(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 21)

In The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity, Robert Merton and Elinor Barber draw a map of their intellectual journey that entices readers to follow. They unfold the story of the word “serendipity,” coined by Horace Walpole, English aristocrat and antiquarian, and first used by him in a letter (January 28, 1754) to British diplomat Sir Horace Mann. Walpole wrote that he had come upon a crucial discovery in an old book that was of the kind he called “Serendipity.” He explained to Mann that the word derived from “a silly fairy tale” he had read in which “the three Princes of Serendip” were “always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of.” For the next seventy-nine years, there was no record of “serendipity” appearing in written form.

Then in 1833, Walpole's letters to Mann were published. Walpole was well known, and thus his new term theoretically became available for use. However, the early Victorians did not adopt it, probably because it (and its creator) ran counter to the tenor of the times, which honored seriousness and competence. Thomas Macaulay, distinguished reviewer of Walpole's letters, assessed Walpole as a trifler and a man of affectation whose word coinages were symptomatic of an “unhealthy and disorganized mind.” As the nineteenth century unfolded, however, literary critics began to afford Walpole more respect, and as his currency rose, so did serendipity's.

Merton and Barber explain that “serendipity” was eventually noticed by a few collectors and bibliophiles and, forty-two years after Walpole's letters were published, another writer first used “serendipity” in print. The word stayed within literary circles until the turn of the twentieth century, when it tiptoed further, particularly through the attention of Wilfred Meynall. Meynall, magazine editor and literary country squire, listed serendipity as his re-creation in successive editions of hisWho's Who entry, and he seemed to be the first to use the word as part of a “moral and intellectual outlook” rather than “incidental whimsy.”

So the word began its journey, gathering connotations and variations of meaning, assuming emphases that were most compatible with the given context and the user's purpose. Merton and Barber investigate meaning changes in detail, noting that even the first few users gave “serendipity” their own interpretations. This tendency reflects what the authors call a “single fundamental tension in the concept of accidental discovery: a tension between the attribution of credit for an unexpected discovery to the discoverer on the one hand, and to auspicious external circumstances on the other.” In the 1930's, “serendipity” entered the vocabulary of science, where its greatest changes in meaning were to occur. Walter B. Cannon, professor of physiology at Harvard Medical School, was instrumental, using “serendipity” to mean not just accidental discoveries in science but also to express a philosophical approach to scientific research.

Serendipity became increasingly of interest within the scientific community, and the term began to be noticed by journalists writing about science for the popular press. Merton and Barber follow the hibernations, meanderings, and permutations of “serendipity” to foreshadow the important and controversial role that the concept of accidental discovery came to play in the scientific framework of the twentieth century. Although the book has chapters on the social history and the moral implications of serendipity and deals with serendipity in the humanities, the primary focus is on its significance in science.

The manuscript that became The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity was completed in 1958. Reminiscent, perhaps, of serendipity's own periods of hibernation, Merton and Barber agreed to set their manuscript aside “for a while,” where it remained until the 1990's. Then, editors at the Italian press Il Mulino approached the authors to publish the work, and permission was granted. Barber died shortly afterward. The book appeared in Italian in 2002, followed two years later by the English edition. The added preface and afterword are authored by Merton alone. He explains that the text was not tampered with because it had become an unintentional time capsule, revealing how the word and its...

(The entire section is 1788 words.)