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  • Writer's pictureBernard Beitman, MD

How Can You Harness the Ingenuity of Serendipity?

Through academic research, the Serendipity Society is finding answers.

“In the field of observation, chance favours only the prepared mind.” ~ Louis Pasteur (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Serendipity Society is establishing a network of academics to promote and support rigorous research into all kinds of serendipity.

Serendipity academics work in many different countries around the world. They can be found in psychology, psychiatry, library science, information science, physics, technology, business, economics, computer science, English, journalism and science policy. People in the business and author communities are also involved. Interest is growing in developing spaces for serendipity. This active network of serendipity researchers is becoming a platform from which to develop serendipity research as an independent field of study. The Society will also become a resource of expertise on serendipity to which organizations, innovators, and planners can turn. Its research findings will also help individuals become more tuned to innovations in their personal lives. Hundreds of pharmacological and technological innovations have come into being through chance observations by informed seekers. How can spaces be deliberately constructed to increase the likelihood of finding useful innovations in all fields of human endeavors?

Defining Serendipity

Ingredients of serendipity include active searching (out of need and curiosity), chance, informed observation and valued outcome. Samantha Copeland, assistant professor at Delft University in Delft, Netherlands defines chance as a deviation from expectation. In her 2017 paper she notes that serendipity is recognized retrospectively, only after the value of the observation is solidified. Personality and serendipity

University of Missouri information scientist Sanda Erdelez (2005) studied about 100 people to find out how they created their own serendipity, or failed to do so.

Her qualitative data—from surveys and interviews—showed that the subjects fell into three distinct groups. Some she called “non-encounterers” saw life through a narrow filter. They tended to stick to their to-do lists when searching for information rather than wandering off in different directions. Other people were “occasional encounterers” who stumbled into moments of serendipity now and then. The “super-encounterers” reported that happy surprises popped up wherever they looked. The super-encounterers loved to spend an afternoon hunting through odd materials, in part because they counted on finding treasures there. You become a super-encounterer, according to Erdelez, in part because you believes that you are one—it helps to assume that you possess special powers of perception, like an invisible set of antennas, that will lead you to clues.

The serendipity of penicillin

A most celebrated serendipity involved the identification and production of penicillin. Through a series of remarkable coincidences, penicillin’s potential usefulness was discovered by Alexander Fleming in 1928. Ernst Chain and Howard Florey confirmed its antibiotic capacities. All three received the 1945 Nobel Prize in Medicine. Mary Hunt a bacteriologist in Peoria, Illinois found by chance the most potent strain of the penicillin producing fungus which led to the successful manufacturing of large quantities of the valuable substance. This vital discovery by Hunt in a Peoria fruit market is generally unacknowledged although she used serendipity much like Fleming.

In this interview, Professor Copeland discusses this penicillin series of coincidences and the Serendipity Society.



  1. Erdelez, S. (2005). Information encountering. In K. E. Fisher, S. Erdelez & L. McKechnie (Eds.), Theories of information behavior (pp. 179-185). Medford, NJ: Information Today.

  2. Copeland, S. (2018). “Fleming Leapt on the Unusual like a Weasel on a Vole”: Challenging the Paradigms of Discovery in Science. Perspectives on Science. 26(6)


Photo by Amy Reed on Unsplash

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