Serendipities

“Serendipity is looking in a haystack for a needle and discovering a farmer’s daughter.” - Julius Comroe

 

cover Eco

Umberto Eco's book, Serendipities: Language and Lunacy, is not a book about education or technology. It is about some riddles of history and the "linguistics of the lunatic." I am an Umberto Eco reader and first noticed him, as many people did, with his novel The Name of the Rose

That novel takes place in 1327 in an Italian Franciscan abbey that is suspected of heresy. Brother William of Baskerville arrives to investigate and the story is a medieval mystery with a series of seven murders. Eco is

and he mixes in Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas and Roger Bacon. There are secret symbols and coded manuscripts in a higher level version of the Dan Brown novel formula.

I was partially attracted to Serendipities because of the title, but it's not an easy to read novel, but rather a non-fiction study.

Eco looks at mistakes that have shaped human history. For example, Christopher Columbus assumed that the world was much smaller than it is, land so he assumed he could find a quick route to the East via the West. He was wrong, but he accidentally "discovered" America.

Cults such as the Rosicrucians and Knights Templar seem to have resulted from a mysterious starting place that was a hoax. That kind of start made both groups ripe for conspiracy theories based on religious, ethnic, and racial prejudices. 

Eco posits that serendipities and mistaken ideas can have fortuitous results. 

On The Writer's Almanac, there was a nice short history of serendipity, parts of which I have also written about here. The word “serendipity” was first coined in 1754, and is now defined by Merriam-Webster as “the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for.” 

“Serendipity” was first used by parliament member and writer Horace Walpole in a letter that he wrote to an English friend who was spending time in Italy. In the letter to his friend written on this day in 1754, Walpole wrote that he came up with the word after a fairy tale he once read, called “The Three Princes of Serendip,” explaining, “as their Highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of.” The three princes of Serendip hail from modern-day Sri Lanka. “Serendip” is the Persian word for the island nation off the southern tip of India, Sri Lanka.

The invention of many wonderful things have been attributed to “serendipity,” including Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, Charles Goodyear’s vulcanization of rubber, inkjet printers, Silly Putty, the Slinky, and chocolate chip cookies.

Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin after he left for vacation without disinfecting some of his petri dishes filled with bacteria cultures; when he got back to his lab, he found that the penicillium mold had killed the bacteria.

Viagra had been developed to treat hypertension and angina pectoris; it didn’t do such a good job at these things, researchers found during the first phase of clinical trials, but it was good for something else.

The principles of radioactivity, X-rays, and infrared radiation were all found when researchers were looking for something else.

A U.K. translation company put "serendipity" on a list of the English language’s ten most difficult words to translate along with plenipotentiary, gobbledegook, poppycock, whimsy, spam, and kitsch.

In Eco's intellectual history of serendipities, he includes dead ends and mistakes that were not fortuitous. Leibniz believed that the I Ching illustrated the principles of calculus. Marco Polo identified a rhinoceros as the mythical unicorn. 

Eco then turns to how language tried to "heal the wound of Babel." But throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, various languages were held up as the first language that God gave to Adam. Greek, Hebrew, Chinese, and Egyptian were alternately seen as the starting place for language.

These essays by Umberto Eco are prefaced with his conclusion that serendipity is the positive outcome of some ill-conceived idea.

Lucky 13th Anniversary

13Serendipity35 has reached another birthday or anniversary. Launched on this date in 2006, we has survived 13 years online. That's at least 26 in blog years - maybe more. With the visitor counter clicking over the 104,588,736 mark as I type this post, the world has seen 1,942 posts here. 

I looked up the gifts you could send us for anniversary 13 and they are pretty lousy. I guess that unlucky 13 sticks even to anniversaries.

The recommended gifts are lace, furs, the precious stones citrine, malachite; moonstone or opal. I'm not into any of those. But you can get creative.

How about a nice pair of hiking boots with laces? And I do love licorice laces

I took a look in the archive at the first few posts on Serendipity35. Besides a first post on why we are Serendipity35, the first post is oddly about the Philadelphia Experiment and Orson Welles's radio play of The War of the Worlds. There is a slight and serendipitous reference to NJIT and perhaps some tenuous connections to technology, but no education. The blog had not found its theme at that point. I only started writing here in order to demonstrate what a blog was to a group of business people attending a conference on the NJIT campus.

Another early post starts off as many of my posts do - with a book I have read. In this case it was about three books that I gave my youngest son as he was headed out to start college as a business/finance major. I bought him Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything and Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. But the book I had read that I thought he really needed to read was The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman. That book had gotten a lot of attention then. It is definitely still worth a reading - or listening - and it would be interesting to discuss it now after a decade has passed. How flat is that world?

A third early post from 2006 also was about a hot topic of the time. I wrote about The Millenials Go to College which came from a presentation at the college that my department was putting together titled "How Does the Millennial Generation Differ from Other Generations at the Same Age?"  

There were lots of articles about this generation now appearing on campus that don't want to work or play like their parents generation.  They use information, and learn, differently. We weren't even sure what to call them. Millennials was the popular label, but Gen Y, Next Gen and Echo Boomers all got some play in the media. They were born between 1979 and 1994. Both my sons were in this group. They are the largest generation since the Boomers (1946 to 1964). And they were in colleges and universities as we were putting together our program, We put them on panels and we interviewed and surveyed them in front of their professors.

Many of the posts here from 2006 to about 2013 are now museum pieces. I am regularly cleaning up some of the older posts when I stumble on them and find their broken images and links, typos, and the many references to technology that is no with us. But Serendipity35 is still here and I'm still posting about once a week these days on topics that interest me in learning and technology.

Thanks for traveling with me.