241 Things

1000 Things is a subjective encyclopedia of inspirational ideas, things, people, and events.

Read the most recent articles, or mail the editorial team to contribute.

Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

241 Things

Dear Theo

Will life never treat me decently? I am wracked by despair! My head is pounding. Mrs Sol Schwimmer is suing me because I made her bridge as I felt it and not to fit her ridiculous mouth. That’s right! I can’t work to order like a common tradesman. I decided her bridge should be enormous and billowing and wild, explosive teeth flaring up in every direction like fire! Now she is upset becuase it won’t fit in her mouth! She is so bourgeois and stupid, I want to smash her. I tried forcing the false plate in but it sticks out like a star burst chandelier. Still, I find it beautiful. She claims she can’t chew! What do I care whether she can chew or not! Theo, I can’t go on like this much longer! I asked Cezanne if he would share an office with me but he is old and infirm and unable to hold the instruments and they must be tied to his wrists but then he lacks accuracy and once inside a mouth, he knocks out more teeth than he saves. What to do?

Vincent

Dear Theo

Once again I am in need of funds. I know what a burden I must be to you, but who can I turn to? I need money for materials! I am working almost exclusively with dental floss now, improvising as I go along, and the results are exciting. God! I have not even a penny left for Novocaine! Today I pulled a tooth and had to anesthetize the patient by reading him some Dreiser. Help.

Vincent

Dear Theo

Have decided to share office with Gauguin. He is a fine dentist who specialises in bridgework, and he seems to like me. He was very complimentary about my work on Mr Jay Greenglass. If you recall, I filled his lower seven, then despised the filling and tried to remove it. Greenglass was adamant and we went to court. There was a legal question of ownership, and on my lawyer's advice, I cleverly sued for the whole tooth and settled for the filling. Well, someone saw it lying in the corner of my office and he wants to put it in a show! They are already talking about a retrospective!

Vincent

This is a selection from the exchanges of notes which can be fully read in the text If The Impressionists Had Been Dentists from Woody Allens Without Feathers.

Roentgen's X-ray picture of the hand of Alfred von Kolliker, 23 january 1896

Roentgen's X-ray picture of the hand of Alfred von Kolliker, 23 january 1896

Roughly speaking, there are three ways to find something new:

1. Non-serendipity

Finding what you’re want while specifically searching for it. A good example is the discovery of the bacillus responsible for the bubonic plague. Convinced that the p­lague was an infection, Yersin, a student of Pasteur, travelled to South-East Asia to find the cause for the disease. He wanted to perform autopsies on people who had died in the hospital from the plague, but was not allowed to. He then commissioned a straw hut to be built on the hospital’s lawn and, with the help of a bribe, was given access to a plague victim. He sliced his knife into a pustule from which oozed a ‘puree’ of pus. Underneath the lens of his microscope he spotted the bacillus, which would later be named after him.

2. Pseudo-serendipity

Roentgen's X-ray picture of the hand of Alfred von Kolliker, 23 january 1896

Finding something you’re looking for while not actively searching for it. A classic example is the ‘vulcanising of rubber’. Goodyear mixed latex with sulphur to make it more durable: it was a ‘why-not’ sort of experiment. He heated the mixture and while stirring it spilled some on the hot oven. The spill scorched. Underneath the burnt surface was a transformed layer, underneath which an unchanged layer lay. This change is what we now call vulcanisation. Goodyear, being a man of faith, believed God himself had helped him a hand in this discovery because he had been working so hard and trying his very best.

3. Serendipity

A chance discovery, found without searching for it. As Dijksterhuis commented, it’s still unknown what aspect of cathode rays Röntgen was investigating when he discovered X-rays, or Röntgen radiation. He darkened his laboratory, covered what is now named an X-ray tube with black carton paper, electrified the tube, and saw to his great amazement a nearby fluorescent screen light up. Röntgen himself termed these rays permeating the black carton ‘X-rays’, because ‘X’ is the mathematical symbol for the unknown variable (a discovery of genius within Arabic algebra). The rays were invisible and passed straight through many materials. To convince himself of his findings, Röntgen captured the results on light-sensitive plates. When asked what he thought he had discovered he answered: ‘I wasn’t thinking, I was experimenting!’ After the publication of his discovery, it turned out other researchers had made observations that were also linked to X-rays. This is called ‘negative serendipity’: these other scientists made unexpected observations, but failed to interpret them correctly.

This is similar to the discovery of America: when Columbus landed in the New World he deemed himself to be in India, which is why he spoke of ‘Indians’. It was Amerigo Vespucci who made the right interpretation! What Röntgen experienced was ‘positive serendipity’: he not only made an unexpected observation (the fluorescent screens lighting up in the dark in the vicinity of an active Crookes-tube covered in black carton), he was also correct in his interpretation of this wondrous observation.

Ultimately, in practice, non-serendipity, pseudo-serendipity, and serendipity are not always discernable from one another.