - and a new CAPS publication

Samantha, before we talk about the society, what exactly is serendipity?

The most general way to think about serendipity is as a fortunate, or happy, discovery that was made with a combination of luck and wisdom. The word is used to differentiate discoveries that might have involved chance, but that also required someone clever enough to notice their value. Another way to think of it is as finding something that you weren't looking for, but are glad you found.

You just got a paper accepted on this topic in Synthese, where you present your own preferred understanding of serendipity, what I like to call 'Copeland Serendipity'. Can you tell us a bit about that?

I focus on the role of 'epistemic expectations' in my research on serendipity: we recognize a discovery as both lucky and clever when it falls outside of the kinds of discoveries we expected to find. The relevant expectations can be about the kinds of knowledge that are out there, about the kinds of methods we can use to produce knowledge, or about the kinds of people who can be sources of new knowledge. When we make a serendipitous discovery, we are recognizing that our expectations were limited—hence our surprise.

When we start to focus on the role of these kinds of expectations, we can see that recognizing serendipity should have an impact on how we practice science. I explore some of these implications in the paper you mention, 'On serendipity in science: discovery at the intersection of chance and wisdom.' For one thing, recognizing that our expectations were limited is the same thing as expanding those expectations—so appreciating serendipity is like pushing the boundaries of knowledge outward.

I also talk about the importance of practices like transparency and sharing in a scientific community that wants to take advantage of serendipity—the more people who can access new knowledge, the more likely an unexpected, but valuable discovery will be made. In other words, unplanned discoveries are more likely to be made when people are part of a diverse network.

This brings me to a second aspect I focus on: the role of the broader community in serendipitous discovery. Serendipity is often depicted as a 'eureka' or 'aha' moment—a single event, experienced by an isolated individual. The classic example is Fleming's discovery of penicillin. But, when you look at that discovery, you see that there was a whole process and a network of people involved in getting from Fleming's lucky (but wise, of course!) observation to the antibiotic that changed medicine.

Taken together with my analysis of the role of expectations, we can start to think about why, for instance, there seem to be many more serendipitous men in history than women. It's communities who judge, in the end, whether someone is recognized as both lucky and wise when (and if) they get credit for a discovery. And communities have plenty of expectations about whence (or from whom) new knowledge might come. So not only the structure of a community, but also the epistemic expectations of that community as a whole can affect whether an chance observation becomes a serendipitous discovery. I think it's important to be aware that sometimes expanding our expectations means including more people as potential discoverers, and that discoveries are not only made by 'genius' observers. 

You are one of the co-founders of the Serendipity Society. What is this society?

I began this Society with the help of Lori McCay-Peet, who is an information management specialist, about a year ago. We already have more than forty members from around the world—many of them are well-known serendipity researchers, and others are new to the field. This just goes to show that there is high interest out there in creating a community around serendipity research. Lots of great work is being done: empirical, theoretical, and practical. People are researching how individuals experience serendipity, how we can keep serendipity around in a world run by computer algorithms that predict your interests, and how our knowledge about serendipity can influence increasingly popular policies that emphasise innovation.

Why were you so determined to establish a serendipity society?

When I first started researching on this topic, I had to spend a lot of time wading through all sorts of literature before I really hit the main of quality research on serendipity. Lori and I wanted to start the society in part to give new researchers and outsiders to the field a leg up on the best resources, so one of our first priorities was to create a great resources page.

What are the plans for the society?

We have planned a couple of small events with Society members so far, but our next step is to hold an international workshop and to generate some new collaborative, multidisciplinary networks among members who have common interests and research results to share. I can't wait to see where the Society takes me—the members are enthusiastic, open-minded and diverse, so there's bound to be serendipity happening!


Published 18. October 2017 - 10:13 - Updated 18. October 2017 - 10:13