Serendipity: The Role of Chance in Making Scientific Discoveries

Updated on May 28, 2020
AliciaC profile image

Linda Crampton has an honors degree in biology. She has taught high school biology and chemistry and elementary school science.

Finding a four-leaf clover is considered to be a lucky accident; so is experiencing serendipity.
Finding a four-leaf clover is considered to be a lucky accident; so is experiencing serendipity. | Source

What Is Serendipity?

Serendipity is a happy and unexpected event that apparently occurs due to chance and often appears when we are searching for something else. It's a delight when it happens in our daily lives and has been responsible for many innovations and important advances in science and technology.

It may seem odd to refer to chance when discussing science. Scientific research supposedly operates in a very methodical, precise, and controlled way, with no room for chance in any area of the investigation. In fact, chance plays an important role in science and technology and has been responsible for some significant discoveries in the past. In science, though, chance doesn't have quite the same meaning as it does in everyday life.

A lucky horsehoe
A lucky horsehoe | Source

Origin of the Word "Serendipity"

The word “serendipity” was first used by Sir Horace Walpole in 1754. Walpole (1717–1797) was an English writer and a historian. He was impressed by a story that he had read called “The Three Princes of Serendip”. Serendip is an old name for the country known today as Sri Lanka. The story described how three traveling princes repeatedly made discoveries about things that they had not planned to explore or that surprised them. Walpole created the word “serendipity” to refer to accidental discoveries.

Scientists are not passive recipients of the unexpected; rather, they actively create the conditions for discovering the unexpected.

— Kevin Dunbar and Jonathan Fugelsang

The Role of Chance in Science

When discussing serendipity in relation to science, “chance” doesn’t mean that nature is behaving capriciously. Instead, it means that a researcher has made an unexpected discovery due to the specific procedures that they chose to follow in their experiment. Those procedures led to serendipity while another set of procedures may not have done so.

A serendipitous discovery in science is often accidental, as its name implies. Some scientists try to design their experiments in a way that increases the chance of serendipity, though.

Many discoveries in science are interesting and meaningful. A serendipitous discovery goes beyond this, however. It reveals a very surprising, often exciting, and frequently useful aspect of reality. The fact that is discovered is part of nature but is hidden from us until a scientist uses suitable procedures for its revelation.

Experimental conditions can trigger serendipity.
Experimental conditions can trigger serendipity. | Source

Experiencing Serendipity

A deliberate change in a recommended procedure, an oversight, or an error may have a significant effect on the outcome of an experiment. The altered procedure may lead to a failed experiment. It may be exactly what is needed to produce a serendipitous discovery, however.

The steps and conditions in an experiment are not the only factors that control serendipity in science. The others are the ability to see that unexpected results may be significant, an interest in finding an explanation for the results, and the determination to investigate them.

The list of serendipitous discoveries in science is very long. In this article, I’ll describe just a small selection of the ones that have been made so far. All of them seem to have been made due to a procedural error. Each of the errors led to a useful discovery.

Penicillium is a mold that makes penicillin.
Penicillium is a mold that makes penicillin. | Source

The Discovery of Penicillin

Probably the most famous serendipitous event reported in science is the 1928 discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming (1881–1955). Fleming's discovery began when he was investigating a group of Petri dishes on his messy workbench.

Petri dishes are round and shallow plastic or glass dishes with lids. They are used to grow cultures of cells or microorganisms. They are named after Julius Richard Petri (1852–1921), a German microbiologist, who is said to have created them. The first word in the name of the dishes is often—but not always—capitalized because it’s derived from the name of a person.

Fleming’s Petri dishes contained colonies of a bacterium called Staphylococcus aureus, which he had deliberately placed in the containers. He found that one of the dishes had become contaminated by a mold (a type of fungus) and that there was a clear area around the mold.

Instead of cleaning or discarding the Petri dish and ignoring the contamination as a mistake, Fleming decided to investigate why the clear area had appeared. He discovered that the mold was making an antibiotic that killed the bacteria around it. Fleming identified the mold as Penicillium notatum and named the antibiotic penicillin. (Today there is a debate about the species of Penicillium that was actually located in Fleming's dish.) Penicillin eventually became an extremely important medicine for fighting infections.

What people call serendipity sometimes is just having your eyes open.

— Jose Manuel Barroso


In 1921 (or 1922), Alexander Fleming serendipitously discovered the antibacterial enzyme lysozyme. This enzyme is present in our mucus, saliva, and tears. Fleming found the enzyme after he sneezed—or dropped nasal mucus—on a petri dish full of bacteria. He noticed that some of the bacteria died where the mucus had contaminated the dish.

Fleming discovered that the mucus contained a protein that was responsible for the destruction of the bacterial cells. He named this protein lysozyme. The name was derived from two words used in biology—lysis and enzyme. "Lysis" means the breaking up of a cell. Enzymes are proteins that speed up chemical reactions. Fleming discovered that lysozyme is located in other places besides human secretions, including mammalian milk and the white of eggs.

Lysozyme destroys some of the bacteria that we encounter everyday, but it's not very helpful for a major infection. This is why Fleming didn't become famous until his later discovery of penicillin. Unlike lysozyme, penicillin can treat major bacterial infections—or it could before the worrying development of antibiotic resistance.


Cisplatin is a synthetic chemical that is an important chemotherapy drug in cancer treatment. It was first made in 1844 by an Italian chemist named Michele Peyrone (1813–1883) and is sometimes known as Peyrone’s chloride. For a long time, scientists had no idea that the chemical could act as a drug and fight cancer. Then in the 1960s researchers at Michigan State University made an exciting and serendipitous discovery.

Effect of an Electric Current on E. Coli Cells

A team led by Dr. Barnett Rosenberg wanted to discover if an electric current affects the growth of cells. They placed the bacterium Escherichia coli in a nutrient solution and applied a current using supposedly inert platinum electrodes so that the electrodes wouldn’t influence the result of the experiment. To their surprise, the researchers found that while some bacterial cells died, others grew up to 300 times longer than normal.

Being curious people, the team investigated further. They discovered that it wasn’t the current itself that was increasing the length of the bacterial cells, as might have been expected. The cause was actually a chemical produced when the platinum electrodes reacted with the solution containing the bacteria under the influence of the electric current. This chemical was cisplatin.

A Chemotherapy Drug

Dr. Rosenberg continued his research and found that the bacterial cells that survived were lengthening because they were unable to divide. He then had the idea that cisplatin might be useful in treating cancer, which results when cell division is rapid and out of control in the cancerous cells. He tested cisplatin on mice tumors and found that it was a very effective treatment for some types of cancer. In 1978, cisplatin was approved as a chemotherapy drug for humans.


In 1975, scientists at the Tate and Lyle sugar company and scientists at King's College London were working together. They wanted to find a way to use sucrose (sugar) as an intermediate substance in chemical reactions unrelated to sweeteners. Shashikant Phadnis was a graduate student helping with the project. He was asked to "test" some chlorinated sugar being prepared as a possible insecticide, but he misheard the request as "taste". He placed a little bit of the chemical on his tongue and found that it was extremely sweet—far sweeter than sucrose. Luckily, he didn't taste anything toxic.

Leslie Hough was the graduate student's advisor. He reportedly called the modified sugar "serendipitose". After its discovery, Phadnis and Hough worked with the Tate and Lyle scientists with a new goal in mind. They wanted to find a low calorie sweetener from chlorinated sucrose that didn't kill insects and could be eaten by humans. Their final version of the chemical was named sucralose.

In some countries, a ladybird (or ladybug) is a symbol of good luck.
In some countries, a ladybird (or ladybug) is a symbol of good luck. | Source


The discovery of saccharin is credited to Constantin Fahlberg (1850–1910). In 1879, Fahlberg was working with coal tar and its derivatives in Ira Remsen's chemistry laboratory at John Hopkins University. One day he was working late and forgot to wash his hands before eating supper (or, according to some reports, didn't wash them thoroughly). He was amazed when he found that his bread tasted extremely sweet.

Fahlberg realized that a chemical which he had been using in the lab had contaminated and sweetened the bread. He returned to the lab to find the source of the sweetness. His tests involved tasting different chemicals, which was a very risky pursuit.

Fahlberg discovered that a chemical referred to as benzoic sulfimide was responsible for the sweet taste. This chemical eventually became known as saccharin. Fahlberg had made this chemical before but had never tasted it. Saccharin became a very popular sweetener.

Success is three parts hard work and one part serendipity; this serendipity is a direct result of the other three parts of hard work.

— Ken Poirot


In 1965, a chemist named James Schlatter was working for the G.D Searle Company. He was trying to create new drugs to treat stomach ulcers. As part of this study, he needed to make a chemical consisting of four amino acids. He first joined two amino acids together (aspartic acid and phenylalanine), forming aspartyl-phenylalanine-1-methyl ester. Today this chemical is known as aspartame.

Once Schlatter had made this intermediate chemical, he accidentally got some of it on his hand. When he licked one of his fingers before picking up a piece of paper he was surprised to notice a sweet taste on his skin. Eventually he realized the cause of the taste and aspartame's future as a sweetener was secured.

A combined microwave and fan-assisted oven; the microwave was developed due to serendipity
A combined microwave and fan-assisted oven; the microwave was developed due to serendipity | Source

The Microwave Oven

In 1946, the physicist and inventor Percy LeBaron Spencer (1894–1970) was working for the Raytheon corporation. He was conducting research using magnetrons, which were needed in the radar equipment used in World War Two. A magnetron is a device that contains moving electrons under the influence of a magnetic field. The moving electrons cause microwaves to be produced.

Percy Spencer was involved in testing the output of magnetrons. One very significant day he had a chocolate candy bar in his pocket while working with a magnetron in his lab. (Although most versions of the story say that the candy was made of chocolate, Spencer's grandson says that it was actually a peanut cluster bar.) Spencer discovered that the candy bar melted while he worked. He wondered if emissions from the magnetron were responsible for this change, so he placed some uncooked popcorn kernels next to the magnetron and watched as they popped. His next experiment involved placing an uncooked egg near the magnetron. The egg heated up, cooked, and exploded.

Spencer then created the first microwave oven by sending the microwave energy from a magnetron into a metal box that contained food. The microwaves were reflected by the metal walls of the box, entered the food and were converted to heat, cooking the food much faster than a conventional oven. Further refinements created the microwave ovens that so many of us use today.

A magnetron viewed from the side
A magnetron viewed from the side | Source

Serendipity in the Past and the Future

There are many more examples of serendipity in science. Some researchers estimate that up to fifty percent of scientific discoveries are serendipitous. Others think that the percentage might be even higher.

It can be exciting when a researcher realizes that what at first seemed like an error may actually be an advantage. There may be great practical benefits to the discovery that is made. Some of our most important advances in science have been serendipitous. It's very likely that in the future there will be more important discoveries and inventions due to serendipity.


© 2012 Linda Crampton


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    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for the comment and for sharing the very interesting information, Gene.

    • profile image

      Gene Levinson 

      2 years ago

      Hi Linda, thanks for posting this informative article on the role of serendipity in scientific research. Serendipity certainly played an important role in my own career--for example, as a doctoral student interested in Developmental Biology, I noticed that a fruit fly (Drosophila) DNA sequence cross-hybridized with DNA sequences from animals as diverse as snakes and mice. It turned out that this was because all of the similar sequences contained similar simple repetitive DNA sequences. This led me to investigate the origins of simple repetitive sequences which are extremely widespread in nature, and to the discovery of the fundamental mechanism for DNA sequence expansion which we called slipped-strand mispairing--also known as replication slippage.

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Bede. Thanks for the comment and for sharing the information about Harry Brearley. I definitely agree that hard work can increase luck!

    • Bede le Venerable profile image


      2 years ago from Minnesota

      Thanks for this enjoyable article. I had an uncle who was considered to be lucky by many people. He would tell them, “The harder I work, the luckier I become.” It seems that many serendipitous discoveries made by people who tinkered for hours in the laboratory. The “eureka “moment was preceded by much sweat. Such was the case with Harry Brearley, who discovered stainless steel.

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much for the comment, the vote and the interesting quotation, Anne!

    • Anne Harrison profile image

      Anne Harrison 

      6 years ago from Australia

      A really interesting hub. As Abélard said, by doubting we are led to inquire, by enquiry we are led to the truth; with an open mind, one notices things in a new light, and asks, why. Voted up

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you, Ruby. I appreciate your comment.

    • Ruby H Rose profile image

      Maree Michael Martin 

      6 years ago from Northwest Washington on an Island

      Connecting serendipity and science, wonderful, a great way to look at it. Love your examples.

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      8 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Congratulations on your discovery, Kris! It must have been a great feeling. I agree, forgetting to wash your hands after working with chemicals is very strange. Thank you for the comment!

    • Kris Heeter profile image

      Kris Heeter 

      8 years ago from Indiana

      Very interesting hub. A significant number of important scientific discoveries are by "accident". I've had a few myself in the lab and I'll always remember the one that was controversial at first but ended up being significant in it's field after publication. It's a fun feeling to stumble upon something you never thought possible:)

      The one that always gets me is the artificial sweetener one you mentioned - it's famous and it kind of creeps me out. No scientist in his right mind should be licking his/her fingers after working with chemicals! Yuck:)

      Thanks for a great hub!

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      8 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for the comment, Alastar. I’ve read the claims that Crick had chemical help when he was contributing to the discovery of DNA’s structure, but I don’t know how reliable the claims are. It's an interesting idea. The idea of another dimension which can communicate with us is also a very interesting topic! I certainly have an open mind with respect to that thought.

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      8 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much for the comment and the share, phdast7!! I appreciate your visit very much. Yes, serendipity and science do sound like strange partners to many people! Their relationship is an interesting topic.

    • Alastar Packer profile image

      Alastar Packer 

      8 years ago from North Carolina

      This was a very interesting and informative article on science and serendipity Alicia. Would the fact that Crick actually come on the structure of DNA while on LSD not beer as is so often reported fall under serendipity? Do many of these discoverers by whatever means "tune in" to another dimension or plane where the answers to their discoveries are made?

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 

      8 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Wonderful Hub! I offer a History of Science course on the college level and it is always interesting to watch students grapple with, what to them seem like incompatible truths, the fact that science is rigorous and mathematical, and that chance, unplanned and random choices. actions, elements can actually play such a major role in scientific discoveries and understanding.

      I love this sentence: "When serendipity occurs, it means that by chance a researcher has created a suitable combination of conditions to get an unusual, often interesting and sometimes very important result from his or her investigation."

      Great Hub and Thank you. SHARING

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      8 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for the comment, GoodLady. I'm very much looking forward to getting to know you and your hubs, too!

    • GoodLady profile image

      Penelope Hart 

      8 years ago from Rome, Italy

      Serendipity and science. Who's have made the connection? It's a fascinating read. Thanks.

      Look forward to reading more and knowing you better!

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      8 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for the comment, Larry. Yes, serendipity is certainly very important in our lives! It's a fascinating topic to think about.

    • profile image

      Larry Wall 

      8 years ago

      Excellent Hub and it makes an excellent point--experimentation is vital. If we knew the results of X+Y-Z when all three are variables then we would have no need to experiment. We would just solve the problem and move on to the next. A lot of things in our lives are the result of Serendipity. We do not always realize it, but it happens all the time.

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      8 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks, billybuc! Actually, the only site I have time to write for consistently at the moment is HubPages. I wish there were more hours in the day!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      8 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Fascinating topic and hub! I can see the scientist in your writing. You are a busy person with all those sites you write for and the sheer number of articles you write. I am quite impressed.

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      8 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for the comment, kidscrafts. Yes, I agree, it is important to stay open to all possibilities!

    • kidscrafts profile image


      8 years ago from Ottawa, Canada

      It's a very interesting article. The conclusion is that you have to stay open to what the universe brings at you; to really stay open to the never know!

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      8 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you so much, Martie! I appreciate your comment and votes. I try to keep my mind "prepared" too, since I love to make serendipitous discoveries!

    • MartieCoetser profile image

      Martie Coetser 

      8 years ago from South Africa

      AliciaC – I have found this hub of yours staggeringly interesting. You’ve taught me a new word – Serendipity. I knew the concept, but not its name. I, certainly have a “prepared mind”, and this is also a description not familiar to me. I can but only agree with all the comments in here, Alicia, and in particular with drbj’s and A.A. Zavala's.

      Voted up, well-written and very interesting ?

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      8 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, drbj. Thank you for the comment and the vote! Yes, it is great that so many discoveries and inventions have resulted from serendipity. It's a wonderful phenomenon!

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 

      8 years ago from south Florida

      Isn't it wonderful, Alicia, how many inventions were born as a result of serendipity? Accompanied of course by scientists or researchers who were organized and methodical. Thanks for reminding us so delightfully of these mind-bending discoveries. Voted Up.

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      8 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much for the comment, b. Malin. I agree - "serendipity" is a lovely word with a lovely meaning! It's wonderful when it occurs in any area of life, and it can be very useful in science.

    • b. Malin profile image

      b. Malin 

      8 years ago

      What an Interesting Hub Alicia, Yea, for "Serendipity" in Science. I don't know what I'd do without my "Microwave Oven"! I Love the meaning of the word, Serendipity, a Happy and Unexpected Event that occurs do to chance. As a Writer I can really appreciate that thought. Another Excellent Hub, my friend.

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      8 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you, Tom. I appreciate all your visits, comments and votes very much. I enjoy reading your hubs too!

    • kashmir56 profile image

      Thomas Silvia 

      8 years ago from Massachusetts

      Hi my friend,i always enjoy reading your hubs,they always have interesting information and i always learn something new .

      Vote up and more !!!

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      8 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for the comment, Augustine! Yes, timing is certainly very important in life. It can make a big difference to our experiences!

    • A.A. Zavala profile image

      Augustine A Zavala 

      8 years ago from Texas

      Timing is everything! In science, writing, and in life. Awesome hub Alicia, thank you for sharing.

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      8 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for commenting and for the vote, DAWNEMARS!

    • DAWNEMARS profile image


      8 years ago from The Edge of a Forest in Europe

      Interesting hub. Voted up! Thanks for sharing this.


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