Do you believe in serendipity? You know that moment when you bump into a gem suddenly in an unplanned chance encounter? The foundations of science and the careers of many Nobel Laureates are often built on a chance discovery. Take the discovery of Benzene. The French scientist August Kekule said that he had discovered the ring shape of the benzene molecule after dreaming of a snake seizing its own tail. Kekule had spent years studying the nature of carbon-carbon bonds. Could it be that the dream just helped him connect the dots? The ideas may have been brewing because of all the hard work. The dream was an excuse for the brain to build those connections while the scientist took a nap. Maybe. Who knows?
Science is full of examples of chance discoveries. When a scientist at Johns Hopkins University forgot to wash his hands before his lunch break he noticed an oddly sweet flavor during his meal. That was a sweet accident that led to the discovery of artificial sweetener! Several ideas X-Rays, Microwaves, Play-doh, Velcro, Post-It etc owe their presence in our lives to serendipity.
Civilizations have been discovered when some unknown farmer chanced upon a strange statue while digging up his field and took it to the store where a famous archaeologist had come to buy tobacco. Serendipity has been the reason why pages have been added in our history books. Large landmasses were added to the earth because some explorer strayed. Columbus thought he had discovered India but he hadn’t.
Human relationships form and break up because of serendipity. I know of married couples who first met in the most unusual places. Business partners have met while at a conference. Both had stepped to catch a cigarette and avoid a boring speaker. Every other movie has an element of chance encounters thrown in to provide a strategic twist to the story.
I have discovered poetry and music in strange places because I got lost. I love wandering about aimlessly when I am in a new city. It was during one of those meanderings after dinner one night in Madrid that I discovered that some of the streets had some words engraved on the cobbled stones. A helpful resident of the neighborhood told me that they were the lines from the Spanish poet Becquer. Could we do that in our city please? Imagine having the wisdom of Ghalib, Thirukkural and Bachchan celebrated in stone as you walk back home at the end of the day. I digress…
It was late at night and I was strolling aimlessly through the streets trying to read the words of the Spanish poems in the dim light of the street lamps. I heard someone strumming a guitar and I swear it sounded like Dylan’s voice – soaked with smoke and alcohol. He wore a black T shirt that said Revolution. He strummed his guitar like a balladeer – sometimes gentle, sometimes mocking. His dog kept guard over his meagre belongings. There was enough to keep the dog busy, he explained to me. Occasionally a passerby would leave a few Euros.
“Los suspiros son aire y van al aire.
Las lagrimas son agua y van al mar.
Dime, mujer: cuando el amor se
olvida, sabes tu donde va?”
I was not the only one in the audience. Someone translated the words in English for me.
“Sighs are air and go to the air.
Tears are water and go to the sea.
Tell me woman: When love is forgotten,
Do you know where it goes?”
I know I will find the answer. I believe in serendipity.
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First written for my blog on Times of India