THE PRINCES OF SERENDIP


The Musical Scale and the Mathematics of Acoustics In the writings of Hippocrates, the father of medicine, we find many evidences of the strange and the unusual. Pythagoras. Greek philosopher, is said to have thought of the musical scale upon passing a blacksmiths shop and hearing the hammer strike the anvil, and later introduced the mathematics of acoustics.


Largely stimulated by a study of the professional career of Hahnemann, the circumstances surrounding his discovery and promulgation of the “Simili Principle in Medicine,” I became interested in the effect on science generally, and on medicine in particular, of discoveries accidentally or incidentally made.

Although chance or luck seems to play an important part in such discoveries, the fact that the observer has the mentality to comprehend their significance is the important thing. Similar observations by an untrained individual would likely pass unnoticed. Even though such occurrences are not anticipated, the comprehension of their importance removes the discovery from the category of sheer luck, coincidence or chance.

Soon I learned that my interest in such things was shared by others. The late Walter B. Cannon, former Professor of Physiology at Harvard University, produced a monograph, “The Way of an Investigator.” From this work I learned that there exists a word designating such accidental observations. The word is SERENDIPITY.

Serendipity was coined by Horace Walpole in 1754, and suggested after he had read a fairy tale entitled, “The Three Princess of Serendip.” Serendip, according to Cannon, is the ancient name of Ceylon. The story goes on to state that, “as their highnesses (the three princes) travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accident or sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.” Walpole suggested that SERENDIPITY be added to our vocabulary and Webster gives as its definition, “The gift of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for.”.

Alton Ochsner+ The William Henderson, Professor of Surgery and Head of Department of Surgery, School of Medicine, Tulane University of Louisiana. of the Ochsner Clinic in New Orleans has been equally interested in these matters. I wish to give full credit to this author from whose works I have borrowed and quoted quite freely. In Ochsners words: The Influence of Serendipity on Medicine Jerome Cochran Lecture. “No reading is more stimulating than stories of accidental discoveries and their influence upon medical science. Often more amazing than tales of fiction and more exciting than fairy legends are these happenings in real life.”.

Let me remind you of a few examples:.

The Archimedian Principle- Tradition has bequeathed to us the intriguing account of Archimedes, Greek inventor and mathematician, who noted water overflowing as he stepped into his bath. The thought that struck him, as he ran home naked, crying, “Eureka I have found it” was the hydrostatic principle which bears his name a body immersed in a liquid sustains an upward pressure equal to the weight of the liquid displaced.

The Musical Scale and the Mathematics of Acoustics In the writings of Hippocrates, the father of medicine, we find many evidences of the strange and the unusual. Pythagoras. Greek philosopher, is said to have thought of the musical scale upon passing a blacksmiths shop and hearing the hammer strike the anvil, and later introduced the mathematics of acoustics.

The Law of Motion- There are the timeworn tales of Galileo, father of mathematics, watching the swaying lamps in the Cathedral of Pisa, envisioning the laws of motion.

There are many of these interesting stories to be told and as many Princes in the Realm of Serendip. There was the accidental discovery of America when Columbus was seeking a short route to the East; James Watt, as a youth, noting the possibility of the steam engine as he watched the tea kettle lid rise and fall; and of Sir Isaac Newton, observing the falling apple and introducing the theory of gravitation.

Galvanism In the 1780, in the city of Bologna, electrophysiology originated in the home of Aloiso Galvani. His fair wife Lucia, was not in good health and a diet of frogs legs was prescribed for her. The frogs legs were suspended by a copper wire from an iron balustrade and when, as a result of swinging in the breeze, they touched the iron, violent convulsions of the muscles were noted. Galvani set about to learn the cause of this reaction. His elaborate studies and experiments resulted in the description of galvanism. Volta, his contemporary, later analyzed this current and these were the chance beginnings of our knowledge of animal electricity.

The Father of Modern Surgery- Ambroisia Pare, who lived in the 16th century, quite by accident discovered that simple dressings were better for gunshot wounds than the timeworn cauterization with boiling oil which was the accepted method of the time.

Victor C. Laughlin