I had a disappointing evening at the Festival theatre in Edinburgh last night. I paid a fair whack to hear Malcolm Gladwell talk and wish I’d spent the money elsewhere.

His theme was Serendipity and the talk began with some promise. He described 3 levels of serendipity: Columbian, Archimedian and Galilean.  The first depends on luck and chance as when Columbus happened upon islands he took to be the western Indies in his search for a route to Asia. Archimedes’ Eureka moment represents a more deliberate good luck when he is taken by surprise by the realisation of something profound in an ordinary activity which illuminates a theory on which he had been working.
Galilean serendipity is of another order altogether. When Galileo manufactured a tool with which to peer at the heavens he had no notion of what he might discover. The telescope opened up the heavens and ultimately challenged the entire concept of earth’s place at the centre of the universe.

So far, so interesting.

However, Gladwell then spent the rest of his hour describing the complex process by which some friends of his (including more informati0n than I needed about the content of their apartments) sought to develop drugs to cure some cancers.  After many trials and tribulations, trips to the furthest outreaches of the old Soviet Union and the creation of many noxious potions, it seemed that one compound did indeed work on one cancer. But then … they found that it didn’t.

So, serendipity can work both ways. So?

As we drove away we wondered if we had left too precipitously. Perhaps there was a second half in which all would be made clear, a lengthier analysis of what is meant by ‘good fortune’ in the context of scientific discovery at least; what makes people dedicate their lives to activities that appear hopeless; an elaboration, preferably  with evidence, of the hierarchy of serendipity. But we recalled the line of people waiting to have their books signed (why?) and recognized that this would take some time. So we continued on our way; poorer and none the wiser!

Advertisements