What does the word “serendipity” mean and where does it come from?

There is a word that means “making a lucky and unexpected discovery without intentionally looking for it”: it is “serendipity“, in English serendipitycoined by the English writer Horace Walpoleconsidered the founder of Gothic literature, in a letter to a friend in 1754. Walpole drew inspiration from the Persian tale entitled The three principles of Serendip (the ancient name of the island of Ceylon, today’s Sri Lanka). In the story, the protagonists traveling on the island of Serendip continually make lucky discoveries thanks to their ability to observe and deduce, even if they are not looking for anything in particular.

The writer used the term to describe these random and happy discoveriesbut also the find something unsought and unexpected while he is looking for another one. From here, the term began to indicate that magical and intuitive moment in which we discover or learn something useful in specific circumstances.

The word has entered the world over the centuries common vocabulary, finding applications in different fields: from science to art, to daily life. In the world of literature and cinema it is a recurring theme, which reflects the entirely human desire to find meaning and order in the chaos of everyday life. In fact, novels and films often use this concept to build exciting plots, in which characters find love, solve mysteries or discover important truths thanks to fortuitous events. The American film is emblematic Serendipity (Peter Chelsom, 2001), a romantic comedy that tells a love story that comes true thanks to a series of unexpected events.

Discoveries and inventions born by chance: examples of serendipity in science

Serendipity is also believed to be at the root of many discoveries, which is why science is studying the phenomenon to understand how our brains manage to work to formulate insights in critical situations. Today the term is used to indicate those technological innovations that emerge serendipitously and not by explicitly directed research projects. Famous examples include scientific discoveries that are both significant and coincidental, such as the penicillin by Alexander Fleming, or inventions like i post-it.


The first is one of the best known cases: Alexander Fleming he casually noticed that a mold had contaminated one of his bacterial cultures and was killing the bacteria around it. The fortuitous event led to the discovery of penicillin, which began the era of antibiotics revolutionizing modern medicine.


A classic case of serendipity is the invention of post-it by Spencer Silver and Art Fry at 3M. Silver had developed a adhesive which was not strong enough to be used as intended, but Fry realized that it could be used to create repositionable bookmarks, leading to the creation of the famous colored notes.


Another significant example is the discovery of X-ray by Wilhelm Röntgen. While he was doing experiments with cathode ray tubes, the scientist accidentally observed that a paper shield covered with platinum-barium cyanide emitted a fluorescence if exposed to rays coming from the tube. This accidental discovery paved the way for the radiography and numerous applications in the medical and industrial fields.

These events, with the impact they have had on our lives, show us how precious the ability to recognize and exploit unexpected opportunities is, the importance of observation, curiosity, and open-mindedness, to seize the opportunities that every day life offers us unexpectedly.

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