Many scientific discoveries occurred by accident. For instance, I can give the example of Czochralski process : Czochralski "made this discovery by accident, while studying the crystallization rate of metals when, instead of dipping his pen into the ink, he did so in molten tin and drew a tin filament, that later proved to be a single crystal."

Many other examples like that can be found (Pasteur, etc).

How can I name that phenomenon in general :

  • "Hazard in Science" ? (This is close to french)
  • "Discoveries made by chance" ? (that does not sound english...)
  • "Discoveries made in a haphazard way" ? (that does not sound english either...)
  • others...

What is the correct idiomatic expression ?


When you read hazard, think danger. It is almost never an appropriate translation of the French word “hasard”, they're false friends. The French word “hasard” can be translated by random in most contexts. Haphazard is also a false friend: it means “in a chaotic or disorganized way”.

Something that happens at random happens by chance. The English word is close in meaning to the French word, though in English it is a bit more common for chance to be neutral rather than positive. “Discoveries made by chance” conveys the right idea, but you're right, it isn't really idiomatic. The expression chance discovery is idiomatic. A chance discovery is a result of an experiment that wasn't the goal of the experiment.

A lucky discovery specifically focuses on the fact that the discovery is useful, and while it suggests that the result wasn't what was expected, it could also be the case that the goal was achieved and surpassed, which isn't what you want to convey here.

As JavaLatte notes, in this context, the most idiomatic wording would be to say that Czochralski made a serendipitous discovery.

Wikipedia has an article on “the role of chance in scientific discoveries” which discusses serendipity.


Three terms sprang into my mind – one noun phrase and two verb phrases:

  • Accidental discovery
  • Discovered by accident
  • Discovered by chance

An Ngram shows these are all is use to the same degree, more or less.

A similar phrase is Eureka moment, but that refers more to a moment of sudden realization rather than accidental discovery. But the two concepts are somewhat related.

  • Here's one more Ngram, with these three suggestions combined with two of the suggestions by JavaLatte. The Ngram would indicate any of these terms could be readily found in literature. – J.R. Mar 30 '16 at 20:05

The term "chance discovery" is appropriate, but serendipity (n) and serendipitous(adj) are much more widely used: see this NGram.

Just to let you know what you are up against: "[serendipity] has been voted one of the ten English words hardest to translate in June 2004 by a British translation company". wiki

  • 4
    I think that Ngram might be a little misleading, in that serendipitous could refer to things other than a discovery of some sort. (E.g., I needed to buy a new widget, and they were having a sale at the store. How serendipitous!). I think this Ngram might represent a truer comparison. (That said, serendipitous is not a bad word for the situation the O.P. describes.) – J.R. Mar 30 '16 at 20:01
  • @J.R. interesting: thanks for that. Curious that if you add together chance discovery and serendipitous discovery it's almost flat from 1960 onwards. – JavaLatte Mar 30 '16 at 20:38

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