Samuel Egharevba

Serendipity Lies In The Roughs

Blog Post created by Samuel Egharevba on Jul 2, 2020

Setting: This is told with the prime purpose of addressing a group of young Chemists in an Ivy League.


 

I had a next-to-great upbringing. My dad, a near by-the-book and caring father would see to us imbibing timeless values as kids.

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But few years into this century, my dad said to me that the concept of luck exists, but I never bought into it. My reason was clear: first, it did not make sense as much as an intellectual talk should and next, it wasn’t in tandem with logic; I loved reason and sciences at an early age.

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Creating humour sometimes, I would affirm that there was no similarity of letters—that make up “luck” and “reason”. He would tease in response by saying the l or c in logic and luck is his proof. I’ll just clutch my head wondering why I left out such minor detail; I would go on to still mutter my refusal.

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Only a while back, I became more aware of its presence.

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From stay-at-home mums to stock traders, academics to religion upholsters somehow make mention of scanty occurrences.

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I had come to grips of its existence and possible explanation in mundane dealings, but not in science!

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Not after theoretical modellings, much data analytics, experimentations and observation would you allow the claws of serendipity obscure and win the day. No!

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Science is structured and well defined, like reactants A and B combining stoichiometrically to yield C (and D). Though it may tail off a bit into something else not envisaged, but not something much novel and profound. To arrive at a useful conclusion or product, you must know exactly what you are doing, and therefore work hard to get it. No chance, no luck, no games. Just logical follow-through. I never seemed to understand why anyone just anyone would understand something else.

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Recently, I had the good fortune (it’s more of a coincidence, not luck) to learn about Charles, the lone worker who was keen on transforming and improving on the properties of hevea rubber.

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The initial processes seemed random from him mixing rubber with ink, soup, oil to name a few. Research, particularly experimentation, implores one to take all routes (known and worth-trying) in experimentation; which he did. Eventually, I read of his accidental dropping of a lump of rubber mixed with sulfur—again another of his random trials—on the hot stove. Eureka! There, was the vulcanisation effect that will give us automobile tyres. How did that even happen?

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Deciding to dig deeper, I discovered another story. Coca-Cola supposedly began when a pharmacist’s assistant spilled soda water into the glass her boss had been using to create a new headache cure. Whhaatt! I would pace around uncontrollably ready to raven more facts, then pull out my diary to document this unsettled enquiry. Maybe these are mere coincidences, not luck.

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Then another followed. The coming of the microwave oven. It was so simple and maybe questionable too. An engineer at the end of World War II working on magnetron as part of a military radar device realized his candy bar in his pocket had melted. It seemed he had knowledge of what he was doing, but the truth is that he was shocked at this too. I just called them science gaps.

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Another obviously was replete in Pfizer’s Viagra. I didn’t even bother looking up the story. Gaps do exist, I said to John, my neighbour, in one of our many roadside explorative conversations.

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John was just like I was; he enquired into every known and unknown fact that governed perceptions and beliefs. Many times he had made controversial statements.

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I am now my own crusader, and yes, luck as they call it may exist after all. The fact is this: things have turned south in the laboratory few times, and a handful have turned out to be astounding. One or two is small a number to conclude, but 4 or 5 of such?

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Our abilities to derive wood, paper, starch, cellulose, and plastics from plants is sheer human genius and intellectual high. However, somewhere outside that scope of our can-do spirit lies the [I don’t know] lucky breaks, which rarely pops in.

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Wrapping up, in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, he says that Bill Gates assured many that he was lucky with the aftereffect resulting from his discovery. We don’t know, maybe it’s just some of those words uttered in humility or to parade it, we only can infer. I’m sold out now, totally.

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Serendipity is part of the art. It lurks around in the cracks and crevices and also in the light of great work.

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Perhaps this brings the big question to light: what then is responsible for lucky breaks?

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[To be continued]

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Outcomes