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Hoger Onderwijs, Wetenschap & Maatschappij

Serendipity … a law of nature

Is there still room for serendipity – the pleasant surprise – in today’s academic teaching and research? At first, one would say “no”. But in our everyday routine we have to acknowledge that “pleasant surprises” keep coming in. Why? Maybe just because serendipity is a fundamental law of nature …

This text is the transcript of my talk on Friday 20 February at the TedxLeuven 2015 main event “On the Lookout For Serendipity: Keep Your Minde Wide Open”.

Award-winning field course and serendipity?

When the organizers  asked me to participate, I was of course flattered. But the first question that popped up into my head was: how did they end up with me? How did the organizers linked serendipity with me, a modest earth scientist at the KU Leuven? The answer to that question came as a complete surprise: because I was the first laureate of the Price of the Education Council of the KU Leuven (see “Prijs Onderwijsraad voor geologische terreinstage”, “Prijs Onderwijsraad voor Manuel Sintubin en Isaac Berwouts”), rewarding my integrated field course on Continental Tectonics in Brittany, France (see “Geïntegreerde terreinstage Continental Tectonics”). An answer that left me definitively in utter confusion: what’s the link between the field course and serendipity?


What they really wanted, is that I share with you my personal thoughts and experiences on serendipity in academic teaching and research. Yeah right! That didn’t help much … The following conversation on serendipity in academic teaching and research surprisingly quickly turned just the other way, discussing all these examples of how the system ingeniously tries to kill off any serendipity. So, should I give a talk on “how universities develop efficient sets of rules to kill off serendipity in academic teaching and research” (see e.g. “Bahramdipity and Scientific Research”, Toby Sommmer, The Scientist, 1999)? No, because the talk has to be positive, has to be inspiring … Damn, this looks really a mission impossible.

So, maybe by just looking back on my own experiences in academic teaching and research, I would find some light at the end of the tunnel. Because indeed, by recollecting all the pleasant surprises that have happened in my research and teaching career, I realized that serendipity seems still fully in control. How is this possible?

Serendipity in academic research and teaching?

When you look at the way research is managed today, you can only conclude that the funding agencies basically declared a war on serendipity. In a research proposal they don’t ask you to describe how you will create a research environment in which serendipity may thrive. No, it’s all about the output. It’s all about the results, the valorisation, … and all these other buzzwords of our managers. Even before a research project starts – if it get funded at all – you already have to know what the results will be in 4 year’s time. You nearly have to predict what your productivity will be … you know … the number of publications, the number of citations, the impactfactor of the journal, …. And at the end of the project, the assessment only looks at these output parameters.

But, looking back at all my research projects, I discover that at the end, after 4 years, the results never comply with what I had foreseen in the research proposal. In one way or another, serendipity has still found its way to mess up the research strategy that aimed at achieving the predefined goals. Every time you end up with results – and don’t worry also publications – that you could never have imagined when writing the research proposal. I can’t imagine that the wise men and women at the expert panels of the funding agencies don’t see that. Or aren’t they interested, as long as the output meets their expectations, just like the shareholders looking for a maximum profit.


And what about the way we educate our PhD students? More and more we excel in making perfect administrators of our PhD students. We provide them with an extensive Roadmap to a PhD, full of checklists, deadlines for interim reports, etc (see example of KU Leuven Arenberg Doctoral School). But in that timeline you never find any room for a pleasant surprice … probably because you cannot plan a serendipitous incident. And also with respect to the outline of the research subjects for our PhD students, the primary goal no longer seems to be the scientific curiosity, but only the necessity to make sure to deliver a PhD in the 4 years ahead. Again, it’s all about output. PhD students don’t have to be challenged. They just have to follow the cookery book to produce results, to produce publications. And if they do exactly what they have been told to do, they are rewarded with a PhD.

But again, even with the straitjacket of the Roadmap to a PhD, serendipity comes in. Whether the supervisor likes it or not, all of a sudden the research project takes a turn and ends up with results that never could have been foreseen. This has been the reality in every one of the PhD projects that I supervised. I can only hope that this remains the case in the majority of PhD projects at our university.

And finally, the academic teaching. Do we really need serendipity in our teaching? Isn’t it all about transferring as much knowledge as possible, teaching the necessary professional skills, or do we also have to invest in educating resilient individuals to survive in this ever changing and complex world? And as future scientists, don’t they have to experience what serendipity is all about?

Of course, they do. But again, we created an educational environment in which we make sure that a student never gets the chance to experience a pleasant surprise in his/her learning activities. For 13 weeks they hurry from one course to the other, for the next weeks they cram for the examinations, and finally, at the examinations, they just spit out what they have memorized. And when you do try to challenge the students, they feel panic-struck. When a student asks a question, just try to answer “I don’t know. What do you think?”, and you will see the panic in his/her eyes. It is very hard to break through that protective shell, we have created for them, but when we do succeed  – as we have been trying in the award-winning field course in Brittany – serendipity gets a chance to make the teaching and learning so much more rewarding.


Just right!

So, what is the diagnosis?  How ingenious the systems are, we developed in academic research and teaching, to kill off serendipity, serendipity seems not at all to be hampered by all these rules and regulations. It seems that the war on serendipity cannot be won! Why? To answer this question, I do turn to the earth sciences, to the magical year of 1968, probably no really a surprise …

LePichon1968In 1968 Xavier Le Pichon published the first plate tectonic map, a turning point in the earth sciences (Le Pichon, X. 1968. Sea-Floor Spreading and Continental Drift. Journal of Geophysical Research 73(12), 3661-3697). The new paredigm, integrating all we knew then about the geodynamics of our planet, finally saw the light, after an unimaginable rollercoaster of scientific research in the sixties … a story that began with some visionary ideas Harry Hess synthesizes in a paper he considered as an “essay in geopoetry”, not to be taken to seriously (Hess, H.H., 1962. History of Ocean Basins. Petrological Studies: A volume to honor A.F. Buddington, 599-620).


Reading the insider’s history of the key scientists, masterly brought together by Naomi Oreskes (Oreskes, N. 2001. Plate Tectonics. An Insider’s History of the Modern Theory of the Earth. Westview Press, Colorado), their thoughts on scientific research reveal the unique conditions, in which this dashing scientific exploit was possible. They acknowledge being “at the right place at the right time”. They describe the research conditions as “just right”, with graduates and early career scientists not being afraid that their wildest ideas might be dismissed by their supervisors, and with senior scientists and PI’s that showed great willingness to admit that what they previously believed, was wrong … and to set it right! Peter Molnar, one of these game changers, concluded “Science was fun; that was enough!”. It was not about pursuing tenure, nor about producing publications. In retrospect, it is clear that the discovery of plate tectonics would never have been possible without serendipity.

earthriseA second memorable moment, dating back to 1968, is Christmas eve when the astronauts of Apollo 8, circling around the moon, were taken by surprise as the Earth – as a “blue marble” – appeared behind the grey surface of the moon. This serendipitous moment was recorded in the now famous Earthrise photograph. William Anderson, one of the astronauts, perfectly described this unique moment: “We came all this way to explore the moon, and the mosst important thing is that we discovered the Earth”. Indeed, for the first time, humanity got a glimpse of our wonderful, but so fragile, planet. This image – clearly a pleasant surprise – cleared the path to a holistic view of our planet, to new ways of thinking about the way our planet works, as a very complex self-regulating system, full of coupled processes, positive and negative feedbacks, thresholds, …, to the point that some describe Earth as a living planet, Gaia (see James Lovelock and the Gaia hypothesis).

 But what we also realized, is that we live on a Goldilocks planet, a planet on which the conditions are “just right” to allow life to emerge, to be maintained and to evolve into very complex, multicellular organisms … yes, even to what some call “intelligent life”. The fact we are here, seems just a pleasant surprise. And there is more … looking back to the 13.7 billion years of history of our universe, we discover a number of Goldilocks moments, during which conditions were “just right” to let new complexities emerge and evolve (see also Big History – Thresholds of new complexities). If it weren’t for every one of these Goldilocks moments, we wouldn’t be here.

So, why this reference to these Goldilocks condtions in our reflection on serendipity? Because these conditions, when everything is “just right”, is basically nature’s serendipity. Or, turning it the other way around: serendipity just seems to be a fundamental law of nature!

Resistance is futile!

Back to academic research and teaching. What should be the message to our managers, our funding agencies, to ourselves as PhD supervisors, PI’s and teachers?

borgI would say – as the Borg do in Star Trek“Resistance is futile”! You will never be able to win the war on serendipity, as you will never be able to overcome gravity. Serendipity is just part of nature.

So, instead of designing ingenious practices in an attempt to kill off serendipity in academic research and teaching, maybe it’s time again to embrace serendipity in academic research and teaching.

Instead of focusing on the output of a research projcct, funding agencies should rather ask that you demonstrates in a research proposal how you are goin to create that environment that is “just right” so that serendipity can thrive. Instead of providing our PhD students a Roadmap to a PhD, we should rather just ask them “Surprise me!”. And, instead of training our students to become narrow-minded specialists, maybe we should arm them with the ability to deal with the unexpected, to deal with all the pleasant surprises in their future scientific endeavors.

Just remember! Serendipity is a fundamental law of nature … resistance is futile!


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