Discovery Through Serendipity, Error, and Exaptation

in #serendipity5 years ago (edited)

In examining discovery by serendipity, error, and exaptation, there are some clear similarities but the nuances are what create the differences. Serendipity is when an unexpected situation yields beneficial outcomes or results. In this context, many discoveries have happened due to circumstances that can be described as serendipitous. One example of a serendipitous discovery would be that of the discovery of penicillin. In 1928, Alexander Fleming was researching influenza, when one of his petri dishes became contaminated and started to grow a mold (Ban, 2006). Fleming had noticed that even though the dish had been contaminated, the mold grew in a circle in which no bacteria was found (Ban, 2006). After isolating the mold, Fleming had discovered it created a liquid that has beneficial effects against fighting bacteria that commonly infect humans (Ban, 2006). It was this serendipitous discovery that ended with the ability to recreate the antibacterial effects that are now known to come from Penicillin (Ban, 2006).

In comparing a discovery by error to serendipity, the error would imply that an action or idea has been executed incorrectly with the result still being useful in some novel manner, where as serendipity does not necessitate a mistake. One example of a discovery by error would be the invention of smart dust. A graduate student at the University of California named Jamie Link was working on a silicon chip when it shattered (Orf, 2017). As the shattered chip continued to transmit signals, the student and her professor were able to decode these signals in a manner that they realized could be functional (Orf, 2017). It was this error that led to the creation of what is now known as “smart dust” or tiny particles that can transmit complex signals, operate as sensors, and self-assemble in specific formations (Orf, 2017).

Exaptation differs from these two types of discovery in that it occurs when an object or widget is taken from its original context and in a recontextualization a new innovation is discovered. One of these innovations through exaptation is Bitcoin and blockchain technology. While many assume Bitcoin was the first iteration of blockchain technology, it was not the first and was just a reapplication of previous innovation with modification (Back, 2002). What was previously known as “Amortizable publicly auditable cost functions” became rebranded as “immutable public blockchains” (Back, 2002). As many assumed the pseudonymous “Satoshi Nakamoto” invented blockchain technology, the invention of “a peer-to-peer electronic cash system” was really an innovation of exaptation from previously existing technologies such as HashCash (Nakamoto, 2008). What was originally created to be a method of forming consensus between computer nodes eventually was reapplied to become the backbone of a global financial system.

Back, A. (2002). Hashcash-amortizable publicly auditable cost-functions.

Ban T. A. (2006). The role of serendipity in drug discovery. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience, 8(3), 335–344.

Nakamoto, S. (2008). Bitcoin: A peer-to-peer electronic cash system (White Paper). Retrieved from (02-03-2017): https://bitcoin. org/bitcoin. pdf.

Orf, D. (2017, November 14). 10 Awesome Accidental Discoveries. Retrieved from https://www.popularmechanics.com/science/health/g1216/10-awesome-accidental-discoveries/.

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