KTH Royal Institute of Technology
Philosophy of Science
Observation, Experiment, Conclusion:
the Three Princes of Serendip
October 21, 2012
Observation, Experiment, Conclusion:
the Three Princes of Serendip 1
In the scientiﬁc world, and more speciﬁcally in the world of scientiﬁc research,
chance plays a controversial role. For many scientists chance is a factor seldom
acknowledged, since sometimes it wrongly implies the disqualiﬁcation of the scientists themselves. On the other hand, many scientists and philosophers of science
recognize the importance of chance in scientiﬁc research, when it is combined with
the wisdom of the scientist and his ability to transform it into knowledge.
In many cases, the role of chance is so profound that it is inevitable for thinkers
and philosophers of science to discuss about it. Chance can impact the scientists,
the process of the scientiﬁc research and the research products, either by evolving
them, or by restricting them or even by changing their route and direction .
In this essay we describe the meaning of chance and wisdom in the scientiﬁc
world. By giving examples of the history of the science we try to identify in
which ways and in what extend chance can be combined with the mentality of
the scientist and therefore to aﬀect the scientiﬁc research. We categorize these
examples by the process of conceiving an idea, the methods that the idea is tested
and the results that come out of the testing . Then we examine the diﬀerent
ways that the factor of chance has inﬂuenced the scientists, their methods and
their scientiﬁc products.
Serendip is the former name for Sri Lanka. The title is formed based upon the Persian fairy
tale “The three princes of Serendip ”. On their way to Serendip, the three princes had many
adventures due to the accidents happening to them. In all the diﬀerent stories of the fairytale
the three princes managed to use their wisdom in order to produce knowledge and overcome
The Role of Chance and Sagacity in Scientiﬁc
In order to discuss about chance and sagacity in scientiﬁc discoveries it is more
wise to deﬁne these two terms as they are used in this essay, since both terms are
highly controversial and their meaning is often misinterpreted. For this reason we
will try to give the intension of these two words, based on the Aristotelian notion
of the essence and accident. 
Indeterminism: the Essential Property of Chance
To begin with he will talk about the meaning of chance as it was described by
Aristotle. For him, chance and spontaneity are a diﬀerent type of cause of some
things. For Aristotle, chance is more related to the conception of coincidence,
which means the diﬀerence between the intention of one person and the actual
result that occurs. For Aristotle, luck is a diﬀerent kind of chance that it can be
applied only to humans, since it entails the conception of moral actions, choice
and liberation .
On the other hand, Hume, refers to chance as a word with mere negative
meaning since it implies the lack of cause. For Hume, cause is the essence of
existence whereas chance is the negation of cause. More than this, chance can
only destroy any determination of though and set the mind only in the native
situation of indiﬀerence . Moreover, Hume insists that our actions in order to
be free should be hooked to our will and therefore can never be the outcome of
chance, that in his point of view is universally allowed not to exist .
For the needs of this essay, chance will be considered as having the essential
property of indeterminism . Under this concept, a by-chance event will be the event
that happened either because it was caused, or not caused deterministically prior
to other events. More speciﬁcally, indeterminism will be conceived as “the doctrine
that not all events in the physical world are predetermined with absolute precision”
as it is described by Karl Popper in his essay From Clouds and Clocks .
More than the essential property of chance, which as described above is the indeterminism, we can give to the term some accidental properties such as tychism .
Tychism, as described by Charles Peirce, is the absolute chance, that lacks any de2
termination, a notion which is well supported by Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty
Wisdom: the Essential Property of Sagacity
Wisdom and sagacity are two notions that are extremely vague. The meaning
of wisdom was the subject of thinking of many philosophers along the centuries,
giving to it diﬀerent intension each time .
Starting from Heraclitus, wisdom has the intension of attunement . Thus, for
Heraclitus ”wisdom is not the knowledge of many things but the perception of
the underlying unity of warring opposites” as Burnet expresses it . Socrates,
on the other hand, gives an other meaning to the word. For him wisdom tends
to be the insight of ones limitations, a notion put beautifully into the linguistic
terms:”I know that I know nothing”. Aristotle in Metaphysics deﬁnes the term
as the understanding of the causes and thus to know why things happen to be
in the certain way they are. Finally, for the needs of this essay, wisdom will be
perceived as ”the right use of knowledge”, a linguistic form thanks to Charles
Trying to deﬁne sagacity we can express it as the soundness of judgement. Not
only the ability to achieve solid judgements but also the actual correct judgement
at the correct moment. Expressing it into the Aristotles terms of essential and accidental properties, we can infer that the essence of sagacity is wisdom. Moreover,
we can ﬁnd several accidental properties, such as innovation, creativity and even
inspiration, conceived as the sudden creativity.
Serendipity: Chance and Sagacity
The word serendipity was constructed and ﬁrst used by the historian Horace
Walpole in 1975. The word was formed from the Persian fairytale: ”The Three
Princes of Serendip”, in which the three heroes on their way to Serendip ”were
making discoveries by accidents and sagacity”.
In 2004 the word serendipity, was voted to be one of the most diﬃcult words
to be translated, since it entails the notions of chance and sagacity. As we saw
before the meanings can diverse, depending on the philosophical point of view of
each individual. In general, it combines the delightful chance to encounter unexpected information, with the achievement of the intellectual leap, to conceiving
the information and arrive to the insight. This unexpected information that one
can encounter can be either relevant to his goal or not, but still he can manages
to transform it to knowledge .
From the above description, we could infer that the word serendipity entails
the ”rational reconstruction” of the thought process and of the steps that led a
scientist to the discovery, provided that their thoughts were triggered by a sparkle
of unexpected information .
The Role of Chance in the History of Research
Searching through the history of scientiﬁc research, we can ﬁnd may examples
where the paradigm shift [11, Ch IX] was due to factors that were not determined
by the researchers. In some other cases observations and metaphors that scientist
did in their everyday life, proved to be the most signiﬁcant factor of inspiration
for them. More than that, we can even mention some unlucky incidents that not
only prevented the evolution of the research or the researchers themselves, but in
some cases distorted the observed results.
Lucky Accidents in Experiments
One of the most famous stories in the history of scientiﬁc research is the identiﬁcation of penicillium mold. The signiﬁcance of the story is not only related with
the factor of chance but also with the huge impact that this discovery had in the
During the 1928, Dr. Alexander Fleming  was in the middle of his research
of the property of staphylococci. When he returned to his laboratory after his
summer vacations he realized that one of his experimental cultures was contaminated by mold. Instead of throwing it, Fleming decided to examine it more closely.
Later on, he observed that the surroundings of the mold were clear from the bacteria of staphylococcus that he was cultivating. After exhaustive testing, Fleming
realized that he had discovered a non-toxic antibiotic that was able to kill bacteria
infectious for the humans and the animals.
X-Rays, an other important discovery of the 19th century by the German
physicist Wilhelm Conrad R¨ntgenwas, is also a famous example of what is called
“happy accidents”. During his experiment with the cathode he realized that a glow
appeared in his dark laboratory, passing through the dark paper and appearing
one yard further. After extensive studying on these rays, R¨ntgenwas, realized
that they could penetrate solids or even the skeleton of the human body on a
photographic paper. Although his discovery initially was greeted with skepticism,
later on proved to be of such importance that managed to win the ﬁrst Nobel
Prize in 1901 and more than that to give to humanity one of the most important
medical tools. [12, Ch. 2, p. 87] [11, Ch. VI, p 57]
Both Fleming and R¨ntgenwas, with their observations managed to seize the
unexpected factor of chance during the experimental process. By exploiting in the
optimal way their observations and with their continuous work on the new evidence, managed to upgrade their research to the state of extraordinary science ,
violate the existing paradigms and do the paradigm shift .
The Role of Chance in Observations
In all the above cases, chance appeared to the scientists in an observable way.
In the following case the factor of chance is more subtle and requires a higher
level of intuition in order to be able to feel and then conceive it. For Albert
Einstein, the intellectual love that a scientist should have for the things and the
importance of being able to understand them by feeling them, is expressed in the
word ”Einf¨hlung” . This is the case of him, having an inspiration, that was
caused by a coincidence and led him to conceive the theory of relativity.
Einstein’s challenge to reconcile the theory of space and time, maybe initially
seemed to be utopic. The incident that triggered his thought came when he
watched the Bern’s clock while riding a street in his car. This inspiring incident gave him the simple answer he was searching for: ”time can beat at diﬀerent
rates throughout the universe, depending on how fast you move” .
For sure, we cannot claim that in the absence of the clock of Bern, Einstein
would have never conclude to his theory. On the other hand, we have to acknowledge the coincidence that became the decisive inspiration factor of this theory.
During the observation, chance can also have a more profound appearance. For
example, when Arthur Eddington decided to observe the eclipse of 1919 in order to
conﬁrm the Einstein’s theory of gravitation, he experienced the chance in a great
extend [12, Ch. 1, p. 4]. Eddington decided to go to the island of Pr´
Africa where he could have one of the best views of the phenomenon. The eclipse
would last for 410 seconds, which is an extremely long period of time for such a
phenomenon. Although everything seemed to be perfect for Eddington and his
observation, when the vital day of the phenomenon arrived several clouds hide the
sky from his observation point. The eclipse was hidden from the sky for almost 400
seconds, when all of a sudden, the sky cleared of clouds and Eddington managed
to take just one photograph that meant to be the ﬁrst real proof of Einstein’s
Unlucky Factors Can Aﬀect the Conclusions
In all the above examples, chance had a beneﬁcial role in the process of scientiﬁc
research. But this is not always the case. In the two following examples of scientiﬁc
history, we will describe how chance had aﬀected negatively the scientiﬁc research
an more speciﬁcally how it distorted or even prevented the conclusions of the
The ﬁrst example of such case is of the surgeon John Hunter and his attempt
to distinguish the pathogen that causes gonorrhoea from syphilis, which until then
was considered to be the same. Hunter lived during the mid of the 18th century,
when physicians quite frequently experimented on their selves. Following this
trend, Hunter decided to infect himself with gonorrhoea, using a needle. Unfortunately, the needle he used was unknowingly contaminated with syphilis. After he
observed that he had both the symptoms of syphilis and gonorrhoea he erroneously
claimed that both diseases were of the same pathogen. More than that, some years
later, this self-infection caused his death. The conclusions of Hunter, proved to be
wrong 51 years later, thanks to the French physician Phillippe Ricord [7, 18].
Last but not least, we will describe the unfortunate story of the French astronomer Guillaume Le Gentil in his trial to measure the distance to the sun.
This measurement would be accomplished by observing the transit of Venus at
diﬀerent point on the earth during the year 1761. Among hundreds of observers,
Le Gentil, set out for the French colony in India with the name Pondicherry. In the
meantime, war that burst between France and Britain ended up in the occupation
of Pondicerry and thus Le Gentil found it impossible to use it as his observatory.
The observation time was only few months away, but Le Gentil was determined to
reach the place and observe the phenomenon. After extensive planning, he found
the way to the observatory by the time that the phenomenon appeared, but since
he was still in the middle of the sea, he was prevented to do any astronomical
Le Gentil did not retired from his pursue. He decided to wait an other 8 years in
the island, waiting the phenomenon to appear again in the sky. When the morning
of the second transit arrived, a cloud slid in front of the Sun and remained there
for almost exactly the duration of the phenomenon, making it again impossible
for him to take any measurement. The next transit of Venus would happen one
century later, which meant that Le Gentil despite his exhaustive endeavour he was
prevented forever to observe the phenomenon. As a result, he could never end up to
his conclusions restricted by the negative factor of chance that he experienced .
Chance favours only the prepared mind2
During the process of scientiﬁc research, chance can be expressed in many ways.
As we already explained in the above cases, chance can take the form of accident, inspiration, coincidence, or even synchronicity. In some cases, chance can
be observed and exploited. In other cases, though observable, chance is not yet
observed. It is beyond doubt, that for the last case, of unobserved but observable incidents of chance, we cannot have any kind of conclusion. They may have
changed the route of scientiﬁc history or not. But this is something we will never
ﬁnd out and most probably not even care about.
The only thing that we can claim about chance, is that it can happen at
any moment and any aspect of the research process. It happens unexpectedly at
any point of the scientiﬁc procedure without enabling the scientist to forecast or
In some cases, chance has proved to be a factor of evolution for the scientiﬁc
research. Then, the evolution was not thanks to the chance, but most of the
Quote of Louis Pasteur from his lecture in University of Lille (7 December 1854).
times thanks to the intellect of the scientist that was experiencing it. In most of
the cases, the scientist that were positively aﬀected by chance, were devoted to
their science, questioning all the existing possibilities and working on any possible
aspect. In these cases the famous quote of Lous Pasteur is more than true. It
expresses in a beautiful linguistic form the moral of all the serendipitous incidents
that achieved a paradigm shift.
On the other hand, we cannot deny that there are some other cases where the
human intellect did not manage to surpass all the diﬃculties and the preventing
factors caused by chance. This of course does not mean that all the obstacles
encountered were insurmountable or beyond human nature. It is just a claim that,
despite the tremendous endeavour of the individuals and their loyalty to their
cause chance did not ”favour their prepared mind”.
Chance is a factor that entails the sense of elasticity. In some cases, it appears
totally rigid, almost preventing any kind of ”free will”. In some other cases it
appears to be too elastic, that it is only the level of intellect of each individual
that plays the decisive role on whether to exploit it or not. The question that
still remains is whether things happen because they have been caused by a reason,
or because by happening they serve a reason. If there is still no answer to this,
we should unavoidably consider the case that things may also happen in total
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Does unconscious thought underlie creative problem