February 08, 2004

More on Merton

I finally gave in to temptation yesterday and bought a copy of Robert Merton's The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity. (Click here for an earlier discussion of this book and of the field of "romantic scholarship.") So far, it seems like a fascinating and delightful book--it may not as polished as On the Shoulders of Giants, Merton's earlier book, but it has the advantage of a central argument with farther-reaching consequences.

Don't take my word for it, however. Today's Washington Post features a Michael Dirda column singing the book's praises. As a way of introducing readers to Merton's work, he begins by hailing On the Shoulders of Giants as "one of the most delightful books of our time":

Who wouldn't love OTSOG (as his classic is commonly referred to)? In that rambling, leisurely digressive "Shandean postscript," Merton goes about tracing the origins and history of the celebrated remark by Isaac Newton: "If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." To begin, he points out that the so-called "Aphorism" crops up in Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, where we moderns are described as pygmies atop the gigantic shoulders of the ancients. Burton leads on to the 17th-century antiquarian John Aubrey (he of the gossipy Brief Lives) and from there to Swift and Rabelais, to the classicists Joseph Scaliger and Juan Luis Vives, to Bernard of Clairvaux and, finally, to the mysterious Didacus Stella. All this sleuthing in the stacks is very entertaining in itself, but what makes OTSOG really fun is Merton's wry, mock-supercilious tone, supported by a steady patter of footnotes, parenthetical reflections and bits of autobiography.

In other words, nearly half of OTSOG is simply marginalia, oddments of learning mentioned almost in passing. Thus Merton incidentally defines "the Parvus complex" as the tendency for people to belittle themselves or their achievements. He resurrects the useful word "agelast" (a person who doesn't laugh) and quotes a neat quip by Albert Einstein: "If my theory of relativity is proven successful, Germany will claim me as a German and France will declare that I am a citizen of the world." After discussing how some fields are named for their eponymous founder (e.g., Boolean algebra), the social scientist sneakily adds that "On rare occasions the same individual acquires a double immortality, both for what he achieved and for what he failed to achieve, as in the cases of Euclidean and non-Euclidean geometries, and non-Aristotelian logics." Even OTSOG's index turns out to be funny: "Bacon, Francis: William Shakespeare?," "Merton, Robert K.: another pupil of George Sarton" and "Barber, Elinor: co-author of an important unpublished work, The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity."

Dirda then turns to the main subject of his review, The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity. His take on the book mirrors my own preliminary assessment:

The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity isn't as frolicsome as On the Shoulders of Giants. It tends to repeat, even belabor, some of its points and generally feels more ramshackle -- and not in a wholly Shandean way. And yet the book is full of good things. Word mavens will enjoy the survey of how a half-dozen major dictionaries define -- or mostly ill-define -- "serendipity." Several pages analyze the word's pronunciation and judge its sheer musicality as part of its appeal. There are reflections on collectors and collecting, a domain that would hardly exist without the pleasure of serendipitous discovery. Even more seriously, Merton examines the corporate or academic pressure for steady, continuous progress in research against the need for scientists to follow their instincts and make the mistakes that occasionally result in a happy accidental breakthrough. Merton even meditates on the problem of unexpected evil in life, the dark counterpart to unexpected good luck. He notes that, in many careers, to be lucky is good, but to be too lucky tends to make one seem undeserving of the prestige or honor. Conspicuous good fortune undercuts the claims of hard work and merit.

For those of you who don't know, the word "serendipity" was coined by Horace Walpole in 1754. The word came from the title of a "silly folk tale" called "The Travels and Adventures of Three Princes of Sarendib," which had supposedly been translated from Persian into French and then into English; Sarendib (more commonly spelled "Serendib") was an old name for the island of Sri Lanka, which was thus the indirect source of the word "serendipity." The introduction to The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity includes a fascinating discussion of whether this was a real Asian folktale or merely an Italian story rewritten with an exotic flare, but here's what strikes me as the most fascinating thing about the word "serendipity": according to Merton and Barber, it was used in print only 135 times between 1754 and 1958 (when the book was written.) Serendity, it seems, has leapt from obscurity to ubiquity over the last 50 years.

It occurred to me, while reading James Shulman's introduction to the book, that there's an interesting relationship between the genre of romantic scholarship and the concept of serendipity itself. As Merton argues, increased competition makes it harder to justify funding for basic research and easier to demand funding for research with practical applications; the history of science, however, shows that many great discoveries have arisen serendipitously from research whose applications could never be predicted. By the same token, increased competition in academia and publishing makes it harder for "serious" writers to produce less traditional books that won't sell well or win their authors tenure. Books like Merton's won't transform the world the way the discovery of penicillin did, but they deserve a wider audience nonetheless.

Posted by Ed at February 8, 2004 10:31 AM

Hello folks nice blog youre running

Posted by: lolita at January 19, 2005 08:55 PM
Post a comment

Remember personal info?