About ‘Fleming leapt…’ for April 24, 2020

Samantha Marie Copeland

Author Samantha Copeland is a chair of the Serendipity Society, a philosopher (in epistemology, philosophy of science and technology, and ethics), and an assistant professor at TU Delft in the Netherlands.

This session will be chaired by Wendy Ross.

“Fleming leapt on the unusual like a weasel on a vole”: Challenging the paradigms of discovery in science.


This paper describes and offers a corrective for problematic implications of classic
paradigms of serendipitous discovery in science, such as the narrative that
Fleming discovered penicillin. As usually told, an individual (Fleming) makes
an isolated observation by chance (of mold in his petri dish) which leads inevitably
to a major discovery. Such stories leave out important interactions—
emerging networks—that were equally important. Further, they perpetuate
the mistaken belief that the epistemology of discovery is mysterious. By reforming
the paradigm, I provide a social-epistemological grounding for the role of chance
in science, and for the development of a skill-based epistemology of discovery.

Questions for Twitter:

  • How appropriate is the classic image of a lone genius making a specific chance observation in scientific discovery?
  • How do we situate a discovery in time – is there one time at which we can say the discovery is made?
  • What constitutes sagacity or the prepared mind?
  • How shall we assign epistemic credit? Is it even valuable to do so?

Citation & links:

Copeland, S.M. (2018) “Fleming leapt on the unusual like a weasel on a vole”: Challenging the paradigms of discovery in science. Perspectives on Science, 26(6), 694–721. https://doi.org/10.1162/posc_a_00294

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