“The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ but, ‘That’s funny … ‘ “ – Isaac Asimov
Serendipity science. In the high-brow world of “real” science, we often poo-poo the very idea of serendipity being even remotely involved in science done “the real way”. We like to think we are in complete control. We like to think we have all the answers or the best possible answers already tucked away in our magnificent brains.
But we don’t.
Science is not about how much we know; it’s about how much we don’t know. We often get this backward. Science and STEM, in general, are about using what we know to find out what we don’t know in order to improve our understanding.
It’s about paying attention!
The scientific method we all memorized repeatedly throughout our academic experience is just a guidebook. It’s like a vacation guide. The important things, the memorable parts of a vacation, are often what happens between and around the listed vacation spots. In the scientific method, like with the vacation guidebook, the true magic lies between the listings. The observations we make along the way and the way we incorporate them into the big picture are what matters.
We not only have to do the work; we have to pay attention along the way. Something may be out there we didn’t expect. We have to be smart enough, open-minded enough, and prepared enough to recognize the unexpected and use it to our advantage. Ah, in short, this is what serendipity science truly is. It’s not pure or blind luck. It’s not magic. It’s not even Divine Intervention. It’s paying attention when things don’t go as expected or predicted.
What does this science rant from a scientist/author have to do with a STEM Tuesday Writing Tips & Resources post about serendipity?
Well, almost all the things I ranted on about STEM and science above can be applied to STEM writing. We’ve all seen this writing advice. Write what you know.
Write what you know? Maybe? Maybe not?
How about “write what you want to know”?
Serendipity can be a writer’s best friend. Use the power of serendipity to unlock the potential in our storytelling. Nonfiction, informative fiction, and fiction can all benefit from paying attention to the things that happen during the writing process.
Think about mind mapping or outlining or free writing, or the classic crappy first drafting. We use all these to not only come up with ways to effectively express our ideas but as an organizational tool. Where does serendipity fit in here? Serendipity often results in a new idea or direction we never knew existed. New ideas and directions that allow the pieces to click into place or clear a blocked path in the writing process. Serendipity might just be the “muse” creative people often allude to.
However, we can never forget two very important things. First, in order to mine the power of serendipity, work has to be done. In science or creative work, heck, in just about anything, nothing can happen if you’re not working. Fleming had to design and set up the staphylococcus experiments before discovering the unwanted mold on the agar plates killed the bacteria in close proximity. Hard work is the magic!
The second thing is maybe even more important. We have to pay attention! We have to observe and think! What if Fleming would have just tossed those Petri plates out the window in a fit of rage over poor technique in making the agar? So long antibiotics! But he didn’t throw a fit when things apparently went south, he paid attention. Bingo!
Do the work, pay attention, and unlock the power of serendipity!
Mike Hays has worked hard from a young age to be a well-rounded individual. A well-rounded, equal opportunity sports enthusiast, that is. If they keep a score, he’ll either watch it, play it, or coach it. A molecular microbiologist by day, middle-grade author, sports coach, and general good citizen by night, he blogs about sports/training-related topics at www.coachhays.com and writer stuff at www.mikehaysbooks.com. Two of his science essays, The Science of Jurassic Park and Zombie Microbiology 101, are included in the Putting the Science in Fiction collection from Writer’s Digest Books. He can be found roaming around the Twitter-sphere under the guise of @coachhays64.
The O.O.L.F Files
This month’s Out Of Left Field (O.O.L.F.) Files searches the vast expanses of the digital universe to stumble upon information that can further explain the oft-maligned and ill-defined process of serendipitous science.
- The story of serendipity from Understanding Science (Understanding Science was developed by the University of California Museum of Paleontology with support from the National Science Foundation)
- The Infinite Monkey Cage, Series 11
- The serendipity test (Nature 554, 5 (2018))
- 9 Things Invented or Discovered by Accident
- The Golden Mole Award for Accidental Brilliance
- Whoops! 12 Tales Of Accidental Brilliance In Science
- The Role of Chance in Making Scientific Discoveries
- Science and serendipity abstract
- Even serious science takes note of the value of serendipitous science! From the Royal College of Physicians Clinical Medicine journal.
(Note: Besides being absolutely beautiful to look at, the image above has such a cool backstory, I felt it proper to add the Wikimedia description below. I hope you think it’s as cool as I do even though I only understand about 10% of it. You know what this means, right? Time for a visit down the Google rabbit hole of research!
“Description: The purple lines and blotches scattered across this image show something incredible: all of the X-ray sources that were serendipitously detected – that is, not intentionally targeted – by ESA’s XMM-Newton X-ray space observatory from 2000 to 2017.
This image is based on a catalogue named 3XMM-DR8, the latest publicly released catalogue of serendipitous XMM-Newton X-ray sources, created on behalf of ESA by the XMM-Newton Survey Science Centre.
The catalogue, released in May 2018, features sources in the 0.2 to 12 keV energy range drawn from 10 242 observations made by XMM-Newton’s European Photon Imaging Camera (EPIC), an instrument capable of detecting very faint sources and rapid changes in intensity, between 3 February 2000 and 30 November 2017. It contains 532 more observations and 47 363 more detections than the preceding 3XMM-DR7 catalogue, which was made public in June 2017.
While the pattern of sources across the sky may appear random, some structure can be seen here. The oval represents the celestial sphere, an abstract perspective upon which our observations of the Universe are projected. The data are plotted in galactic coordinates, such that the centre of the plot corresponds to the centre of our Milky Way galaxy – and this can be seen in the image. Through the centre of the oval is a horizontal line, where patches of purple appear to draw together. This line is the plane of the Milky Way galaxy, with the large splotch of colour in the centre corresponding to our galaxy’s core, where XMM-Newton made a higher number of serendipitous detections.
XMM-Newton has been orbiting the Earth since 1999, observing the cosmos around us while on the hunt for X-rays coming from high-energy phenomena such as black holes, stellar winds, pulsars, and neutron stars. With every patch of sky that XMM-Newton observes, the telescope detects between 50 and 100 serendipitous sources, such as those shown here, besides the objects that were the original target of the observations. This is due to the large collecting area of the telescope’s mirrors and its wide field of view.
All-sky images and large-scale cosmic data are immensely valuable in our study of the cosmos. Upcoming missions – such as the eROSITA space telescope, a German-led satellite scheduled for launch on 12 July to complete the first all-sky survey in the medium-energy X-ray band, up to 10keV – will add to this wealth of knowledge, and help further our understanding of the X-ray Universe.”)
MUF: Welcome Rina. Thanks for joining us today. I’m really excited to be talking to you about this book.
Rina Heisel: Thanks. I’m excited to be here.
MUF: So, tell us about Journey Beyond the Burrow.
Rina Heisel: Journey Beyond the Burrow is an adventure story about a young mouse, Tobin. He’s the top weather scout in his burrow, and he’s an expert in the Rules of Rodentia. He’s very proud of this, and always follows the Rules, until a big storm introduces a new predator that scuttles off with Tobin’s new baby brother. The Rules say to never pursue a predator, but Tobin goes on a rescue mission, along with his best friend and his little sister.
MUF: Speaking of the new predator, they definitely freaked me out, but not as much as the part where Tobin winds up in a nest of snakes. I had to put the book down at that part. Snakes scare me.
Rina Heisel: I’ve actually heard that from a few reviewers. Some people go into Journey Beyond the Burrow expecting a cute animal story, and it is that. But it’s also got some pretty scary, intense parts. Those are some of my favorites because I always loved those types of books when I was a kid.
MUF: Speaking of books that you enjoyed as a child, can you tell us some of the books that influenced you?
Rina Heisel: I read a lot of animal fantasy: Charlotte’s Web, Watership Down, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. I liked horse books and animal rescue books, but I also loved ghost stories, especially books by Mary Downing Hahn, and the Choose Your Own Adventure books.
MUF: Oh! Those were so good. I saw on your website that you worked on nature shows for South Dakota Public Broadcasting, how did your time there influence Journey Beyond the Burrow?
Rina Heisel: The natural science shows were my favorite projects. I spent a lot of time in the Badlands getting prairie dog footage and observing them and their burrows. It got me thinking about the relationship between predator and prey.
MUF: So, you started with prairie dogs, why is the story about mice?
Rina Heisel: Mice are so expressive, and they have fingers. It’s so helpful in writing animals that an animal is able to hold something because it’s such a human quality.
Also, I had a pet mouse in college that I rescued from a tarantula cage. The owner tried to feed the mouse to the tarantula, but the spider was scared of this little baby mouse and just clung to the top of its cage. I had a very understanding roommate who let me take the mouse back to our room. We named it Lucky, and it lived on cafeteria food.
MUF: Oh! That’s awesome. So, are the Arakni in the story based on that tarantula then?
Rina Heisel: Arakni are based on tarantulas, yes, but also on Hunstman spiders, and A. Eximius spiders, which are spiders that live in colonies. I basically took the most terrifying traits of several spider species and combined them to make the Arakni, much to my agent’s chagrin. She had to go over all of the
different versions of the cover with spiders on them.
MUF: Wait! There’s a spider on the cover? I never noticed.
Rina Heisel: Yes! The mice that Paul Canavan drew are so expressive that they just pull you in, but there’s definitely a spider on the cover if you look for it.
MUF: Oh, I see it now. It’s kind of … menacing. So, tell us about the Rules of Rodentia. How did you come up with them?
Rina Heisel: The Rules come from nature and the relationships that animals have with each other. I got the idea from a biologist who talked about rabbits and the trails that they memorize. I thought about how all animals have these codes that they follow instinctively, and I wondered what that would look like written down.
MUF: Are there more rules that weren’t covered in the book?
Rina Heisel: There’s a little wiggle room in the numbering. So, there may be new rules, but there’s also a gray area. In life, it’s not just black and white. There’s this whole murky gray area.
MUF: That really feels like Tobin’s arc is finding that out. Rules of Rodentia would have made a pretty good title too.
Rina Heisel: It’s funny that you bring that up. Rules of Rodentia was my title, but my editor, Alice Jerman, wanted a title that would convey more of the story. So, my daughter and I brainstormed about 10 titles, and Journey Beyond the Burrow was one of my daughter’s suggestions.
MUF: Ha! That’s awesome. Can you tell us about your writing journey so far?
Rina Heisel: This story has been with me for about 15 years. The idea for the plot came to me in the Black Hills when we were interviewing a biologist about symbiotic relationships between animals, and I wondered “What would make a mouse and a snake team up?” I carried that little kernel of an idea around for a year or so. Then, the spiders came into play, and I wrote a summary. Then, I went to SCBWI classes and conferences to learn about writing for kids. It was around that time that my family moved to Florida, and I met my amazing writing group, The OWLS. I My first meeting with them I brought a 15 page first chapter of this animal fantasy that started out with Tobin just thinking about life. The OWLS were very patient with me, and I learned so much from them.
MUF: So, would that be your advice to new writers? Find a good group?
Rina Heisel: Yes, a supportive group is the biggest blessing, and SCBWI is a good resource. I learned so much by going to conferences, and going to conferences with my writing group was like imagination fuel.
MUF: Speaking of imagination fuel, what are you working on next?
Rina Heisel: I have an idea for a possible sequel to Journey Beyond the Burrow sketched out, but, right now, I’m working on an MG ghost story about siblings who visit a haunted hunting lodge in the North Woods.
MUF: Sounds spooky! Only a few more questions. What is something that readers would be surprised to find out about you?
Rina Heisel: Well, I love nature and being outside, but I’m scared of big fish. I went scuba diving with a friend near the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, and we saw a huge batfish. My poor diving partner, when we surfaced, said, “You kn
ow, for a small person, you have the most vice-like grip.” I was terrified!
MUF: That sounds like nightmare fuel. How can readers find you on social media?
Heisel: I’m on Twitter: @rinaheisel. Instagram: rina.heisel and my Facebook page is Author Rina Heisel.
MUF: Thank you so much for talking with us today.
Journey Beyond the Burrow comes out July 13th, but one lucky winner will have a chance to win a sneak peek by entering our giveaway below.