Stumble Upon

“What many have sought but failed to find

  A few, by chance, have stumbled upon …” – AG Lamb

 “To discover or meet with accidentally or unexpectedly” is one of the meanings for the phrase ‘stumble upon.’ A single word to replace this could be ‘Serendipity,’ which means:  “happy accident” or “pleasant surprise”; specifically, the accident of finding something good or useful without looking for it – good luck aiding unexpected and fortunate discoveries.

Serendip is the Persian name for Sri Lanka. The word ‘serendipity’ is coined based on the story of Three Princes of Serendip. The three princes by “accidents and sagacity” discern the nature of a lost camel. They trace clues to identify a missing camel they had never seen. They conclude that the camel was lame, blind in one eye, missing a tooth, carrying a pregnant woman, and bearing honey on one side and butter on the other.

Grass had been eaten from the side of the road where it was less green, inferring that the camel was blind on the other side. There were lumps of chewed grass on the road the size of a camel’s tooth, probably fallen through the gap left by a missing tooth. The tracks showed the prints of only three feet, the fourth being dragged, indicating that the animal was lame. That butter was carried on one side of the camel and honey on the other was evident because ants had been attracted to melted butter on one side of the road and flies to spilled honey on the other.

The story illustrates more of ‘sagacity’ than accident. It is the ability to link together apparently innocuous facts to come to a valuable conclusion – the quality of being sagewise, or able to make good decisions.

The Name of the Rose” by Umberto Eco elaborates demonstrates the power of deductive reasoning, especially syllogisms. The novel reminds us of serendipity in practice.

Sociologists recognise that “serendipitous discoveries are of significant value in the advancement of science and often present the foundation for important intellectual leaps of understanding”. There are many tales of chance discoveries and accidental inventions. Well, do the scientists depend on chance and luck for advancements in science?

Textbooks credit a chance observation, made in 1928 by Alexander Fleming, for the discovery of penicillin. Contaminated cultures in a Petri-dish led to a series of observations. However, stage was set for the “chance” discovery of penicillin by Fleming through more than half century by various scientists discovering bits and pieces of complementary facts.

“… penicillin started as a chance observation. My only merit is that I did not neglect the observation and that I pursued the subject as a bacteriologist. My publication in 1929 was the starting-point of the work of others who developed penicillin especially in the chemical field.” –  Alexander Fleming, Nobel Lecture, December 11, 1945.

 The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1945 was awarded jointly to Sir Alexander Fleming, Ernst Boris Chain and Sir Howard Walter Florey “for the discovery of penicillin and its curative effect in various infectious diseases.” To make the chance discovery useful for the humanity, it took 15 years and collaboration of other great scientists.

Swiss inventor George de Mestral recognized the potential for a new fastener by observing cockle burr (coarse weed) covering his dogs coat. It took him eight years to perfect Velcro from that chance observation.

An apple falling on the head, accidental spilling of a chemical, contaminated Petri-dish, a drink frozen in the yard overnight, a glass shattering on the floor and still the pieces sticking together, … Such moments occur to each one of us. But they become eureka moments only to the minds which are well prepared.

American physicist Joseph Henry: “The seeds of great discoveries are constantly floating around us, but they only take root in minds well prepared to receive them.”

“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” is a philosophical thought experiment that raises questions regarding observation and knowledge of reality.

You create the lucky accidents.

Two monks were arguing about the temple flag waving in the wind. One said, “The flag moves.” The other said, “The wind moves.” They argued back and forth but could not agree.

The Sixth Ancestor said, “Gentlemen! It is not the wind that moves; it is not the flag that moves; it is your mind that moves.”

A true scientist’s mind is prepared to receive the germ of a new idea. What is chance or good fortune for the unprepared mind may be a fascinating springboard to new ideas for the prepared mind. They transform the fortune to substantive discoveries and inventions. Hundreds of life-saving drugs, tools that reduce our misery index, inventions that put us on the moon are based on chance observations, but nurtured with scientific methods noted for orderliness and control.

Marie Curie was the first person honoured with two Nobel Prizes — in physics and chemistry. She died of blood cancer (aplastic anemia) due to excessive exposure to radiation. Can we term Marie Curie’s discovery of radium as “stumbled upon?”

Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan after a dream, considered as one of Coleridge’s three great poems. How lucky! Despite plethora of dreams I get when asleep and indulge in when I am awake, I could not write a single poem inspired by those dreams. Coleridge could weave a great poem even out of a dream because he was ‘prepared.’

It is said that the famous shloka of Ramayana “maa nishhaada pratiSThaam tvam …” was a curse uttered by Valmiki  inspired by the sight a hunter killing the male bird of a Krouncha couple. The sage would have found any other inspiration for the epic, if the hunter did not shoot the bird in his presence.

If we reflect the path we have trodden, there were many chances and good fortunes. We are better off for what we have utilised out of these chances and have no count of the good fortunes we let go without recognising. Also, most chances come disguised as challenges or obstacles.

Whatever is our walk of life, we are as lucky as we deserve due to our dedication and diligence.

Louis Pasteur once said, “chance favours the prepared mind.” That’s the genius behind all the accidental inventions – in the fields of any discipline and domain. They did their work on the brink and were able to see the magic in a mistake, set-back, or coincidence.

Neither success by chance nor failure by accident happens. It is self effort and self regulation that lead us to real success. This applies to the relationship we build, success in career, achievements in any field we pursue.


About pgbhat

A retired Naval Officer and an educationist. Has experience with software industry. A guest faculty at different institutes and a corporate trainer with software development companies.
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