Serendipity and the Art of Tracking Down Stories, Camels, and Outbreaks

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Silk Road Traces

An age-old tale about three princes inspired modern science, the creation of the word serendipity, and a whole tradition of detective fiction. It seems equally inspiring today in the midst of a pandemic and a global crisis of knowledge and information.

While listening to a podcast covering the latest coronavirus news the other day it struck me how much research around the outbreak is informed by veritable detective work. The virus harms and kills people quite randomly, much like a serial offender—to track it down and ideally put a stop to its game, researchers are set to acquire an ever-clearer picture of the phantom they are looking for.

The mentioned podcast covered one trail of this investigation. In hopes of understanding how the outbreak could be controlled by more targeted measures, researchers around the world try to gain a better understanding of how exactly the virus spreads among humans. With this intention, they determine not only the effective reproductive rate R (or R0), which indicates the average number of people infected by one infected individual. But they also crunch the data to yield a value called k, or kappa, which is the ‘dispersion parameter’ of the offspring distribution. If k = 1, the distribution is homogenous, i.e. a virus is transmitted by all infected individuals equally. The lower k is, the more the number of transmissions varies from one infected individual to another. The studies covered in the podcast show that in the case of the novel coronavirus, k is relatively low (although not quite as low as for SARS). This means that only a few among those currently infected with the virus are causing the majority of further transmissions.

This statistical observation allows for two possible explanations. Either some individuals bear certain biological features that make them more prone to pass on the virus, or there are certain circumstances (causing so-called superspreader events) in which it’s much more likely for the virus to be transmitted. While the latter explanation is the more probable one in the case of coronavirus, the investigation continues. What exactly makes for such superspreader events, and how could they be prevented?

Around the same time when I heard the podcast an old friend happened to ask me in an email if I could recommend ‘any good German detective fiction’. I had reached out to him for the first time in years to inquire how he was weathering the lockdown and if he and his family were safe and sound. To my shame, I must confess that I did not reply to his email directly, and until now I haven’t replied. I put off my response partly because I couldn’t think of a good recommendation for a German detective story off the top of my head. And a quick search on the Web and in my memory only set me on the wrong tracks.

The great American sociologist Robert K. Merton co-authored a book with the promising title The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity.

It may have been in this state of mind, with the search for German detective fiction on the back burner, that I made a lucky discovery somewhere online: The great American sociologist Robert K. Merton co-authored a book with the promising title The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity. Merton and his Columbia University colleague Elinor Barber completed the core of this book as early as 1958, at a time when serendipity “was still an esoteric, not to say mysterious, word known only to a few bibliophiles, antiquarians, and a handful of scientists.” (Preface by Merton, in Merton & Barber 2004, IX). For reasons that seem rather mysterious today, it took nearly half a century for the book to be published, first in an Italian translation, and then, finally, in the English original in 2004, shortly after Merton’s death.

As soon as I found out about this book, I fetched a digital copy through my alma mater’s library and devoured the first chapter, which itself reads like a detective story. In it, the authors trace the concept of serendipity back to its very origins in 1754, when the English writer Horace Walpole first used the word in a letter to a friend. The letter not only indicates that Walpole has coined the expression to describe “discoveries, [that people make] by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of”; but Walpole also explains in it that he has derived the word from a “silly fairy tale, called the three Princes of Serendip” (Merton & Barber 2004, 2).

Thanks to Merton we are now wary of “self-fulfilling prophecies” and aware of the importance of “role models” as to our individual and collective development.

Merton himself had quite an impressive record of creating scientific concepts and neologisms. Thanks to him we are now wary of “self-fulfilling prophecies” and aware of the importance of “role models” as to our individual and collective development. In the chapter about the origin of serendipity, he and Barber shine some light on what it meant in the eighteenth century for someone of Walpole’s social status to create an entirely new word. Moreover, the two authors trace the tale of the three princes back to its alleged origin in the Persian poem Hasht-Bihisht (“The Eight Paradises”), written around 1300 by the Indian poet and scholar Amīr Khusrau Dehlavī. And finally, Merton and Barber extrapolate from the story three different “patterns of scientific thought” (Merton & Barber 2004, 19) going beyond Walpole’s understanding of the word serendipity: “a discovery made by accidental sagacity.”

This apparent philosophical depth of the story aroused my curiosity. I had to track down that text somewhere. But all I could find online were summaries, excerpts, or free adaptions of questionable accuracy on other blogs. According to Barber and Merton, the version that Horace Walpole had presumably read was an English translation of the Italian book Peregrinaggio di tre giovani figlivoli del Re di Serendippo, by one Armenian author Christoforo Armeno, which appeared in 1557 in Venice.

Getting hold of a copy of the English translation turned out to be more difficult than expected, especially in times of a pandemic, as most libraries are still closed to the public. It took me a while until I found out that a digital library called Internet Archive holds a copy of the 1965 edition of the text. My long search was rewarded, and I was anything but disappointed when finally reading the story of The Three Princes of Serendip.

Traces Back to Serendip?
Traces Back to Serendip?

As the title suggests, the tale is about three sons of the king of Serendip (or Ceylon, current-day Sri Lanka). Their father, king Giaffer, goes to great lengths in order to grant to his sons the best possible education. He hires the world’s finest scholars as their tutors and has his sons study all fields of human knowledge. Once they have passed this educational training, their father sends them out into the world “so that they could confirm from reality and experience the knowledge they had already received from books and the teaching of their preceptors” (Armeno & Remer 1965, 60).

Their first encounter out in the real world is with a camel driver who is missing one of his camels and who asks them if they might have seen the animal. To the reader’s surprise, the three princes know quite some details about the missing camel. They ask the camel driver whether the camel was blind in one eye, missing one tooth, and if the animal was lame. As all three questions are answered affirmatively, the three princes claim they have seen the camel and point the camel driver in the direction they say they saw it going.

After the search has been unsuccessful, the camel driver meets the three princes again and questions that they have really seen his camel. To validate their earlier claims, the three princes share additional information specifying the missing camel’s characteristics: they say it had a load of butter at one side, a load of honey at the other, and that it was carrying a pregnant woman on its back. As all of this information turns out to be accurate to a tee, the camel driver suspects the princes to have stolen the camel and drags them to court where they are sentenced to death.

The three princes protest their innocence and explain that they have simply played a prank on the camel driver, that they have in fact not seen his camel but just inferred its appearance from various traces they had noticed along the way. However, their pleas are in vain and they do not get pardoned. Fortunately, just in time before they receive their punishment, the missing camel is found and it becomes clear that the princes are innocent. When asked how they were able to describe the camel so well without having seen it in flesh and blood, the three princes divulge their extraordinary abilities to infer the existence of something from the sagacious interpretation of traces. They had inferred that the camel was blind in one eye because they had noticed that the grass was all eaten on one side of the road while on the other side the grass that was actually much lusher had remained untouched. The load of butter had been disclosed to them by an abundance of ants on the ground because ants love butter; and the load of honey by clouds of flies, because flies like honey. One of the three princes had inferred that the camel had a rider, because he had found human footsteps and traces of urine somewhere. And when he had wet his fingers with the urine, he had “felt a sort of carnal concupiscence, which convinced me that the imprint was of a woman’s foot” (Armeno & Remer 1965, 65).

From this amusing moment of relief, the story of the three princes continues in an episodic fashion with equally unheard-of occurrences. However, I will halt my ramble at this point to conclude with some general observations. Although Horace Walpole derived his concept of serendipity from the story, the three princes shine with abilities beyond what we would subsume under this concept today. Serendipity is generally defined as “the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for” (Merriam-Webster). Classic examples are Columbus’s ‘discovery’ of the Americas, the invention of X-ray radiology, and the discovery of penicillin.

What the princes of Serendip do is more than chance discovery. Their profound education has enabled them to read and interpret an abundance of sensory information and hence to accurately describe beings that they have not actually seen. As Barber and Merton point out, the tale of the three princes has inspired a whole tradition of detective fiction from Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue through Voltaire’s Zadig and down to Sherlock Holmes. The story, which seems to have traveled along the silk road like its protagonists, has also informed the very patterns of modern scientific thought. In times that are not only defined by a global pandemic, but also by a crisis of knowledge and information, the tale of the Three Princes of Serendip seems particularly inspiring.

Robert K. Merton & Elinor Barber: The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity. A Study in Sociological Semantics and the Sociology of Science. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004.

Christoforo Armeno & Theodore G. Remer: Serendipity and the Three Princes, from the Peregrinaggio of 1557. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1965.

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