Friday, 21 August 2009

Serendipity in Astronomy

This article by A. C. Fabian discusses some aspects of the role serendipity plays in astronomical research. The plot above makes the useful point that, even with all the luck in the world, it won't do any good unless you're prepared enough to recognize the good luck and exploit it. As Fabian says, "What is generally needed is for luck to strike someone who is prepared, in the sense that they appreciate that something novel has been seen."

I would add that real instances of pure dumb luck don't happen very often. What happens much more frequently is that somebody was in the right place at the right time, and was attentive enough to notice something interesting. But being in the right place at the right time
frequently takes a lot of work; you have to write the telescope proposal in the first place, or have to have gained access to the right kind of data, talk to the right person, etc., etc. You may do all of these things with a particular aim in mind (to investigate a "known unknown"),
but lucky people probably do these things in the hope of noticing something interesting (an "unknown unknown").

And, of course, being attentive isn't a matter of pure luck either. In other words, I suspect that in most cases people create their own luck. This kind of luck also plays some role in many conventional scientific advances; at least in astronomy, when you begin a project, you frequently can't predict with great accuracy what is going to come out of it, or what the most interesting results will be... so there will always be an element of serendipity.