I recently read an article in The New York Times that described serendipity not as a random stroke of luck, which we usually perceive it to be, but as something people actively cultivate. The highest level of serendipity is attributed to people who constantly take in tidbits of information, stashing them away in pockets of their mind where they begin to coalesce and take shape as a bigger picture—often at times when they’re working on something completely different.
I was excited to read about serendipity as an activity rather than luck, as I felt it mirrored my own approach. I’m constantly reading papers, blogs, tweets, and news articles on a range of topics: science communication, Western water, drought and wildfire, landscape and conservation ecology, writing and editing, academic culture, science policy…as you can see, I’m interested in a range of topics. I file away bits and pieces of what I read for future reference, and often see connections between pieces that I wouldn’t have seen if: (a) I didn’t read so widely; and, (b) I didn’t allow time for things to percolate in the back of my mind.
My interest in serendipity deepened when I read Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World. As Wulf describes him, Humboldt was a major cultivator of serendipity. His voyages around the globe, collecting information on geology, plants, climate, local culture, wildlife, and more, all fed into his theory of the unity of all of nature (what he called his Naturgemälde). His lectures touched on ideas across a range of disciplines, leaving the audience breathless at the speed with which he shifted intellectual gears. He organized conferences for scientists from a range of research fields, knowing that by discussing their findings with each other they would generate new ideas and discoveries.
Wulf’s book is a pleasure to read, a rollicking adventure that follows Humboldt on his journeys to the Americas, Venezuela, and Russia. She places his activities and scientific findings in the political and social context of the time, such as his ability to navigate the politics of being a Prussian citizen paid an annual stipend by the Prussian king, but residing full time in France. She also links his ideas to those who lived during the same era, as well as those who came later and were influenced by his work.
It was in Humboldt’s ideas that I saw serendipity at work again—this time because many of his ideas resonated with those that regularly roll around in my own mind. Wulf’s book put all those ideas in one place, showing me that the scientists of the past had many answers to our modern-day questions—we just have to remember them.
Wulf first introduces Immanuel Kant and his Critique of Pure Reason. He explored the idea that we don’t understand the world through reason alone because our senses mediate that understanding. This suggests that everyone interprets the world differently as they filter it through the lens of their own senses and experience.
This is a big topic these days in science communication, as the public (and some scientists!) have the impression that scientists are purely rational beings. However, science is always filtered through our own belief systems and biases—it’s a human system, as I wrote about in this post from June 2015. While that’s not a bad thing, it’s something everyone—including scientists—needs to be aware of. It’s one of the reasons people sometimes talk about science being broken—because they’ve forgotten that scientists are human, and that their pre-existing experiences and biases can’t help but affect research outcomes.
Humboldt himself was a huge proponent of natural history research: collecting and cataloguing plant and animal species, rock types, local cultures, etc. It was this interest in natural history that led him to develop his theory of the unity of natural systems.
These days natural history is in decline, though many researchers—such as Terry Wheeler and Alex Bond—rightly promote it as a relevant science that can answer many questions about global organisms. It’s also an approach that anyone can take, regardless of training. Just paying attention to the natural world, like Annie Dillard did in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, for example, can reveal its complex and interconnected workings.
Humboldt’s theory of the unity of all environmental systems necessarily required that these systems be studied across scientific disciplines. Wulf notes that the word ‘scientist’ was coined in 1834, and it wasn’t long after that that scientists began to specialize in smaller disciplines and focus on lab work, rather than taking the broader, discipline-crossing approach of people like Humboldt and his colleagues.
These days there’s a lot of talk about the interconnectedness of environmental systems, and the need for interdisciplinary teams to study these processes. I was part of a research team, for example, that included fluvial geomorphologists, forest hydrologists, drinking water treatment engineers, and wildfire specialists—all to understand the impact of wildfire on drinking water. Other research teams studying DNA or the Higgs boson number in the hundreds. Humboldt’s emphasis on interdisciplinarity has come back to haunt us, reminding us that working in individual silos keeps us from fully understanding all aspects of natural systems.
Humboldt was also one of the first scientists to note the impact of humans on the environment. Wulf describes Humboldt’s travels through the Lake Valencia region of Venezuela, where he realized that the lake level was dropping because locals had extensively logged the landscape to increase agricultural production. He hypothesized that the logging exposed the underlying soils to the elements, increasing evaporation rates and reducing their ability to retain water. Not only that, but heavy rains washed away the soil, because it was no longer anchored by forest vegetation.
This is one of the key arguments used today in encouraging protection of headwater basins, and is a research field in which I have a lot of experience. We now know that forested headwaters retain more water, slow rainfall runoff, enhance water quality through natural filtration processes and by reducing erosion. In the Amazon, we know that deforestation causes warmer, drier conditions at the local scale, with reduced rainfall at the regional scale. Humboldt’s observations, made in 1800, were precursors of the science we’ve done today.
The final piece of serendipity I stumbled across in reading this engrossing book was how Humboldt’s books were the precursors of today’s nature writing—a genre I read and write a lot of. Humboldt was friends with Goethe, who believed that the natural environment could be best understood through a combination of science and art. Humboldt wrote several books about his travels that were designed to make readers feel as though they were actually in the Americas with him. Not only did he write about his science, but his rich descriptions of the places he visited made his science more understandable.
So from personal bias in science, to natural history and interdisciplinarity, the impact of humans on the environment and the seeds of nature writing, Wulf’s description of Humboldt and his contemporaries made me feel I’d met a kindred spirit. One who was interested in the same topics as I am, and who cultivated serendipity just as I do: looking for the connections between things that seem fairly disconnected, and coming up with new ideas that (in his case) certainly stand the test of time.
We’ll see if serendipity will take me just as far…