A common perception of scientists is that of working in an ivory tower on subjects too technical for the average person to comprehend.  That is often the case but there have been many instances in which fortuitous circumstances led to discoveries more valuable than the goal initially desired. When researchers begin investigations there is often no way to know of the obstacles that must be overcome, or whether time is on their side or against them.  Furthermore, even a successful experiment might produce a huge payoff in another field years later. A good example is a serendipitous finding made in London in 1946 that was important in its own right, but considerably more valuable in another field.  The goal of that initial research was to develop a procedure for preserving the sperm of fowl.  Twenty five years later the technique was an essential component in the replacement of corneas of the human eye.
There were several sources used for material in this book.  One was the response received from members of the National Academy of Sciences in the U.S., and the British Royal Society.  I wrote to approximately 60 members of each group and received responses from half of them.  Two questions were asked:  “Were there any unplanned circumstances that directed you into the field in which you made your mark as a scientist?” and “Did chance play a significant role in your accomplishments?”  The replies ranged from short, but polite, negative statements to fascinating narratives several pages long.  In one case, the response was received five years after my letter had been sent.
Second, the periodical Current Contents carried a feature for about 15 years entitled Citation Classics in which authors of frequently-cited research papers gave informal accounts of the circumstances surrounding those studies.  In many, authors of these important papers told of their difficulty in getting them published because the reviewers misjudged their value.  In many others were the accidental circumstances that made the results possible.
A third, and most enjoyable mine of information, was found in prefatory chapters of publications whose titles begin with “Annual Review of - - .“   There are more than a hundred of such annual reviews covering a wide range of sciences. These were written by senior scientists who reveled in relating the actual events that led to their most important discoveries.  In many of these accounts there were instances of hunches that paid off, or simply serendipitous happenings that could not have been foreseen.
Finally, there was a one-day symposium on serendipity that took place in 1986 as a part of the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  This was organized by Rustum Roy (Penn State University), the late John Christman (Loyola University in New Orleans) and myself (Naval Research Laboratory).  Prior to that symposium we had solicited input from readers of approximately 45 scientific journals.  The night before, there was a cocktail party for the speakers (who had not met each other), and the informal atmosphere thus generated contributed to the lively symposium the next day.
It has been a pleasure to write this book which should appeal to all who enjoy a good story, regardless of background.  My formal training was in chemistry, receiving a B.S. in that subject from Catholic University (Washington D.C.) in 1942, then a M.S. in organic chemistry from the same institution in 1948.  World War II years were spent at the Geophysical Laboratory of the Carnegie Institution in Washington, where research was being conducted on ways to improve the linings of gun barrels.  During that time I was privileged to be one of the early users of 14C as a tracer.  The goal of that research was to determine the depth of penetration of carbon into the linings.  My career with the U.S. Government began in 1948 with insecticide research at the Beltsville, MD, laboratory of the Department of Agriculture, followed by over seven years at the Engineering Research and Development. Laboratories at Fort Belvoir, VA, in which fungicides were my principal interest.  I moved to the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington D.C. in 1956 and retired from that distinguished organization in 1987.  While at NRL one of my interesting tasks was to determine the feasibility of  producing oxygen for nuclear submarines by growing mass cultures of algae.  Results of that study were far different than I had anticipated in that the system was extremely reliable in removing carbon dioxide and producing oxygen.  The problem was that the electrical power required for the incandescent lights was prohibitive.  Following those initial studies, I pioneered in bioassays based on the gas exchange properties of algae.  With such an approach, the response time of the organisms is orders of magnitudes faster than most bioassays that typically depend on measurements of mass or cell number. For example, it was possible to determine the toxicity of stainless steel specimens to algae in less than 15 minutes.  Since 1989, I have been a part-time employee of  the American Association of Retired Persons (later associated with the National Older Workers Career Center) and my assignment is at the Crystal City, VA, offices of the Environmental Protection Agency.