Chance and the Prepared Mind – a 21st century perspective

“…by chance you might say.
But remember gentlemen, in the fields of observation, chance favours only the prepared mind.”
Louis Pasteur, December 7th 1854.

December 2022 marks the bicentennial of the discovery of the relationship between Electricity and Magnetism by Hans Christian Ørsted just a few months prior to the birth of Louis Pasteur in December of the same year. Pasteur was describing this discovery when he uttered these oft quoted words.[i]

But, is Pasteur’s adage still relevant in the 21st century? While it is apparent that Pasteur was himself both a passionate teacher and scholar, academia in 1854 was an elite endeavour, excluding many sectors of society – women, the poor and of course the illiterate. So, some 170 years later, his profound words might benefit from an appraisal before they are deemed suitable for the 21st century scholar.

According to Pearce[ii], Pasteur interpreted Chance as “an unexpected event or opportunity, the significance of which is grasped when a prepared mind embraces the opportunity being presented”.[iii]

Pasteur’s idea, writes Pearce, was that Chance or opportunity[iv], would not arrest the attention of the poorly prepared mind. But a well-prepared mind, trained to observe, to think and to compare acts[v], would grasp the significance of the unexpected, the unusual or occasional, put the observation to the test, by experiment or control, and arrive at the correct scientific conclusion.

Louis Pasteur, considered the prepared mind to be one “which is trained to observe the details of natural phenomena, to reason concerning the bearing of known laws on such phenomena”… “that is to say, it is a class of mind which, because it is endowed with a peculiar faculty, best described as scientific imagination – grasps the significance of a new observation, or of a variation from a known sequence of events.”

So how might Louis Pasteur reconsider his description of the prepared mind for a 21st century audience? And how might 21st century educators not only develop a prepared mind in their students but, also, how would they recognise it?

We could compare a prepared mind to a prepared field – one that has been enriched, tended, nurtured and provided with nutrients so that, with the right conditions, it will be ready to nourish the next seed of an idea. Is this an appropriate or adequate analogy? Again, not only how, but when does the farmer know the field has been fully and properly prepared? And how will he know when and if the seed has reached its full potential.

At what point does the prepared mind reveal itself?

Those of us who watch children grow, develop and learn, cannot fail to be delightfully surprised when our charges surpass our expectations of them, and we realise they have exceeded the limits we had incorrectly assumed to be their capacity for understanding. We watch their prepared minds absorb new experiences with their senses alert, their intellect exercised and their cognition primed.

Pasteur is also credited with the quote “To know how to wonder and question is the first step of the mind toward discovery” and in his 1854 address he also spoke of great potential in children saying “In your nursing sons, in those little beings whom a breath would cause to fall, there are magistrates, scholars, heroes as caustic as those who, at this hour, cover themselves with glory under the walls of Sebastopol”[vi].

It is likely that Pasteur considered “Fields of observation” to refer to scientific research.[vii] However, by limiting his famous quotation to the science laboratory, not only do we also limit the profound meaning and potential of the quotation, but we belie Pasteur’s own love of scholarship and wonder. Perhaps the sentiments expressed in his 19th century adage should be extended beyond the limits of scientific research.

A young child reacting to their own shadow for the first time, watching a trail of ants, hearing a bird or spying a butterfly is developing their “prepared mind” as surely as the child who is discovering their inner strengths, the nuances of a foreign language or the intricacies of a mathematical proof, and, in their way, is no less prepared for chance than the university scholar.

Because, it was not Chance that made Oerstad’s magnetised needle deviate from the compass points while in close proximity to an electrified copper wire, and it was not Chance that made Oerstad aware of the deviation. It was Oerstad’s sense of wonder, curiosity and imagination igniting an awareness of the unusual and unexpected in his chance observation, which Pasteur recognised as a prepared mind capable of turning that chance moment into a great and significant moment in the history of scientific discovery.

What does Louis Paster’s adage mean for the 21st century teacher? How do 21st century educators nurture and recognise “the prepared mind”?

The prepared mind is a mind that is awake and alert, open, curious, broadminded, flexible, imaginative, interested, creative, resilient, confident, optimistic and much more. And even “Intuition,” said Pasteur, “is given only to him who has undergone long preparation to receive it[viii]”.

Oerstad’s real education – the training which characterises “the mind which is prepared” – was forged through independent but wisely directed observation, experiment and reasoning, as he accumulated experiences which continually enhanced and renewed his training. And his prepared mind did not cease this training once his discovery had been made or even documented.

The prepared mind is not an end point in one’s education – preparing our mind for the next Chance encounter or experience is a never ending process.

Pasteur also believed a student must be taught to observe, experiment, reason and act for himself within a guided curriculum focused on providing stimulus and inspiration.[ix] And yet this can surely be said to apply to students of any age and is as relevant to students in the 21st century as to those since the dawn of time.

But, as Pearce (1912) explains, this encouragement of investigation, of research is best nurtured in classrooms under the control of teachers who are themselves actively engaged in research work, teachers who are alive to the advantages of new methods in their own subject and of new ways of applying old methods.[x]

“To teach a subject implies the attempt to diffuse the available knowledge of that particular subject matter among a number of people for their good, as well as for the good of the community in which they live and work.” (Pearce 1912)

Pasteur’s words are still 200 years after his birth as when he uttered them at Lille in 1854, and may even be more relevant as education is available to a much broader section of the community, as our cumulative knowledge expands at an exponential rate and as our Fields of Observation simultaneously dive deeper into the sub-atomic realm, further into the past on astronomical time scales and through a myriad of doors to understanding of our own planet.

“The role of the infinitely small in nature is infinitely great” Louis Pasteur.

[i] Spoken in his inaugural address on the occasion of the opening of the Faculte des Sciences at Lille as Dean of the faculty at the age of 32.

[ii] Pearce, R. M. “Chance and the Prepared Mind.” Science, vol. 35, no. 912, 1912, pp. 941–956, Accessed 14 Feb. 2022.

[iii] It follows then that if that same event or opportunity is not recognised as significant, it does not realise its potential as a chance occurrence and it simply vanishes, unobserved and undetected – a moment passed over by time and no longer in existence.

[iv] Distinct from the many other meanings of the word Chance, such as possibility, probability or prospects (as in risk, luck or speculation), or even Chance meaning a random, unexplained or unintended event or outcome.

[v] “.  … [implying] that he has an added power, or that his skill is the result of wider experience.  … A chance observation which meant more to his trained imagination than it did to minds unaccustomed to weigh the significance of details.” (Pearce 1912)

[vi] Pasteur is also credited with saying “When I approach a child, he inspires in me two sentiments; tenderness for what he is, and respect for what he may become”

[vii] In describing the process of diagnosis in clinical medicine a science of observation, Professor R. M. Pearce (Science, June21, 1912) reiterates this notion.

[viii] Stunkard, H. W. (1955). A Look at the Future of Biological Research. Bios, 26(4), 171–185.

[ix] As opposed to an education that consists of acquiring knowledge merely sufficient to allow them to pass an examination

[x] The men who never or only occasionally contribute to the literature of their science are the men who confine their reaching to perfunctory routine courses and who never bring the spirit or methods of the investigator into their teaching.

Image: Louis Pasteur Vanity Fair 8 January 1887, Théobald Chartran, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


File:Louis Pasteur Université de Lille 1854-1857 dans les champs de l’observation le hasard ne favorise que les esprits préparés.pdf – Wikimedia Commons. (2020). 1857_dans_les_champs_de_l%27observation_le_hasard_ne_favorise_que_les_esprits_pr%C3%A9par%C3%A9s.pdf

 Pearce, R. M. (1912). Chance and the Prepared Mind. Science, 35(912), 941–956.

Stunkard, H. W. (1955). A Look at the Future of Biological Research. Bios, 26(4), 171–185. Woodhead, G. S. (1902). The Life of Pasteur. Edinburgh Medical Journal, 11(2), 169–174.

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