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…)