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Posts Tagged ‘serendipity

“Happy accidents are real gifts”*…

Fresco by Bertini, “Galileo and the Doge of Venice”

On the morning of July 25, 1610, Galileo pointed his telescope at Saturn and was surprised to find that it appeared to be flanked by two round blobs or bumps, one on either side. Unfortunately, Galileo’s telescope wasn’t quite advanced enough to pick out precisely what he had seen (his observations are now credited with being the earliest description of Saturn’s rings in astronomical history), but he nevertheless presumed that whatever he had seen was something special. And he wanted people to know about it.

Keen to announce his news and thereby secure credit for whatever it was he had discovered, Galileo sent letters to his friends and fellow astronomers. This being Galileo, the announcement was far from straightforward:


Each message that Galileo sent out contained little more than that jumbled string of letters, which when rearranged correctly spelled out the Latin sentence, “altissimum planetam tergeminum observavi”—or “I have observed that the highest planet is threefold.”

As the outermost planet known to science at the time, Saturn was the “highest planet” in question. And unaware that he had discovered its rings, Galileo was merely suggesting to his contemporaries that he had found that the planet was somehow divided into three parts. Announcing such a discovery in the form of an anagram might have bought Galileo some time to continue his observations, however, but there was a problem: Anagrams can easily be misinterpreted.

One of those to whom Galileo sent a letter was the German scientist Johannes Kepler. A keen astronomer himself, Kepler had followed and supported Galileo’s work for several years, so when the coded letter arrived at his home in Prague he quickly set to work solving it. Unfortunately for him, he got it completely wrong.

Kepler rearranged Galileo’s word jumble as “salve, umbistineum geminatum Martia proles,” which he interpreted as “be greeted, double-knob, children of Mars.” His solution was far from perfect (umbistineum isn’t really a grammatical Latin word, for one thing), but Kepler was nevertheless convinced that, not only had he correctly solved the riddle, but Galileo’s apparent discovery proved a theory he had been contemplating for several months.

Earlier in 1610, Galileo had discovered the four so-called “Galilean moons” of Jupiter: Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. Although we now know that Jupiter has several dozen moons of varying shapes, sizes, and orbits, at the time the announcement of just four natural satellites had led Kepler to presume that there must be a natural progression in the heavens: the Earth has one moon; Jupiter, two places further out from the Earth, has four; and sat between the two is Mars, which Kepler theorized must surely have two moons, to maintain the balanced celestial sequence 1, 2, 4 and so on (his only question was whether Saturn had six or eight).

Kepler got the anagram wrong, and the presumption that Jupiter only had four moons had been wrong. Yet as misguided as both these facts were, the assumption that Kepler made based on both of them—namely, that Mars had two moons—was entirely correct. Unfortunately for Kepler, his theory would not be proved until long after his death, as the two Martian moons Phobos and Deimos (named after Ares’s sons in Greek Mythology) were not discovered until 1877, by the American astronomer Asaph Hall.

Nevertheless, a misinterpretation of the anagram had accidentally predicted a major astronomical discovery of the 19th century, nearly 300 years before it occurred…

Serendipity in science: “How A Misinterpreted Anagram Predicted The Moons of Mars.”

(For an account of Isaac Newton’s use of anagrams in his scientific communications, see here.)

* David Lynch


As we code and decode, we might recall that it was on this date in 1781 that English astronomer William Herschel detected every schoolboy’s favorite planet, Uranus, in the night sky (though he initially thought it was a comet); it was the first planet to be classified as such with the aid of a telescope.  In fact, Uranus had been detected much earlier– but mistaken for a star: the earliest likely observation was by Hipparchos, who (in 128 BC) seems to have recorded the planet as a star for his star catalogue, later incorporated into Ptolemy’s Almagest.  The earliest definite sighting was in 1690 when John Flamsteed observed it at least six times, cataloguing it as the star 34 Tauri.

Herschel named the planet in honor of his King: Georgium Sidus (George’s Star), an unpopular choice, especially outside England; argument over alternatives ensued.  Berlin astronomer Johann Elert Bode came up with the moniker “Uranus,” which was adopted throughout the world’s astronomical community by 1850.

 Uranus, photographed by Voyager 2 in 1986.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

March 13, 2021 at 1:01 am

“The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny’”*…


Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin is commonly used as an example of serendipity in science

Scientific folklore is full of tales of accidental discovery, from the stray Petri dish that led Alexander Fleming to discover penicillin to Wilhelm Röntgen’s chance detection of X-rays while tinkering with a cathode-ray tube.

That knowledge often advances through serendipity is how scientists, sometimes loudly, justify the billions of dollars that taxpayers plough into curiosity-driven research each year. And it is the reason some argue that increasing government efforts to control research — with an eye to driving greater economic or social impact — are at best futile and at worst counterproductive.

But just how important is serendipity to science? Scientists debating with policymakers have long relied on anecdotal evidence. Studies rarely try to quantify how much scientific progress was truly serendipitous, how much that cost or the circumstances in which it emerged.

Serendipity can take on many forms, and its unwieldy web of cause and effect is difficult to constrain. Data are not available to track it in any meaningful way. Instead, academic research has focused on serendipity in science as a philosophical concept.

The European Research Council aims to change that…

On the heels of yesterday’s post on the history of dice, and the way they evolved over the centuries to be “fairer”– to favor chance– another post on luck…  more specifically in this case, on whether it’s all that it’s cracked up to be.  Scientists often herald the role of chance in research; a project in Britain aims to test that popular idea with evidence: “The serendipity test.”

* Isaac Asimov


As we contemplate contingency, we might send elaborately-engineered birthday greetings to George Washington Gale Ferris Jr.; he was born on this date in 1859.  An engineer and inventor, he had built a successful career testing and inspecting metals for railroads and bridge builders when…

… in 1891, the directors of the World’s Columbian Exposition [to be held in 1893] issued a challenge to American engineers to conceive of a monument for the fair that would surpass the Eiffel Tower, the great structure of the Paris International Exposition of 1889. The planners wanted something “original, daring and unique.” Ferris responded with a proposed wheel from which visitors would be able to view the entire exhibition, a wheel that would “Out-Eiffel Eiffel.” The planners feared his design for a rotating wheel towering over the grounds could not possibly be safe.

Ferris persisted. He returned in a few weeks with several respectable endorsements from established engineers, and the committee agreed to allow construction to begin. Most convincingly, he had recruited several local investors to cover the $400,000 cost of construction. The planning commission of the Exposition hoped that admissions from the Ferris Wheel would pull the fair out of debt and eventually make it profitable. [source]

It carried 2.5 million passengers before it was finally demolished in 1906.  But while the Fair’s promoters hopes were fulfilled– the Ferris Wheel was a windfall– Ferris claimed that the exhibition management had robbed him and his investors of their rightful portion of the nearly $750,000 profit that his wheel brought in.  Ferris spent two years in litigation, trying (unsuccessfully) to recover his investment.  He died despondent and nearly bankrupt (reportedly of typhoid, though some suggest that it was suicide) in 1896.

The original 1893 Chicago Ferris Wheel




Written by (Roughly) Daily

February 14, 2018 at 1:01 am

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