By Vishnu Makhijani
New Delhi, Apr 19 (IANS): Archimedes' discovery of the relationship of weight, volume and density of materials, Alexander Fleming's discovery of penicillin, Samuel Morse devising the Morse code, Alexander Graham Bell inventing the telephone and Charles Goodyear devising the process of vulcanising rubber all occurred during serendipitous moments they recognised and seized.
It lies within all of us to act similarly to improve the quality of our lives, particularly in these hard times, says Neil J. Farber, a Professor Emeritus of Clinical Medicine at the University of California-San Diego, and a docent (teacher) at the San Diego Air & Space Museum, in a new book, "Serendipity: Utilizing Everyday Unexpected Events to Improve Your Life and Career" (Boyle & Dalton).
"There is no formula for achieving a serendipitous event, but there are skills needed to recognize an unexpected event when it occurs, and the means by which one can turn it into something meaningful. The skills needed to recognize the event are those of mindfulness (recognizing all of the things that are around you), observational skills, curiosity, and the ability to make connections," Farber told IANS in an interview.
"Once the event is recognized as such, one needs to analyze whether it is something that will be fruitful in some way to the individual and/or society, and then be able to gather the things one needs to achieve the result one desires," he added.
After an Introduction in which he gives some examples of serendipity, including the invention of the microwave oven by Percy Spencer working at Raytheon in 1946, when a chocolate bar he had in his pocket melted when he was checking on vacuum tubes being used to increase the sensitivity of radar using higher energy sources, Farber goes on to discuss in 11 chapters the various inventions and breakthroughs that have thus occurred when the protagonists recognised and seized the moment.
1. The Big Bang, the discovery of radioactivity and of a vaccine against smallpox were "monumental events of the one in a million type" achieved collectively with the lining up of chance events by Belgian physicist Georges Lemaitre, Marie Curie and Edward Jenner respectively.
2. Everyday Serendipity occurs on a regular basis to most people and although perhaps not generating fame or fortune, it can often be very helpful in one's life or career.
3. Get Your Thinking Cap On deals with what some have called pseudo-serendipity -- events that occur when someone suggests or leads someone into an idea or area of discovery, with the other being an individual working on an idea or problem for a prolonged period of time and finally serendipitously coming up with a solution.
4. Being Open to It deals with the skills necessary in order to recognize a serendipitous event when it occurs.
5. Curiosity Doesn't Always Kill The Cat deals with the importance of both epistemic (a deeper kind of curiosity that leads to research or investigation) for the recognition of a serendipitous event, and also empathic curiosity (useful for anyone dealing with services such as health service careers, attorneys, sales people, etc.) in an attempt to better understand individuals.
6. Making Connections describes the needed skill set for making connections in order to recognize serendipity, and explores the neuro-anatomy for those connections.
7. Putting It Together details how the four skills - keeping an open mind, observational skills, curiosity, and making connections - often need to be put together to be able to adequately recognize the serendipitous event and what it may mean.
8. Getting the Skills discusses how to acquire by practice the self-awareness, observational skills, curiosity, and ability to make connections to be able to recognize serendipity when it occurs.
9. Roll Up Your Sleeves. Up to this point, the book deals with the exploration part of innovation. It now deals with exploitation, i.e., working with the discovery to make something of it.
10. Know When To Fold 'Em. Although one always hopes that one's serendipitous discovery will be widely taken up by society, it is not always the case. Often, some innovation doesn't take off because of inherent difficulties with something else coming along that is significantly better or cheaper.
11. What Do I Do With It? Once one has an idea or innovation that has been brought to the public, the decision becomes whether to continue with the idea/product or whether to sell. The decision, of course, is a personal one, but some factors to consider are whether the product is popular and profitable or not, and how much interest/time wants to invest in it.
Afterword: "My suggestion to readers is that I have given them the necessary tools to recognize and utilize serendipitous events, and their call to action is to find their own voice," Farber writes.
"This (past) year has been one of the most challenging that we have ever gone through. We all need something to renew our emotional and financial stability. I believe that this book can be one small part in our recovery, and I am delighted to be part of that," Farber writes.
"Most people go through life believing that unexpected, fortuitous events that often bring fame and fortune happen to only a lucky few individuals. The truth is that unexpected events frequently happen to all of us. They may not bring tremendous fame or fortune, but they can be recognized and utilized to significantly improve one's professional and personal life," Farber reiterates
"You have to have a mind-set that allows you to think that such events can happen," he explained, adding that by practicing self-awareness and cultivating keen visual and auditory observational skills, we are more likely to spot even the most subtle of serendipitous happenings.
So, go ahead and seize the moment!