Spring 2001 • Vol. XXIII No. 2 Cultures of Creativity: The Centennial Celebration of the Nobel PrizesApril 1, 2001 |

Serendipity Is No Accident

All the inventions that the world contains, Were not by reason first found out, nor brains; But pass for theirs who had the luck to light Upon them by mistake or oversight. —Samuel Butler In the celebration or appreciation of human creativity, particularly in science or the practical arts, an uncomfortable puzzle is presented by the role of accident and chance. It is easy to sing the praises of ingenuity or perseverance; cleverness will always have its champions; sheer talent or great breadth and vision will evoke admiration. But the moment we acknowledge the role of chance—of luck—we seem to diminish the creative act and the particular humanity that we attach to it. Nonetheless, accidental discovery or invention is a common and widely acknowledged fact in modern science and technology. That this should be so is, at first glance, a bit surprising, given the scale and scope of systematic research. How indeed, one might ask, can such unpredictable and uncontrollable even

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Robert Friedel is a historian of technology who has taught at the University of Maryland since 1984. His books and articles on the processes of invention and discovery include studies of plastics, electric light and power, and the zipper.  A more general treatment of the history of technology was published as A Culture of Improvement: Technology and the Western Millennium (MIT Press, 2007).

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