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Book Forum: HISTORY   |    
The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity: A Study in Sociological Semantics and the Sociology of Science
ROBERT MICHELS, M.D.
Am J Psychiatry 2004;161:2341-2342. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.161.12.2341
View Author and Article Information
New York, N.Y.

By Robert K. Merton and Elinor Barber. Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press, 2004, 328 pp., $29.95.

I was planning to review a different book but having trouble finding a theme for my review. I put the project aside during the August heat and visited my friend and colleague Bill Frosch (who also has a review on these pages). We belong to the same club, and he had just read a new book coauthored by a late member of the club, Robert Merton. I borrowed the book, liked it, and decided to review it. Thus this review is a product of, loosely speaking, serendipity.

Merton, the leading sociologist of science before his death in 2003 at age 91, defined "serendipity" as "the fairly common experience of observing an unanticipated, anomalous, and strategic datum which becomes the occasion for developing a new or extending an existing theory" (p. 260). However, in spite of such sentences, the book isn’t simply a textbook of sociology; it is much more. It is the story of a word, its origin, its diffusion across cultures and disciplines, the evolution of its meaning, its recognition by dictionaries and their impact on its development, its enthusiastic adoption by scientists and students of science (such as Merton himself), and its emergence as a concept applied to scientists such as Roentgen, Fleming, Watson and Crick, Thomas Kuhn, and others. It is also a delightful collection of mini-essays on subjects that turn up along the way (serendipitously?), ranging from the difference between early and late Victorian culture through F.D.R.’s bank holiday to the history of dictionaries. Perhaps most of all, it is an opportunity to eavesdrop on a conversation that extends across centuries and involves participants such as Horace Walpole (who coined the term), Louis Pasteur, Walter Cannon, and Robert Merton himself.

The story begins with a letter that Walpole wrote to Sir Horace Mann (not the 19th-century American educator) on January 28, 1754, after receiving a Vasari portrait of Duchess Capello that Mann had sent to him. Walpole recounts a discovery he had made about the Capello arms, and adds,

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? (pp. 1–2)

Merton’s fun begins immediately. He tracks down the story, explains that Serendip is an old name for Ceylon, corrects Walpole’s account (it was a camel, not a mule) and traces its reception in Europe. A 16th-century Armenian visiting Venice wrote an Italian version of a 13th-century Persian tale by Amir Khosrau that became popular throughout Europe, was translated into French (which was read by Voltaire) and from French into English, and ultimately came to Walpole’s attention.

Merton is a sociologist, not a psychologist or psychoanalyst, and he is strangely uninterested in a question that would seem central to me. Why Mann? What is the meaning of the person to whom the letter was written? All we learn is that Mann was a distant cousin, the British minister to the Court of Florence, whom Walpole had not seen for 13 years, since his visit to Florence at age 24. Merton seems to assume, probably correctly, that Walpole was really writing for eventual publication—that is, for posterity, for us—and that Mann was only an object of convenience.

The concept without the word appears in the world of 19th-century science (Louis Pasteur, in 1854, tells a group of students that "chance only favors the mind which is prepared" [p. 163]), while the word itself disappears until late in the 19th century. It resurfaces first in the world of letters and then enters the language of science in the 1930s when Walter Cannon, the great Harvard physiologist (after hearing it from Samuel Crothers, minister of the First Unitarian Church in Cambridge) embraces it as a description of an essential theme of scientific discovery.

Merton’s doctoral thesis, in the 1930s, was on the unintended consequences of intended actions in social life. When he came upon the term, it was a natural. He developed the concept, going back to Walpole’s first definition, pointing out that it required both an event and a mind able to exploit that event—in other words that it was at the boundary of sociology and psychology. In an extended afterword to the original manuscript, written just before his death, Merton tells us what led him to the book and talks about its publication so many years after it was written. The 1986 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first expanded the definition to include the sociological as well as the psychological aspect of serendipity—that is, not only a "faculty, ability, gift, habit, aptitude or talent," but also "the fact or an instance." However, the OED didn’t quote Merton, and he notes, "I freely confess to guilty recognition that the OED Supplement would probably have included that concept some 40 years after its first appearance had I not held off on publishing our book on The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity until now" (p. 261). Merton was distracted by the preparation of his most famous work, On the Shoulders of Giants(1). (I had always thought that the phrase was Newton’s: "If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants," but Merton, characteristically, traces it back at least to the 12th-century philosopher Bernard of Chartres: "We are like dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants and so are able to see more and see farther than the ancients" [p. 231]).

The OED’s loss is our gain. Serendipity is a core concept in Merton’s sociology of science, and the social structures that support serendipity are as crucial as the scientific minds that can exploit them. I never met Merton, but this, his final book, coauthored with Elinor Barber, the wife of his friend and colleague Bernard Barber, allows us a glimpse of his mind at work. Not all will enjoy this volume, but for those who like to watch a great man at play with words and ideas, it is a treat.

Merton RK: On the Shoulders of Giants. New York, Free Press, 1965
 
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References

Merton RK: On the Shoulders of Giants. New York, Free Press, 1965
 
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