brain & mind – where matter meets metaphysics

Sudden Genius?

The book Sudden Genius? The Gradual Path to Creative Breakthroughs by Andrew Robinson attempts to examine what we call ‘genius’ in a scientific manner and to critically examine the phenomena of sudden breakthroughs of ‘genius’  in art or science that change the world.

We have all heard the story of how while sitting under a tree, Newton was suddenly struck with the law of gravity after an apple struck him on the head. Then there is the famous story of Archimedes running wet and naked through the streets shouting ‘Eureka!’ after suddenly realizing the laws of floatation and displacement of water while observing the water rise as he lowered himself into his bath. There are many others.

Robinson looks at each example with the eyes of a critic, a journalist who asks “Is it factual? How factual is it?”

He doesn’t ask “What does it mean to us? What value does it hold?”

Because he doesn’t ask why these ‘eureka’ stories (however factually accurate) are important to us or what we can learn from them, I feel compelled to do so here.

Below are some relevant transcriptions from Sudden Genius? The Gradual Path to Creative Breakthroughs by Andrew Robinson 2010 Oxford University Press. Following this are my own thoughts on the matter.

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(Introduction) pages xvii – xvii

“Some of the world’s great creative breakthroughs are reputed to have begun with a ‘eureka experience’ of sudden insight. Archimedes, archetypically, while taking his bath two millenia ago, is said to have perceived the principles of displacement and floatation, jumped out of the tub, and run naked through the streets with a cry of ‘Eureka!’ – Greek for (roughly speaking) ‘I’ve got it!’ Johannes Gutenberg, casually watching a wine press during the grape harvest in the fifteenth century, supposedly got the idea for the printing press. Isaac Newton, seeing an apple fall from the tree in the seventeenth century, apparently visualized the law of gravitational attraction. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, while reading a passage in a book about the ‘Khan Kubla’ in the eighteenth century, fell into an opium-induced sleep, and when he awoke, immediately produced the poem ‘Kubla Khan: Or, A Vision in a Dream’. Dimitri Mendeleev, too, experienced a dream while pondering chemistry in the nineteenth century, and when he awoke, wrote down the periodic table of the elements. Alexander Fleming, while culturing Staphylococcus bacteria in a Petri dish in the earlier twentieth century, quite by accident spotted the presence of a bacteria-killing mold, Penecillium, which became the source of the first antibiotic drug penicillin…”

“…James Watson, while playing with cardboard models of biomolecules in Cambridge in 1953, suddenly saw how the two halves of the structure of DNA fitted together, and solved the biomolecular mechanism of heredity. ‘My morale skyrocketed’, wrote Watson in The Double Helix.”

“…The further back in history we go, the slimmer is the evidence for these eureka experiences. There is nothing at all in the case of Archimede, except hearsay; only one rather doubtful letter from Gutenberg; and no written statement about the apple of from Newton, only remarks made to others in old age. Yet, such anecdotes cannot be discounted as simply false, because there are numerous reliable accounts of flashes of inspiration by both scientists and artists…”

“…On the other hand, eureka experiences are by no means the whole story. A great idea may have seemed to come ‘out of the blue’, but in every such experience the mind seems to have prepared itself by long study. The individual concerned was deeply immersed in thinking about the problem that he or she eventually solved.”

page xix

“Let us zoom in on another well-known, much-discussed, scientific eureka experience: the discovery of the hexagonal structure of the six carbon atoms in the benzine molecule by the German chemist August Kekulein the 1860s. This was a crucial step in the foundation of organic chemistry…”

“…A first flash of inspiration occurred some time in 1855 while he was riding on the top of a London omnibus in a ‘reverie’… Kekule had visualized a dance of atoms, large and small, forming pairs, threesomes and combinations in valency of four, making chains of atoms. But the breakthrough came about seven years later while dozing in front of a fire, he said:

…I turned my chair towards the fireplace and sank into half-sleep. Again, the atoms fluttered before my eyes …everything in motion, twisting and turning like snakes. But look, what was that?! One of the snakes had seized its own tail, and the figure whirled mockingly before my own eyes. I awoke in a flash, and this time, too, I spent the rest of the night working out the consequences of the hypothesis.

Kekule concluded: ‘Gentlemen, let us learn to dream, and perhaps then we will find the truth…but let us also be aware not to publish our dreams until they have been examined by the wakened mind.’ “

pages xxi – xxii

“Such gradual evolutions turns out to be typical of creative breakthroughs, when their histories are examined in detail. They may or may not involve a recognizable eureka experience, but they are always preceded by a long period of thought and labour, and always followed by intensive scrutiny and development.”

pages xxiv – xxv

“Even so, the majority of breakthroughs do involve an identifiable, pivotal episode of revelation, whether one calls it a eureka experience or not. (Another term might be ‘epiphany’, which is favoured by the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Leon Lederman.) …Chompollion, Curie, Darwin, Einstein, and Ray…Cartier-Bresson, Mozart, and Woolf…Leonardo and Wren…What is absolutely clear in all ten cases is the long lead-up needed for the breakthroughs, and effort required, following the revelation, to explore and substantiate the achievement.”

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The author gives some great examples of supposed cases of sudden breakthroughs. However, he seems to have missed at least three other important examples;

René Descartes became the “founder of modern philosophy” and the “father of modern mathematics” (as he is generally considered) after being inspired by a dream revelation in which an angel came to him and told him that “the conquest of nature is to be achieved through measure and number”. If factually true, this angelic revelation is the basis for the modern scientific method.

Then there is the mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan who is considered one of the greatest mathematical geniuses of all history. In Hyperspace author Michio Kaku says that Ramanujan’s work was essential for hyperspace theory. What is odd is that Ramanujan said that his theorems were given to him by the Hindu goddess Namagiri. He merely wrote them down. It was his work that proved to be the missing link to moving forward in the area of superstrings and hyperspace physics! Without these supposed visitations by a goddess, physics would be decades behind where it is now!

The idea that dreams or contact with divine beings could be a verifiable source of important scientific knowledge seems contradictory to science itself, yet many scientists have gained important knowledge this way.

According to the paper “Nobel Prize genius Crick was high on LSD when he discovered the secret of life” (August 8, 2004 Associated Newspapers Ltd. London), towards the end of his life, Francis Crick, the nobel-prize winning father of modern genetics confided a secret he kept for almost 50 years – that he hit upon the double helix structure of DNA while on LSD!

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I consider these stories to be something like a new myth; that of great innovations resulting more or less suddenly from irrational sources. I think such tales can be inspiring. They can instil hope in our own eureka moments, our own breakthroughs. They also teach us to make our minds fertile through study and work so that when inspiration comes it will not fall on barren soil but be fruitful.

To quote Louie Pasteur; “Fortune favors the prepared mind.”

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