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Serendipity: Accidental Discoveries in Science. Royston M. Roberts. Wiley (1989). ISBN-471-60203-5. 270 pp. $14.95 pb.
Tales of fortuitous discovery are often among a science teacher's favorite ways to add spice to class. This book provides a wealth of cases for the purpose. For example, the reader learns about the discovery of chirality. While Pasteur was studying a salt of racemic acid that was deposited on wine casks, he noticed that it formed a mirror image crystal of tartaric acid. No one really knows why now, but Pasteur thought to test the two crystals for optical activity, showing their different properties. They were identical in composition, but diffferent in structure. Pasteur is now known for remarking that "Chance favors only the prepared mind." Roberts notes further, however, how remarkable it was that Pasteur studied one of the few salts of racemic acid that crystallize in this manner; in addition, the crystals form only at certain temperatures. There must be the unexpected or odd event even for the prepared mind.
In another example, we read about the origin of the "pill." A chemist trying to make another steroid, estradiol, accidentally made 19-norprogesterone, a substance more active biologically than the natural hormone. Noticing its potential, he then deliberately modifed it for oral ingestion. The whole episode began, however, with an unlikely venture to Mexico to examine yams as a cheap source of steroids.
Roberts goes further than anecdote, however, to discuss the role of chance in science. He coins term 'pseudoserendipitous' to refer to discoveries that are accidental, but that occur in the course of investigations toward the intended aim. True serendipity, according to Roberts, requires the 'sagacity' to notice something unexpected--and to pursue it. There is a difference between accident and accidental discovery (p. 65).
In a brief concluding chapter, Roberts characterizes traits that he feels contribute to "accidental" discovery--curiosity and keen perception. Further, he claims, these features can be taught--through training in observation, encouragement and practice in flexible thinking or interpretation. The question for teachers may be: do we provide occasions to foster such skills?
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