Lady Luck is a western expression of the Roman goddess of luck, Fortuna. Fortuna’s decisions on whether to provide good or bad luck have been debated for centuries. Some of the best innovations we have today have been a result of an error, exaptation, and serendipity. However, when we think about the future, it is a visioning game of what could happen, not necessarily knowing what will happen.
The x-ray, which was invented by a physics professor at 50 years old, was the result of an error. He was working on the cathode-ray-tube and noticed when he held a thick paper in front of it that there was light was produced by the material near the tube which ultimately led to the discovery of the x-ray. Today it is common to use x-rays to look at broken bones, detect pneumonia and detect cancer.
Scientific breakthroughs have also happened from a result of exaptation. An example is a current work at a company called GroundProbe. GroundProbe is a technology radar equipment that is very precise over a short distance. At first, the founders thought that this technology would be used to find underground pipes and power cables. But, when they tested it with consumers, there was not much demand. After additional market testing, they discovered it had more valuable use to monitor the stability of rock walls in mines to preempt dangerous emergency evacuations.
At the Imperial Festival in April 2018, the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering student, Sharlyn Doshi seeks to explain better the optimum psychological and environmental conditions for serendipitous discovery. Her study of the Human-Computer Interaction is one of many studies happening across the world that examines serendipity and approaches in the field of computer science. Her research interest is not surprising given that many other scientific discoveries have also been made by luck including the microwave oven, penicillin, Velcro, and even chocolate chip cookies!
While good fortune has a role in scientific discovery, Doshi’s research work and others will continue to link the steps leading to Lady Luck. Error, exaptation, and serendipity seem to favor the prepared mind. While the story of the apple falling on physicist Isaac’s Newton’s head is a myth, there is some evidence that the falling of the apples from the tree may have contributed to him thinking about gravity. However, the reality is that there are several likely factors involved in helping us see the world in a new way from favorable timing, having the right tools and creative thinking. Lady Luck may favor those that dance near curiosity and opportunity. In the meantime, don’t lean too hard on luck for your next technological breakthrough or it may evaporate.