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In Search of Failure and Serendipity

Submitter: Jan Noordam and Vincent Icke
Description: We tried something new this year at the Nederlandse Astronomen Conferentie (NAC) in Dalfsen. Using the magnificent outdoor amphitheatre of the Mooirivier conference centre, the participants engaged in a lively discussion of the roles of Failure and Serendipity in the creative process of astrophysical research.

After a passionate introduction by Vincent, laced with powerful quotations from successful people, the open discussion was "structured" in three parts. Firstly, starting with our Nestor (Huug van Woerden), people offered personal experiences of serendipity (mostly) and failure. The speakers were reasonably balanced in age, albeit not in gender.

Secondly, we tried to determine the actual importance of serendipity, relative to staying on the Straight and Narrow path of completing planned assignments. Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, the most passionate defenders were the tenured staff, while many students and postdocs were more concerned about securing jobs by building up a reputation for solid work. Many felt that, within the present system, "taking risks" is a luxury that they can ill afford. Even so, quite a few stated that their supervisors gave them enough leeway to accommodate substantial deviations from the originally intended subject or trajectory. "You've got to adjust," was the recurring phrase.

Finally, even though its relative importance was by no means established, we wondered whether we could formulate the conditions that would maximize the probability of serendipitous discoveries in our institutes. (There was some idle talk about submitting a list of recommendations to the Minister). This exercise was inconclusive. It was not even possible to decide how well the existing system performs. Also, there was no consensus whether happiness or frustration is better in this respect.

In his summary, Vincent concluded that F&S are important subjects, which should play a much larger role in our day-to-day discourse, and of which we have only scratched the surface. And indeed, small groups continued to passionately discuss them afterwards at the bar, and throughout the next day. There were frequent references to them during the talks. There was even a suggestion that AstroNet should have a Serendipity Panel. Obviously, we have not lived in vain.
Copyright: Lars Baehren
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