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The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity:
A Study in Sociological Semantics and the Sociology of Science
Robert K. Merton & Elinor Barber
With an introduction by James L. Shulman

Paperback | 2006 | $45.00 | £37.95 | ISBN: 9780691126302
352 pp. | 6 x 9 1/4 | 1 halftone. 2 tables.
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From the names of cruise lines and bookstores to an Australian ranch and a nudist camp outside of Atlanta, the word serendipity--that happy blend of wisdom and luck by which something is discovered not quite by accident--is today ubiquitous. This book traces the word's eventful history from its 1754 coinage into the twentieth century--chronicling along the way much of what we now call the natural and social sciences.

The book charts where the term went, with whom it resided, and how it fared. We cross oceans and academic specialties and meet those people, both famous and now obscure, who have used and abused serendipity. We encounter a linguistic sage, walk down the illustrious halls of the Harvard Medical School, attend the (serendipitous) birth of penicillin, and meet someone who "manages serendipity" for the U.S. Navy.

The story of serendipity is fascinating; that of The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity, equally so. Written in the 1950s by already-eminent sociologist Robert Merton and Elinor Barber, the book--though occasionally and most tantalizingly cited--was intentionally never published. This is all the more curious because it so remarkably anticipated subsequent battles over research and funding--many of which centered on the role of serendipity in science. Finally, shortly after his ninety-first birthday, following Barber's death and preceding his own by but a little, Merton agreed to expand and publish this major work.

Beautifully written, the book is permeated by the prodigious intellectual curiosity and generosity that characterized Merton's influential On the Shoulders of Giants. Absolutely entertaining as the history of a word, the book is also tremendously important to all who value the miracle of intellectual discovery. It represents Merton's lifelong protest against that rhetoric of science that defines discovery as anything other than a messy blend of inspiration, perspiration, error, and happy chance--anything other than serendipity.


"And so serendipity began its life--a saga of misunderstandings, neglect, resurrection, distortion, celebration and controversy, all of which is chronicled with heroic enterprise and humble wit in The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity.... The history remains intact, and the intellectual trajectory outlines by Merton has, if anything, continued with even greater force."--Edward Rothstein, New York Times

"An intellectual text, both a pleasure to read and a genuine contribution to scholarship."--Andrew Scull, Times Literary Supplement

"A fascinating text that captivates the reader from the start. . . . In the course of following the evolution of the word serendipity, Merton and Barber provide many interesting insights into how new knowledge is produced, not only in the sciences but also in the humanities."--Cristina Gonzalez, Science

"A humane, learned and very wise book. It was finished in 1958 and lay in Merton's files until just a few years ago. . . . It is a pity that we had to wait so long for it, since The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity is the great man's greatest achievement."--Steve Shapin, American Scientist

"The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity is a vivid study in how words reflect their times and offers an extra delight: Merton's new afterword tracing the journey of the word since he first wrote about it. . . . Merton was a sociologist in the same way Shakespeare could be called a theater person."--Jay Tolson, U.S. News and World Report

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Table of Contents:

Preface by Robert K. Merton ix
Publisher's Note xi
Introduction by James L. Shulman xiii
Chapter 1: The Origins of Serendipity 1
Chapter 2: Early Diffusion of Serendipity 22
Chapter 3: Accidental Discovery in Science: Victorian Opinion 41
Chapter 4: Stock Responses to Serendipity 61
Chapter 5: The Qualities of Serendipity 88
Chapter 6: Dictionaries and "Serendipity" 104
Chapter 7: The Social History of Serendipity 123
Chapter 8: Moral Implications of Serendipity 149
Chapter 9: The Diverse Significance of Serendipity in Science 158
Chapter 10 Serendipity as Ideology and Politics of Science 199
A Note on Serendipity as a Political Metaphor 219
A Note on Serendipity in the Humanities 223
Afterword: Autobiographical Reflections on The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity by Robert K. Merton 230
Select References 299
Name Index 303
General Index 309

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