Excerpt from Happy Accidents by Morton Meyers M.D., plus links to reviews, author biography & more

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reviews |  Beyond the Book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

Happy Accidents

Serendipity in Modern Medical Breakthroughs

By Morton Meyers M.D.

Happy Accidents

Buy This Book

About this Book

Print Excerpt


An anecdote about Max Planck, the Nobel Prize–winning physicist, hammers home this reality. When a graduate student approached him for a topic of research for his Ph.D. thesis, asking him for a problem he could solve, Planck reportedly scoffed: “If there was a problem I knew could be solved, I would solve it myself!”



Induction and deduction only extend existing knowledge. A radically new conceptual system cannot be constructed by deduction. Rational thought can be applied only to what is known. All new ideas are generated with an irrational element in that there is no way to predict them. As Robert Root-Bernstein, physiology professor and author of Discovering, observed, “We invent by intention; we discover by surprise.”9 In other words, accidents will happen, and it’s a blessing for us that they do.

The Receptive Scientific Mind
“Accident” is not really the best word to describe such fortuitous discoveries. Accident implies mindlessness. Christopher Columbus’s discovery of the American continent was pure accident — he was looking for something else (the Orient) and stumbled upon this, and never knew, not even on his dying day, that he had discovered a new continent. A better name for the phenomenon we will be looking at in the pages to follow is “serendipity,” a word that came into the English language in 1754 by way of the writer Horace Walpole. The key point of the phenomenon of serendipity is illustrated in Walpole’s telling of an ancient Persian fairy tale, The Three Princes of Serendip (set in the land of Serendip, now known as Sri Lanka): “As their highnesses traveled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.”

Accidents and sagacity. Sagacity — defined as penetrating intelligence, keen perception, and sound judgment — is essential to serendipity. The men and women who seized on lucky accidents that happened to them were anything but mindless. In fact, their minds typically had special qualities that enabled them to break out of established paradigms, imagine new possibilities, and see that they had found a solution, often to some problem other than the one they were working on. Accidental discoveries would be nothing without keen, creative minds knowing what to do with them.

The term “serendipity” reached modern science by way of physiologist Walter B. Cannon, who introduced it to Americans in his 1945 book The Way of an Investigator.11 Cannon thought the ability to seize on serendipity was the mark of a major scientist. The word is now loosely applied in the popular media to cover such circumstances as luck, coincidence, or a fortunate turn of events. This sadly distorts it. Serendipity means the attainment or discovery of something valuable that was not sought, the unexpected observation seized upon and turned to advantage by the prepared mind. The key factor of sagacity has been lost. Chance alone does not bring about discoveries. Chance with judgment can.

Serendipity implies chance only insofar as Louis Pasteur’s famous dictum indicates: “In the field of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind.” Salvador Luria, a Nobel laureate in medicine, deemed it “the chance observation falling on the receptive eye.” I have the answer. What is the question? Turning an observation inside out, seeking the problem that fits the answer, is the essence of creative discovery. Such circumstances lead the astute investigator to solutions in search of problems and beyond established points of view.

Excerpted from Happy Accidents by Morton Meyers, M.D. Copyright © 2007 by Morton Meyers, M.D. Excerpted by permission of Arcade Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!
Member Benefits

Join Now!

Check the advantages!
Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year

    •  
    • FREE
    • MEMBER
    • Range of media reviews for each book
    • Excerpts of all featured books
    • Author bios, interviews and pronunciations
    • Browse by genre
    • Book club discussions
    • Book club advice and reading guides
    • BookBrowse reviews and "beyond the book" back-stories
    •  
    • Reviews of notable books ahead of publication
    •  
    • Free books to read and review (US Only)
    •  
    • Browse for the best books by time period, setting & theme
    •  
    • Read-alike suggestions for thousands of books and authors
    •  
    • 'My Reading List" to keep track of your books
    •  

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: The Goldfinch
    The Goldfinch
    by Donna Tartt
    Winner of the 2014 Pulitzer for Fiction.

    Her canvas is vast. To frame a story about art, love and ...
  • Book Jacket: Toms River
    Toms River
    by Dan Fagin
    Winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction

    In Toms River, investigative journalist Dan Fagin ...
  • Book Jacket: The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry
    The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry
    by Gabrielle Zevin
    I feel like Gabrielle Zevin wrote this wonderful book, about a lonely New England bookstore owner ...

First Impressions

Members read and review books ahead
of publication. See what they think
in First Impressions!

Books that
expand your
horizons.

Visitors can view a lot of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only

Find out more.

Book Discussions
Book Jacket

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry
by Gabrielle Zevin

Published Apr. 2014

Join the discussion!

Who Said...

Happiness belongs to the self sufficient.

Click Here to find out who said this, as well as discovering other famous literary quotes!

Word Play

Solve this clue:

P Your O C

and be entered to win..

Books thatinspire you.Handpicked.

Books you'll stay up all night reading; books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, books that will expand your mind and inspire you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.