Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
In 1754, the 4th Earl of Oxford, the gothic novelist and Whig politician better known to us by his real name Horace Walpole, found himself reading a Persian fairytale called “The Three Princes of Serendip.” Actually he was probably reading the Italian translation of the story, “Peregrinaggio di tre giovani figliuoli del re di Serendippo,” published in Venice in 1557.
The story begins by explaining that once upon a time, “in the country of Serendippo, in the Far East,” the king had three sons. As the tale progresses, the three princes embark on many adventures and experience many twists and turns before finally reaching a happy ending.
In a letter to Horace Mann (a lot of Horaces back then) dated January 28, 1754, Walpole summed up the tale as one in which its heroes “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.” With this quality of fortuitous happenstance in mind, Walpole coined a new word, “serendipity,” now defined (in Merriam-Webster) as “the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for; also: an instance of this.”
Serendippo, or Serendip, was a name for Sri Lanka. The Persian name for it was Sarandīp (سرندیپ), which derived from its names in Tamil (Ceralamdivu) and Sanskrit (Simhaladvipa).
This even though the fairytale itself was actually based on the life of Shah Bahram V of the Sassanian Dynasty of 5th century Persia. Sri Lanka, for the tale’s author, served only as an exotic setting in which to tell his story.
One assumes that neither of the Horaces nor the Persian author of the fairytale ever imagined that this old name for Sri Lanka would come to designate ice cream shops in New York City and a bad rom com. For good measure, SERENDIP is now also the acronym for an alien-hunting venture based in Berkeley, California (Search for Extraterrestrial Radio Emissions from Nearby Developed Intelligent Populations).
Good hunting, astronomers. Or should I say, serendipitous hunting? Science is often serendipitous. Like when Alexander Fleming discovered Penicillin, or that time we thought we found space aliens but instead identified a new type of stars. But that story will have to wait for a later post.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."