Three Princes Of Serendib

The Alvarez team did not proceed according to the stereotype of the scientific method: They did not hypothesize that the dinosaurs were killed by the effects of a meteorite impact, reason out that iridium would provide the evidence, and then set out to test their theory by measuring iridium levels in the K-T boundary clay. Rather, while investigating a completely different idea—that iridium could be used to measure sedimentation rate—they discovered the iridium "spike." This is often how science works: While looking for one thing, sometimes for nothing, a scientist by accident makes an important discovery. In the eighteenth century, Sir Horace Walpole read a fairy tale about the "Three Princes of Serendib" (Sri Lanka), who "were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of," and he coined the term serendipity to describe their approach. Royston Roberts' delightful book of that name describes some of the many discoveries, aside from that of dinosaur extinction, that have had their origin in accidents: penicillin, X rays, Teflon, dynamite, and synthetic rubber, to name a few.17

Accidents happen to everyone, the great and the not-so-great alike, but accident does not necessarily imply serendipity. The Alvarezes made an accidental discovery, but turned it serendipitous by what they did next. They could have put down the unanticipated finding of high iridium levels to contamination or to a freak event and ignored it. Instead, they immediately turned their attention to finding out why the strange result occurred; that led them on to earthshaking discoveries.

In the absence of Pasteur's "prepared mind," chance turns away, accidents are not converted into serendipitous discoveries, and average scientists are sorted from great. The minds of most geologists, trained to believe that the earth changed slowly and imperceptibly over geologic time, certainly were not prepared to accept the meteorite impact theory. Not only was the introduction of the theory unnecessary, it appeared to many geologists to be a misguided attempt by outsiders to reverse 150 years of progress.

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