“Eureka!” and the Problems Thereof

I’m not talking about the tv show Eureka here, which was mostly silly fluff but not especially problematic. I’m talking about the famous anecdote about Archimedes of Syracuse, who supposedly realized the principle that bears his name when slipping into a bath, distracted by a problem he had been assigned by his king. On realizing the solution, he (supposedly) leaped out of the tub, yelling “Eureka!” (usually translated as “I found it!”) and ran home naked, because he was so excited about the discovery that he forgot to dress.

As you know, I’m working on a book about the relationship between scientific thinking and everyday activities, and the “Eureka!” story sort of looms over the whole project. And, in fact, the book-in-progress has just been officially re-titled, from How to Think Like a Scientist to the more catchy Eureka: Discovering Your Inner Scientist.

The famous Archimedes story is an example that, at least at first glance, would seem to cut against the general thesis that everybody thinks scientifically: it’s a story about sudden, unpredictable inspiration, something that ordinary people wouldn’t be able to do. With a side order of “scientists are unworldly weirdos who end up running naked through Sicily.”

But then, it’s a cherished anecdote for a reason, and something that goes well beyond science. Almost everybody has had at least one moment where, suddenly, everything seemed to come clear. A chance comment by a co-worker, or a passing glimpse of some odd event, or an image from a dream had while sleeping after hours of fruitless struggle, and suddenly that hard problem you were struggling with seems trivial. The path to the solution is right there, blindingly obvious in retrospect.

Scientists tell a lot of “Eureka!” stories, but then, so do artists. I saw one of those “Storytellers” shows a few months ago where Death Cab for Cutie was performing songs and talking about their origin, and Ben Gibbard talked about suffering weeks of horrible writer’s block. Every day, he would go to the office where he did his songwriting, and stare at blank sheets of paper until it was time to go home. Then, one day, he sat down and wrote “I Will Follow You Into the Dark” straight out in about ten minutes. Then, he said, he packed up his stuff and went home, because he clearly wasn’t going to do anything better than that the rest of the day.

I’ve had these moments happen both in the lab– where I suddenly saw exactly what needed to happen next to make sense of a baffling experiment– and at the computer, where all of a sudden a hopeless jumble of material for a chapter in progress fell into a neat mental outline. It’s a weird feeling, at once a gigantic thrill because the hard problem is solved and a “this is so obvious I’m an idiot for not getting it sooner,” kick-yourself kind of thing.

Like most things related to the operation of human brains, the “Eureka!” moment is almost certainly an illusion. It is, more or less by definition, something that happens after a long period of struggle with something, when you’re thinking about it all the time. The solution isn’t really a bolt from the blue, it’s the snapping together of pieces your brain has been shaping to fit for quite some time. And, of course, the intuition that most sudden solutions are based in is itself the product of years of hard work, as most good scientific biographies make clear.

The problem with the “Eureka!” moment is that most of the good stories about the history of science are, fundamentally, “Eureka!” stories. Since the format of the book-in-progress involves making connections between the thought processes behind scientific discoveries and the thought processes behind everyday hobbies, I’ve been reading a lot of history-of-science stuff, looking for information about process. And the good stories all have a bit of a “Eureka!” shape– somebody famous was plugging away at a really hard problem for a long time, then did a calculation or experiment that provided dramatic evidence supporting a particular solution, and everything fell into place. It’s not strictly a linear progression, of course– there are lots of blind alleys and mis-steps– but those get subsumed into the “plugging away for a long time” part of the story.

Of course, those aren’t the only kind of success story in the history of science or anything else. It’s just damnably difficult to do anything with the other sort. To give an example, I’d be very happy to write about Emmy Noether for the book, but I haven’t found anything that gives much of a sense of the process by which she found her famous theorem, other than “She was really smart, good at math, and worked very hard.” And, you know, good luck getting anything fun out of that. The only real angle I can see on it is some variant of the Grecian Urn theory of science, where aesthetically pleasing math is a guide to discovery, and that’s really about the only common pop-physics trope I’m more sick of than the Higgs Boson. (Which I’m quite deliberately not discussing in detail, either.)

So while I’m skeptical of “Eureka!” stories, I find myself telling lots of them for the book. Because, well, they’re good stories. I’ve got other kinds of tales in there, too, where people put in long hours of meticulous work toward a consistent goal and eventually get there, but they’re not as much fun. Usually, they work because they draw color from something else– the ultimate result is especially cool (dinosaurs with feathers!), or enduringly controversial (Darwin’s On the Origin of Species), or the people involved are notably quirky (there’s a bit on the Cavendish Experiment, because Henry Cavendish was one of the all-time great weird dudes of science).

But then, this is true of pretty much any line of work. Most of the time, things progress is a relatively linear fashion, with steady incremental progress. Experimental results come in, get analyzed, and line up with theory. Words get added to the end of the book-in-progress, and the draft inches ever closer to completion. The “Eureka!” moments are brief interruptions to this more mundane sort of progress, but they stand out because of that. Which is why they’re great stories.

When the title change was first suggested, I was kind of uneasy about the idea, because the common interpretation of the Archimedes story seemed to undercut the general theme. On reflection, though, most of the stories I tell really are “Eureka!” stories, even if they’re a little slower. And it’s a phenomenon nearly everyone has experienced, scientist or otherwise, so I came around. And the folks at Basic are pretty excited about the idea, so I can’t wait to see what they come up with for a cover…

(Now I just need to finish the damn thing…)

Comments

  1. #1 Wilson
    November 21, 2013

    Love the new title (as I’m sure you knew I would). I didn’t hate the original title, just thought it didn’t serve the book as well as it could. I totally get where you’re coming from with the whole “Eureka” story thing, though. I imagine you’re doing quite the balancing act.

    Every time you write about this book, I look forward to it more. (Please don’t take that as additional pressure, as I know you don’t need that. That’s why I didn’t say “I can’t wait.”)

    (Also, for what it’s worth, in case this is the least fun portion of writing the book, you aren’t alone.)

  2. #2 Double Shelix
    Schenectady
    November 21, 2013

    You have absolutely hit the nail on the head, regarding the major contrast between the endless (but fulfilling) daily routine of data gathering, and the unpredictable leaps by which our intuition offers us insight into interpreting the results of all that data. As i read, i thought about how that rarely happens to me at work (except when it does of course) but suddenly i remembered a moment that i would like to share if i may. Anyone with ADHD can stop reading right now.

    I use a handle here and in most of my online life which is actually a name i use in a weird sport i play – roller derby – in which we all choose our own pseudonyms. Generally they reflect something of our personalities, and as a chemist and nerd, i am very proud of having thought of Double Shelix. My number, obviously, is 602, and bonus points for those people who recognise that.

    For the longest time, i remember the moment in which the name came to me in a flash, but i honestly don’t have a clear view of HOW or WHY i thought of this incredibly brilliant pun. I was comfortable putting it in the grand context of a Eureka moment. However, after pondering the situation a few times when people asked me how i thought of it, i remembered a key piece of information. At the time, i was having a visual migraine, complete with the silver zig-zag across my left eye. In retrospect, i believe that the migraine visual aura artifact appeared to be DNA, and my subconscious made a connection that it would not have made given different inputs and stimuli.

    It’s a theory, one that of course i’ll never be able to prove. But a fun one to ponder, yes?

  3. #3 Uncle Al
    http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm
    November 21, 2013

    There is intense correlation between facial hair and creativity. When society imposed clean-shaven norms, overall (useful content)/(hectares published) decayed. The observation is testable across the discipline within a month or so. Eureka!

    All the fun is in the footnotes (e.g., Einstein doing Newton, Otto Stern doing Dirac, Yang and Lee doing particle physics). The best discoveries rarely sit under the brightest streetlights. Do not Socialize life’s exclamation points, revel in them.

  4. #4 Ultraviolet Thunder
    United States
    November 21, 2013

    I agree that preparation is 90%+ of Eureka. When I need to develop or invent something I have to get the pieces in my head and let them tumble around for a while. Bump them into each other and see what kind of shapes they make. Fit bits together mentally and try them out as sub-assemblies to see how they act. Sooner or later larger parts seem to self-assemble and make sense. Then I can go ahead and work out the details, nailing down operating characteristics and so on. By the time I get to the bench to make a proof of concept prototype it goes fast and I know exactly how it should behave.
    If I started at the bench trying to invent the thing whole, from scratch I’d never get a good result. It seems to be a winnowing process of scrutinizing all of the options and discarding the unlikely ones.

  5. #5 lordaxil
    November 22, 2013

    The point about the Eureka story is that Archimedes realized that the volume of water displaced as he sat in the bath was equal to the submerged volume of his body (an irregular shape) so he *was* thinking like a scientist. The “Eureka” moment was triggered directly by an observation, rather than just being some random exclamation as he happened to sit in the bath.

  6. #6 Bruce W. Fowler
    United States
    November 22, 2013

    Couple of thoughts, not necessarily coherent nor relevant but offered up anyway.
    Have you considered casting the “Eureka” (or epiphany) in terms of catastrophe theory? I find this a helpful model sometimes.
    I would also commend to your attention the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s “Ideas” series recent (last year or so) series (two part I believe) on imagination. Available as a podcast. I found it expanding. But I disagree with their thesis that imagination is more important than knowledge; IMHO the two are entwined.
    And not sure I like the title change. It is not just a question of whether one can think like a scientist, but does one?
    I look forward to reading the tome regardless.

  7. #7 Beth
    November 22, 2013

    I thought the point of the Eureka story was he was thinking about the problem all the time (even distracting him in the bath) so he could draw his inspiration from stuff happening around him like water displacement. And then that he was so excited that he forgot to dress because understanding something is just that cool. So it’s all about long preparation as well the the joy of comprehension.

    Both of those work for non-scientists. It’s a sign that just because you don’t understand something that doesn’t mean you *can’t* understand something, just that you don’t get it yet. Maybe taking a long bath will help, especially if you have servants to oil you…

  8. #8 Ron
    November 23, 2013

    On the question of what makes for entertaining story-telling in the history of science: do you have any notable failures in the book? Are there enough failures with good story-telling value to make a good read?

  9. #9 thomas lumley
    November 24, 2013

    The other part of “Eureka’ that gets left out is all the times you suddenly see the solution to a complicated problem you’ve been bashing your head against. And then realise it’s wrong.

  10. #10 Curious Wavefunction
    http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/the-curious-wavefunction/
    November 26, 2013

    The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ (I found it!) but ‘That’s funny …’ – Isaac Asimov

  11. #11 Kaleberg
    December 11, 2013

    Why are you surprised that so many science stories are eureka stories? Think of how science is done. One gathers all sorts of evidence, tries a bunch of theories and bangs one’s head against the wall. There are only so many outcomes. One can wind up where one started, perhaps having eliminated an idea or two. One can wind up with a few more suggestive ideas, green herrings as they call them. Or, one can wind up with an answer that pulls together all, or at least most, of the evidence and makes theoretical sense. That last case is the most useful since it establishes a new understanding. It’s the eureka.

  12. #12 Oliver
    December 13, 2013

    Well, we are perpetuating this myth with every paper we write. After all, did we really set out the way we describe it in the paper? Muse about the general problem described in the introduction, set up the experiments, come up with the results and then interpret the data?

    Hardly. We had ideas about some experiments. Didn’t work. We tried something else. Didn’t work either. But at least we gained some idea as to what might work. Third time’s the charm? Not quite there yet… Ok, in the fourth run, we finally get some clarity on the issue we wanted to check out to begin with.

    And then we write in our paper that we set up that fourth run, got our results and that’s that. Tell you what: We should be shot for doing so. Because even if runs 1-3 didn’t answer our question, there’s still information in there that might be valuable for someone else’s question. But we act and write as if they never happened. Because the journals want it that way and because we have a horror admitting that we went about it the wrong way more often than the right way – unless it’s in one of those nice cartoons we pin at our doors but always insist they are tongue in cheek exaggerations….

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