(Update 2021) Serendipity: The Accidental Scientists | IELTS Reading Practice Test

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Serendipity: The AccidSerendipity: The Accidental Scientistsental Scientists
Serendipity: The Accidental Scientists

A. A paradox lies close to the heart of scientific discovery. If you know just what you are looking for, finding it can hardly count as a discovery, since it was fully anticipated. But if, on the other hand, you have no notion of what you are looking for, you cannot know when you have found it, and discovery, as such, is out of the question. In the philosophy of science, these extremes map onto the purist forms of deductivism and inductivism: In the former, the outcome is supposed to be logically contained in the premises you start with; in the latter, you are recommended to start with no expectations whatsoever and see what turns up.

B. As in so many things, the ideal position is widely supposed to reside somewhere in between these two impossible to-realize extremes. You want to have a good enough idea of what you are looking for to be surprised when you find something else of value, and you want to be ignorant enough of your end point that you can entertain alternative outcomes. Scientific discovery should, therefore, have an accidental aspect, but not too much of one. Serendipity is a word that expresses a position something like that. It’s a fascinating word, and the late Robert King Merton—‘the father of the sociology of science’—liked it well enough to compose its biography, assisted by the French cultural historian Elinor Barber.

C. Serendipity means a ‘happy accident’ or ‘pleasant surprise’; specifically, the accident of finding something good or useful without looking for it. The first noted use of ‘serendipity’ in the English language was by Horace Walpole (1717-1792). In a letter to Horace Mann (dated 28 January 1754) he said he formed it from the Persian fairy tale The Three Princes of Serendip, whose heroes ‘were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of’. The name stems from Serendip, an old name for Sri Lanka.

Serendipity: The Accidental Scientists
Serendipity: The Accidental Scientists

D. Besides antiquarians, the other community that came to dwell on serendipity to say something important about their practice was that of scientists. Many scientists, including the Harvard physiologist Walter Cannon and, later, the British immunologist Peter Medawar, liked to emphasize how much of scientific discovery was unplanned and even accidental. One of Cannon’s favorite examples of such serendipity is Luigi Galvani’s observation of the twitching of dissected frogs’ legs, hanging from a copper wire, when they accidentally touched an iron railing, leading to the discovery of ‘galvanism’; another is Hans Christian Orsted’s discovery of electromagnetism when he unintentionally brought a current-carrying wire parallel to a magnetic needle.

The context in which scientific serendipity was most contested and had its greatest resonance was that connected with the idea of planned science. The serendipitists were not all inhabitants of academic ivory towers. Two of the great early-20th-century American pioneers of industrial research—Willis Whitney and Irving Langmuir, both of General Electric—made much play of serendipity, in the course of arguing against overly rigid research planning.

E. Yet what Cannon and Medawar took as a benign method, other scientists found incendiary. To say that science had a significant serendipitous aspect was taken by some as dangerous denigration. If scientific discovery were really accidental, then what was the special basis of expert authority?

F. In this connection, the aphorism of choice came from no less an authority on scientific discovery than Louis Pasteur: “Chance favors the prepared mind.” Accidents may happen, and things may turn up unplanned and unforeseen, as one is looking for something else, but the ability to notice such events, to see their potential bearing and meaning, to exploit then occurrence and make constructive use of them these are the results of systematic mental preparation. What seems like an accident is just another form of expertise. On closer inspection, it is insisted, accident dissolves into sagacity.

G. In 1936, as a very young man, Merton wrote a seminal essay on “The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action.” It is, he argued, the nature of social action that what one intends is rarely what one gets: Intending to provide resources for buttressing Christian religion, the natural philosophers of the Scientific Revolution laid the groundwork for secularism; people wanting to be alone with nature in Yosemite Valley wind up crowding one another. We just don’t know enough—and we can never know enough— to ensure that the past is an adequate guide to the future: Uncertainty about outcomes, even of our best-laid plans, is endemic. All social action, including that undertaken with the best evidence and formulated according to the most rational criteria, is uncertain in its consequences.


Questions 28-33
Reading passage has seven paragraphs, A-G
Choose the correct heading for paragraphs A -F from the list of headings below.
Write the correct number, i-x, in boxes 28-33 on your answer sheet.

List of headings
i The origin of serendipity
ii Horace Walpole’s fairy tale
iii Arguments against serendipity
iv Two basic knowledge in the paradox of scientific discovery
v The accidental evidences in and beyond science
vi organization’s movement Opposing against the authority
vii Accident and mental preparation
viii Planned research and anticipated outcome
ix The optimum balance between the two extremes

28 Paragraph A
29 Paragraph B
30 Paragraph c
31 Paragraph D
32 Paragraph E
33 Paragraph F

Questions 34-36
Complete the summary below, using NO MORE THAN TWO WORDS from the Reading Passage for each answer.
Write your answers in boxes 34-36 on your answer sheet.

The word ‘serendipity’ was coined in the writing of 34………….to Horace Mann. He derived it from a 35………., the characters of which were always making fortunate discoveries by accident. The stem Serendip was a former name for 36………..

Questions 37-40
Choose the correct letter. A, B, c or D.
Write the correct letter in boxes 37-40 on your answer sheet.

37 What does ‘inductivism’ mean in paragraph A?
A. observation without anticipation at the beginning
B. Looking for what you want in the premise
C. The expected discovery
D. The map we pursued

38 Scientific discovery should
A be much of accidental aspect
B be full of value
C. be between the two exhemes
D be skeptical

39 The writer mentions Luigi Galvani’s observation to illustrate
A the cruelty of frog’s dissection
B the happy accident in scientific discovery
c the practice of scientists
D the rigid research planning

40 Why does the writer mention the example in Yosemite Valley in paragraph G?
A To illustrate the importance of a systematic plan
B To illustrate there is an unpredictable reality towards expectation
C To illustrate the original anticipation
D To illustrate that intention of social action is totally meaningless


Serendipity: The Accidental Scientists
Serendipity: The Accidental Scientists

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