By Milka Kostic
Milka is the Senior Editor of Chemistry & Biology and Structure.
I’ve always loved reading—one of the biggest punishments I ever got from my mother was for going to the library without permission.
My mom was at work, my dad on a business trip, and my younger sister at day care. I knew that my aunt was picking my sister up and bringing her home, and that she might arrive any minute, but I just couldn’t wait. The problem was that my aunt did not have the key to our apartment, and if I left, there wouldn’t be anyone to let her in. As this was all happening before mobile phones and text messages, I did the only thing I could: I left my aunt a hand-written note that the I’d gone out and that the key was under the door mat, and attached the note to the door.
I was so eager to get a new batch of books that it never crossed my mind that it might not be the best idea to leave a note that the key to our apartment was under a door mat and attach it to the very door! In the end nothing happened—I got my books, my aunt and my sister got into the apartment just fine, and we were not robbed. But I was still severely punished, as my mom did not appreciate this amount of independence in an eight year old. My aunt continued to joke about this and for decades would say “The key is under the door mat” to many of my brilliant ideas.
This and a few other misadventures along the way could not change who I am—an avid reader. The only thing that changed over the years is what I read. The largest shift happened when I entered college and decided to focus on science. At that point, large volumes of fiction and poetry were replaced by scientific literature, and although over the years fiction, and to a lesser extent poetry, came back into my sphere of reading interest, scientific literature still occupies most of my attention.
In my previous post I talked about how the way I read scientific papers changed as I transitioned from being an active scientist to a scientific editor. One thing that did not change, however, is the way I like to read when I have the luxury of a few moments of spare time. What I enjoy the most when it comes to reading is casting a wide net—going from a single sentence, or that one reference that captures my imagination, and following the trail of ideas and insights to wherever they lead. My starting point is often something that I know a lot about, but I also love starting from a chance glimpse that sparks my curiosity, and digging in.
You hear a lot about serendipity in science, and how unexpected discoveries go on to revolutionize entire fields. As with everything, a bit of it is part of the scientific lore, but anyone who ever did scientific research will tell you that this is actually true—the unexpected happens every day in little ways and does push forward science and our understanding of the world around us. You may also have heard laments of scientists of a certain age who remember going to the library, browsing journals just for browsing’s sake, getting immersed in an article just because, and walking away with a new idea that changed the direction of their research. In their view, serendipitous reading was made obsolete by search engines, online publishing, and keywords.
I am not convinced that the circumstances are as dire as that. A decade and a half ago you could still see me in the library, holding a pile of print issues of different journals in my hand, browsing, reading, re-reading, and flipping around. And sure, that did often lead to something interesting and unanticipated. But today is no different, except that the cozy chairs in the library have been replaced by a standing work station, and the source of initial inspiration comes from more places than a library shelf. These days more often than not my curiosity is nudged by something I see on social media. A simple tweet can snowball into an hour of intense reading and researching through scientific literature now at my fingertips. For me this no different from the good old library days, and the ideas or shift in perception that results from this process is no less valid or powerful than before.
The main enemy of serendipity is not search engines or keywords or social media—it’s the lack of time. So perhaps when people complain about not being able to freely browse and let their explorations of scientific literature go where they may, it’s really nothing to do with digitization of the content, or the fact that we might be too narrowly focused because all we do is use keyword searches. It’s all about the time pressure that we all feel and the need to get to our answers instantaneously.
At the end, you get what you pay for—and paying for a bit of serendipity with an hour of time is worth it to me. Sure, the work does not get done, or the house does not get clean, but in my world serendipity in literature discovery is still alive and here to stay. And I bet there are many of you out there feeling the same way! The main reason I say this so emphatically is that I believe we all, given an option and a blank sheet of mental paper, enjoy letting our minds go wherever they like, allowing ideas and thoughts to float and bounce. This seemingly aimless journey docks us at cognitive islands where treasures are buried, ready to be dug up. This thrills us to bits—and that’s what serendipity is all about.