Serendipity – Part 1

One of the benefits that space exploration brings to mankind is a happy serendipity.  I have several examples of serendipity that we should explore together, but since folks may be unfamiliar with the term, here is a short personal story to illustrate how serendipity works in science.

When my daughter was in middle school, participation in the annual science fair was mandatory.  Lacking any ideas on a good project, she asked a family friend — an avid amateur astronomer — if he could recommend a good project.  Yes, one that his daughter had done a few years before, finding the rotation rate of the sun.  Easily done with a telescope, look for sunspots every day and track how fast they move across the solar disk.  This determines how quickly the sun turns on its axis.

As a bonus for later, my friend informed me privately that this is a trick question!  At the bottom is the secret.

We borrowed his telescope and learned many things right away:  first and foremost is safety.  Never look directly through a telescope or binoculars at the sun!  Also, the telescope can focus the sun’s rays enough to set the telescope on fire (this happened to our friend’s daughter).  We learned how to set up the telescope, collimate it, mask off part of the aperture, set up a projection board so that the image could be traced on paper, etc., etc.  We learned a lot very quickly.  I say “we” because as all parents know, science fair projects are a family activity.

Part of the official science fair process required my daughter to make a ‘hypothesis’ before starting the project that she was to prove or disprove.  Her hypothesis was something like this: “the sun will turn on its axis about every week”.  The science fair rules required proof or disproof of this hypothesis.

So after school, we started observing.  Immediately she encountered a problem:  the projected disk of the sun was completely blank.  The telescope setup was checked and rechecked.  Many days in a row, the solar disk always showed a blank.  We called the astronomer friend and tried every recommendation he gave us.  Nothing.  Just a blank, bright, sharply-focused circle of light.

Time was running short.  No data, no project; no project, no passing grade. 

So my daughter started reading up on the sun and sunspots.  Guess what?  Sunspots come in an 11 year cycle and it was right at the sunspot minimum.  Reports from professional observatories all agreed — no sunspots at this time.

Serendipity – finding something that you didn’t expect to find.  Who would have guessed that sunspots come and go?

My daughter learned a lot about the sun and sunspots.  But it didn’t prove or disprove her hypothesis.  The project was due, so she wrote up what she had learned — and what serendipity means — and put together a presentation about how sometimes in science you find out things that you didn’t expect.  Since hers was one of the very few astronomy projects at her school, this presentation got a blue ribbon in its category and the permission to go to the county science fair.

Our community straddles two counties, so she was allowed to compete in both science fairs which were two weeks apart.  In the first science fair, the judges loved my daughter’s project, her presentation, and her conclusion.  She won a big trophy, an impressive calculator, and a certificate for a free dinner at a fancy restaurant.  Quite a haul for the science fair project that went bust.

At the other science fair, she ran into a different mind set.  The judges said: you never proved or disproved your hypothesis. 

Yes, she knew that, but look what she did find out!  Sunspots come and go in cycles.  Isn’t that important?  And in science isn’t it important to have an open mind, sharp observational skills, and the ability to recognize what you didn’t expect? 

Not at all said the judges.  The rules are specific, prove or disprove your hypothesis.  No data, no conclusion, no project, no prize.  We walked out with a poorly xeroxed certificate of participation.  And marveled at the difference between the two mindsets.

So, rather than a dictionary definition of serendipity, I thought a real world, personal story might be a better illustration.  Many discoveries have been made by people looking for something else: vulcanized rubber, penicillin, the moons of Jupiter.  If science so narrowly defined as simply proving or disproving a previously defined hypothesis, we would not have made nearly as much progress and we have.

NASA has had more than a few examples of serendipity.  This week, that is my topic: serendipity.  Space exploration — finding out things that we didn’t expect.


Oh, the trick question?  Did you know that the sun is a ball of gas and at different latitudes it rotates at different speeds?  Our friend set my daughter up!  Her hypothesis was going to be wrong no matter what, and she was going to discover something she didn’t expect even if sunspots had been everywhere.  Serendipity bound, she was.

She still has the telescope we made later that year.  And she still has the interest in astronomy that started with no sunspots.  To my mind that is the best science fair prize of all.