Serendipity and the value of networks

by Samantha Copeland

Serendipity can be said to happen when the right person is in the right place at the right time.

The practically paradigmatic example of serendipity is the story of Alexander Fleming and the discovery of penicillin: The story begins when P. notatum mould by chance landed on a petri dish set aside for cleaning and reuse, and inhibited the growth of bacteria already residing there. Importantly, if Fleming hadn’t been perceptive enough to notice the potential value of the effects of the mould on the bacteria when he casually picked up the fated dish, he would have thrown the contents away and a Nobel Prize along with them.

Yes, it was necessary for Fleming, the mould and that petri dish to meet up in a lab one fine September for the discovery of penicillin to happen as it actually did. However, more than the coincidence of those three factors was needed for that serendipitous discovery to come about. A whole community of researchers—including but not limited to Howard Florey and Ernst Chain, co-winners of Fleming’s Prize—were needed, and a number of other coincidences as well.

Depictions of serendipity as the result of a ‘Eureka’ moment, akin to Archimedes’ moment of discovery whilst alone in his bathtub, tend to miss this point about the importance of communities to serendipitous discoveries. For instance, Fleming’s mould ended up in the hands of the Oxford research team led by Florey and Chain because he was a well-known teacher and researcher, whose specimens were shared among students, scientists and their labs. If one of Fleming’s specimens hadn’t wound up in Oxford, his observation wouldn’t be famous for having serendipitously led to the discovery of penicillin.

Environments that encourage chance meetings between colleagues and individual exposure to new ideas are methods thought to produce serendipity. Companies like Google have been designing buildings that purposely bring people from diverse departments together, around the water cooler—or in the case of the new Crick Institute being built in London, UK right now, around scientific instruments. But community is more important to serendipity than as a source of either diversity or potentially valuable yet chancy meetings between individuals.

That is, serendipity is not defined solely by the role of chance. If it were, it would just be another way to say ‘lucky’. Rather, as Walpole put it when he coined the term in a letter to a friend in 1754, serendipity describes discoveries made “by accidents and sagacity”–by chance and by wisdom. Further, the wisdom involved is not an innate characteristic of a solitary individual, but as Pasteur so famously noted, ‘chance favours the prepared mind.’

And what does it mean for a mind to be prepared? I think even more than education, skills, creativity, or perception, the prepared mind of an observing researcher needs the support of her community, both in the process of preparing said mind, and in the process of taking her single, perceptive observation up as worthy of continuing pursuit.

Fleming didn’t himself pursue the medical potential of his own observation—to him, P. notatum was most useful as a medium for isolating other bacteria, like the bacteria that cause the flu (a particularly tricky group), or those that cause acne to develop. But to Florey and Chain, the true value of Fleming’s observation became clear—a dozen years later, they were more open to the clinical possibilities of anti-bacterial agents, having witnessed the effects of the sulfonamides on deadly infections like those caused by streptococci.

This is typical of serendipity. As those who study the experiences of academic researchers and scientists have pointed out (here and here), serendipity is a category applied in hindsight: it is only after the value of the observation becomes clear that the observation itself is seen to have been wisely made.

But the sharing of that observation with colleagues, the making of specimens or data available to others, the communicating of potentially valuable knowledge to the broader community—this is always a necessary step toward serendipitous discovery in scientific and medical research. What makes the person, the time and the place of serendipity right is not any specific feature of one person or chance coincidence of time and place, but rather the nature of the community in which the discovery process occurs. A community in which the sharing of knowledge and the asking of questions are encouraged, and a diversity of perspectives are represented—a network of collaborators, if you will—is the right time and place for the right people to make unexpected, but potentially very valuable, observations.

Picture of Fleming’s mould found on the History page of Imperial College, London, Faculty of Medicine 

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