Madame Butterfly

Aug 01, 2002 9:30 PM  By

Commenting on “Truffles and Trash” (O&F, June 2002, p. 6), a reader wrote, “Have you seen the BBC special ‘Connections’? This four- or five-part series reviewed how ideas from different sectors affected completely different parts of the world. For example, the French need to preserve food for Napoleon’s troops and Chinese fireworks combined to make the German U2 and finally today’s ICBM. With all of today’s efforts to deliver more for less, we must keep the connections going.”

I regret that I haven’t seen that BBC program, but I thank this reader for bringing up an idea that the business world should take to heart at a time of creative stagnation. “Connections” is a broad term, but the aspect of it that seems most relevant for business people is learning from disciplines vastly different from your own. Hence, an aerospace company can adapt the crisis-management techniques of, say, a hospital, or a trade publication like ours can learn about trendy design from a teen magazine sold on the newsstand.

Going further afield, however — and getting to the heart of what that reader told us — we come to the notion of serendipity. The British antiquarian and author Horace Walpole coined the term in 1754 to refer to things discovered while in pursuit of something else. “I once read a silly fairy tale called The Three Princes of Serendip: as their highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of,” he wrote. History and science abound in such happy accidents, whether they were the discovery of penicillin, the anti-malarial drug quinine, dynamite, or the New World.

A related idea coming back into vogue is a term from 1960s chaos theory, the Butterfly Effect, in which small differences in input multiply to produce large and unpredictable results (the technical name for this is “sensitive dependence on initial conditions.”) Again, history is replete with examples: When peanuts were introduced into China in the mid-1600s, the resulting increase of protein in the national diet fomented a huge population explosion — leaving that many more millions of people to be decimated by a massive rebellion in the 19th century.

So, be aware that you can’t always predict outcomes or rely on simulations of future trends. As James Gleick points out in his excellent book Chaos: Making a New Science (Viking, 1987), the computer-generated econometric models of the 1970s and ’80s “proved dismally blind to what the future would bring.” Gleick’s book is a great guide to the serendipitous life, as is the unusual Web site http://serendip.brynmawr./edu. And if you want to read the original story about the three princes of Serendip, check out Richard Boyle’s lively retelling of the tale at http://livingheritage.org/three_princes.htm.