Critical Serendipity  



Activity 1

References & Links
1. Horace Walpole:

2. Retold by Richard
Boyle at http://



Serendipity & Learning Skills   

© Cambridge Serendipity     



This module aims to teach you to enhance prior knowledge of your subject through relevant prior observations or experiences leading to fresh associations derived from viewing the subject in the different context occasioned by these. In real life these observations and experiences are often accidental or even 'trivial'. The outcome of relating them to your subject will expand your view of it, and may lead to totally new ideas. A good example is the story of Archimedes and his bath: when he got into it, it overflowed. Although this had probably happened before, on this occasion he was considering the problem of how to calculate the volume of an object. The accidental overflowing of the bath and his prior knowledge of physics came together spontaneously, casuing him to cry 'eureka!'.

Learning Objective: After completing this module you should be able to enhance your understanding of your subject through the critical application of related material.


You will first need to visit the 'Activity-1' page. There, you will need to record some initial observations. After doing this you will be able to visit several other pages. You will have to return to the 'Activity-1' page to enter fresh ideas in the relevant boxes there. You can either do this after visiting each page, which is the recommended way, or you can visit a number of pages and then record information in the boxes associated with the pages you have visited. When you have completed some text in all the boxes, you will be able to move forward to the 'Activity-2' page which gives you a chance to review your notes and add some personal reflections. Once you have done this you will be able to save your work or submit it as an assignment. You need to complete this work within 6 hours - after that your saved work will be deleted. If you wish to start again, at any point, you should just click on the link to the 'Introduction' page. This will delete all saved work and re-start the clock.

What is 'Serendipity'?

The word was first used by Horace Walpole, 4th Earl of Orford, more commonly known as Horace Walpole (24 September 1717 – 2 March 1797), who was a politician, writer, architectural innovator and namesake of his cousin Horatio Nelson. The word first occurs in one of his numerous letters, from January 28, 1754, and said it was derived from a "silly fairy tale" he had read, The Three Princes of Serendip1.

He wrote of the Three Princes “They were always making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.” This is the foundation of the term. Note that it combines 'accident' and 'sagacity' It is not deliberate but does depend on awareness and prior knowledge or experience.

Serendip was the old Persian name for Ceylon. The three princes were the sons of King Giaffer who had educated them in the hope that they might be fit to succeed him. When he wished to retire however, the princes prevaricated and said they wish to gain more experience, and to this end wished to take the medieval equivalent of a 'gap' year to travel.

Horace Walpole
Horace Walpole by Joshua Reynolds 1756 National Portrait Gallery, London
"The Camel Story" relates how misfortune befell the Three Princes, once they had embarked on their travels. A camel driver stops them on the road and asks them if they have seen one of his camels. Although they have not, they have noticed signs that suggest a camel has passed along the road. Ever ready to dazzle with their wit and sagacity, the princes mystify the camel driver by asking him if the lost camel is blind in one eye, missing a tooth and lame. The camel driver, impressed by the accuracy of the description, immediately hurries off in pursuit of the animal.
After a fruitless search, and feeling deceived, he returns to the princes, who reassure him by supplying further information. The camel, they say, carried a load of butter on one side and honey on the other, and was ridden by a pregnant woman. Concluding that the princes have stolen the camel, the driver has them imprisoned. It is only after the driver’s neighbour finds the camel that they are released. The princes are brought before Emperor Beramo, who asks them how they could give such an accurate description of a camel they had never seen. It is clear from the princes’ reply that they had brilliantly interpreted the scant evidence observed along the road. As the grass had been eaten on one side of the road where it was less verdant, the princes deduced that the camel was blind to the other side. Because there were lumps of chewed grass on the road the size of a camel’s tooth, presumably they had fallen through the gap left by a missing tooth. The tracks showed the prints of only three feet, the fourth being dragged, indicating that the animal was lame. That butter was carried on one side of the camel and honey on the other was clear because ants had been attracted to melted butter on one side of the road and flies to spilled honey on the other. The deduction regarding the pregnant rider is more complicated than the rest and is somewhat lewd.
“I guessed that the camel must have carried a woman,” said the second brother, “because I had noticed that near the tracks where the animal had knelt down the imprint of a foot was visible. Because some urine was near by, I wet my fingers (in it) and as a reaction to its odour I felt a sort of carnal concupiscence, which convinced me that the imprint was of a woman’s foot.” “I guessed that the same woman must have been pregnant,” said the third, “because I had noticed nearby handprints which were indicative that the woman, being pregnant, had helped herself up with her hands while urinating.”2

Serendipity & Abductive Reasoning

'Abductive' reasoning is often associated with 'Serendipity' since they both rely on prior experience or knowledge. The concept was first put forward by Charles Pierce in the 1890s. He used the term to mean creating new rules to explain new observations, emphasizing that abduction is the only logical process that actually creates anything new.

Abduction allows the derivation a as an explanation of b; abduction works in reverse to deduction, by allowing the precondition a of “a entails b” to be derived from the consequence b; in other words, abduction is the process of explaining what is known.3


Elementary, My Dear Watson!

Sherlock Holmes is often considered to be one of the prime examples of an abductive reasoner who delights in serendipity. In the example below from 'A Study in Scarlet' Holmes demonstrates his mastery of abductive reasoning by deriving the fact that Watson had injured his left arm from the consequence "holds left arm stiff and unnatural" and the rule "left arm injured entails holding the left arm stiff and unnatural"4.

"Dr. Watson, Mr. Sherlock Holmes" said Stamford, introducing us.
"How are you?" he said cordially, ...."You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive."
"How on earth did you know that?" I asked in astonishment.
<Later .... >
"You appeared to be surprised when I told you, on our first meeting, that you had come from Afghanistan."
"You were told, no doubt."
"Nothing of the sort, I knew you came from Afghanistan. From long habit the train of thought ran so swiftly through my mind that I arrived at the conclusion without being conscious of intermediate steps. There were such steps, however. The train of reasoning ran: Here is a gentleman of a medical type, but with the air of a military man. Clearly an army doctor, then. He has just come from the tropics, for his face is dark, and that is not the natural tint of his skin, for his wrists are fair. He has undergone hardship and sickness, as his haggard face says clearly. His left arm has been injured. He holds it in a stiff and unnatural manner. Where in the tropics could an English army doctor have seen such hardship and got his arm wounded? Clearly in Afghanistan. The whole train of thought did not occupy a second ... "
"It is simple enough as you explain it," I said, smiling.

Sherlock Holmes
Dr. Watson & Sherlock Holems by Sidney Paget. Strand Magazine, September 1893

'Serendipity' and 'Abductive Reasoning' are at the root of Holmes' most frequently quoted remark:

How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?”

Your are now ready to proceed to the first Activity by clicking on the link at the top