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by Charles Osborne
President, Society of Amateur Radio Astronomers

Serendipity. Definition: "Faculty of making discoveries by accident. Serendipity has been recently used in connection with the Internet, since the large quantity of information available provides chances to find unexpected relevant information while surfing the web. In Science one speaks about serendipity when the discovery is made by reasons alien to the established research experiments. For example, the discovery of penicillin."

I recently took a new look at an old book. In 1983 NRAO published Ken Kellermann's edited version of a Green Bank workshop's notes: "Serendipitous Discoveries in Radio Astronomy". I'd purchased the book ten or fifteen years ago when I was just getting interested in radio astronomy. Our recent work with the Jansky 20 MHz antenna reminded Jim Sky that there was a good treatment of the antenna's design in that book. In leafing thru it again I started reading some of Grote Reber's contributions to the text and found them newly interesting.

Grote made several observations about Jansky's discovery of galactic noise, and of his own building of the first radio telescope. The gist of it was that much of what happened, and when, was pure luck, of the "right person being in the right place at the right time." Opportune timing of the solar cycle, making the ionosphere transparent, proved fairly crucial to a number of discoveries. Grote painstakingly took a look back across the solar cycles comparing what might have happened if experiments had not been run at just the time they were.

I found a comment by Grote particularly interesting as he spoke about his own independence: "I had adequate financial resources of my own. I was not part of, or in any way dependent on, an institution, foundation or school. There were no self-appointed pontiffs, looking over my shoulder giving bad advice. During later years, I've attempted, rather successfully, to maintain this freedom and independence, which I value so highly."

Of course Grote's comments relate to both his building of a rather large dish (at a time when nobody had ever seen such a thing) in his mother's back yard, and his lifelong attempts in Tasmania to prove that "the Big Bang is Bunk". The ability to pursue a research direction, when others thought it a waste of time, is often the theme of great discoveries.

Wilbur and Orville Wright come to mind as similarly positioned: independent enough financially and ideologically, to pursue a course of research that others dismissed as a waste of time. The newspapers of their day showed no patience with the Wright's inability to "perform on demand". A few press conference demonstration flights, with the wind and weather not cooperating, led to the papers virtually ignoring them for two years after the 1903 first flight.

Even today, if Burt Rutan's spacecraft had fizzled once or twice, the press would have ridiculed and ignored it. NASA gets the same treatment every time a predicted "discovery" goes awry. The difference being the "wasted" cost of the project is in the first sentence of every article.

In some ways we are even worse in this regard a century after the Wrights. Scientists and engineers must predict performance or discovery in order to get funding. And they are time-lined, and graded on their performance to artificial goals. Most research funding today is tied to a quick "return on investment". Something tells me this works directly opposite to serendipity.

The great discoveries will likely be made by those with the freedom to pursue a hunch, or change course in mid-experiment to pursue a tantalizing unexpected lead. I wish you all a small taste of the personal freedom to explore, and the luck to find, "the next big thing."

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in editorials are those of the individual authors, and do not necessarily reflect the position of The SETI League, Inc., its Trustees, officers, Advisory Board, members, donors, or commercial sponsors.

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