A chance encounter billions of years ago led to the explosion of life on Earth. An amoeba-like organism absorbed a bacterium that had harnessed sunlight to separate oxygen from water molecules. The descendants of that ancestor of all plants and trees, transformed our atmosphere, allowing all animals and us to evolve on Earth.
Chance encounters between moving objects (remember the end of the dinosaurs?) or between interacting sentient beings can also have huge consequences. Just as we must avoid disastrous results (check for Earth-crossing asteroids!) we should foster positive outcomes and provide stages where the latter can occur.
Many notable advances have been the result of chance encounters, sometimes between experts from different disciplines. Ed Catmull, the computer scientist who heads Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios writes that the best ideas emerge when talented people from different disciplines work together.
Two Bell Labs radio astronomers, Robert Wilson and Arno Penzias, were racking their brains in 1964 to explain a persistent noise they observed with their radio antenna. A chance meeting with an MIT physicist who mentioned a pre-print authored by three Princeton physicists, led them to understand that they had discovered the Cosmic Microwave Background, a predicted radiation left over from the early universe, only 380,000 years after the Big Bang. This earned them the Nobel Prize in 1978.
It was the article of faith that cross-pollination was essential to the furtherance of their objectives that Jonathan Dorfan, as founding director of the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology, institutionalized this concept through the development of work areas with no boundaries between the various disciplines at the OIST. Indeed all meeting and resting areas were drawn to force experts to mingle.
I used to host Friday lunches at the Stanford Faculty Club and made it a habit to invite each week folks from different departments. It was always a joy to hear “Oh, you are working on this? Did you know that…?” Some of these conversations led to active and fruitful cooperation.
Since most universities and labs cannot transform their existing physical layouts, they should make all efforts to promote exchanges across their silos in other ways. This can be as simple as running a weekly random drawing and invite those selected to share a meal. In my experience, 6 to 8 participants is an ideal number. This allows all to participate in one conversation while still permitting one-to-one exchanges.
If you know of an important advance resulting from a serendipitous meeting, please share a comment.
“Did you ever observe to whom the accidents happen? Chance favors only the prepared mind.” -- Louis Pasteur