Serendipity

The word has become very popular in usage after it was coined by Walpole. Serendipity means accidental discovery of something. A scientist is working on the synthesis of a particular compound he has in his mind but discovers an entirely new product. This is called serendipity.

Discovery of penicillin by Dr.Alexander Fleming is the example of serendipity. He forgot to disinfect cultures of bacteria when going for long vacations, only to find them contaminated with molds of Penicillium which had killed the bacteria.

There are ample number of other examples of serendipity which can be found in different spheres of life. For example, superglue.It is cyanoacrylate and it was accidentally discovered by Dr. Harry Coover, first when he was developing a clear plastic for gunsights  and when he was trying to develop a heat-resistant polymer for jet canopies.

The word was coined by Horace Walpole. The word is derived from a fable called “Three Princes of Serendip” which is a story based on the adventures of three princes of Serendip when their father sends them into exile (to learn the first hand experience of their kingdom) and they happen to discover unexpected things by chance or by their sagacity.

Sri Lanka was called “Serendip” in ancient times. According to one theory the name is based on the Sanskrit word derives from Swarnadip, the Sanskrit language name of Sri Lanka.

There was a king named Giaffer who had three very intelligent children. They are sent to very learned persons in different fields to learn and show precocity and return after completing the education. Their father asks eldest son to take over the reins of kingdom as he intended to go to some monastery.  One by one, sons refuse on the grounds that their father was the wisest king and should rule till the end of his life. The king then feigning anger send them on exile.

On their journeys, they meet a man coming from opposite direction and who has lost his camel. He asks the princes and they tell him very accurate description of the camel though they have not seen it. They tell that camel in question was blind in right eye, it was lame , it was carrying honey and butter on its left and right sides and a pregnant women was riding it. The description was so accurate that the man complains to the authorities of that kingdom that these boys have committed the theft of his camel. They are put in jail but released when the camel is found out. Impressed, the king of that country asks them how they had known so much about the camel. They answered thus:

“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, so I shall let the princes tell it themselves: “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.”

It is clear from the princes’ reply that they had brilliantly interpreted the scant evidence observed along the road.

There are so many stories which had been added over time to the original. But the meaning of the English word must be clear by now.

If you are interested in the complete story you click here “Three princes of Serendip”

Advertisements

Dream of Kekule:Benzene

Continuing the subject of dreams, it is pertinent to mention that lucid dreams had helped many to make great discoveries and inventions. Since my subject is chemistry, I will touch upon one such famous dream which laid the foundation for understanding the structure and chemistry of  aromatic compounds.

As every one versed with chemistry knows, the benzene is the starting compound of aromatic compounds. Its structure was derived by Kukule’. His full name was Friedrich August Kekulé von Stradonitz.

kekule-benzene-stamp

Benzene was analyzed to have 6 carbon and 6 hydrogen atoms. Existing formula of all the organic compounds did not fit into the structure of benzene and explain its strange properties.

Kukule’ was working on this problem but could not find its solution. Totally engrossed, he fell into a sleep in front of fireplace. He has a dream of the atoms which he described in his own words as follows:

“…I was sitting writing on my textbook, but the work did not progress; my thoughts were elsewhere. I turned my chair to the fire and dozed. Again the atoms were gamboling before my eyes. This time the smaller groups kept modestly in the background. My mental eye, rendered more acute by the repeated visions of the kind, could now distinguish larger structures of manifold conformation; long rows sometimes more closely fitted together all twining and twisting in snake-like motion. But look! What was that? One of the snakes had seized hold of its own tail, and the form whirled mockingly before my eyes. As if by a flash of lightning I awoke; and this time also I spent the rest of the night in working out the consequences of the hypothesis.”

So the snake he saw holding its own tail in its mouth was the the circular structure or closed ring structure of benzene. He immediately woke up and worked out his dream on the paper and by morning he had discovered the chemical structure of benzene.

snake

From the chemical point, the formula of benzene is C6H6. Kekule proposed the following structure to explain the number of substitution compounds which have been synthesized  using this structure.

Kekule's Benzene

Still there were problems in explaining the two different compounds obtained when hydrogen atoms on adjacent carbons were substituted with two different radicals like cl, NO3, I or CxHy. This is called ortho disubstituion. That is to say that C6H4XY will form two different ortho isomers depending  on whethere substitution has taken place C-C bond or C=C bond.  But such isomers have never been found. Kekule tried to explain this by saying that single and double bonds oscillate and thus become identical. Dr.Linus Pauling later on proposed resonance phenomenon, in which there are no purely single and double bonds but something in between and thus all C-C bonds are equivalent. This has been conformed by UV analysis which shows all C-C bonds of equal strength and indistinguishable. This is like the Hindu God Shiva when He assumed ardhnarishwar or androgynous form to show that both male and female forms coexist in the body. The final outcome depends upon which of these dominate at a given time.

In the end of a lecture explaining the discovery of benzene, he said

“Let us learn to dream!”