How ‘Eureka’ Moments in Science Happen

From bathtubs to falling apples, find out what really drives some of the iconic tales of “light bulb” moments in science.

A falling apple prompts physicist Isaac Newton to formulate his laws of gravity. Greek polymath Archimedes takes a bath and figures out how to calculate volume and density. These are iconic “light bulb” moments in the history of science. Or, as Archimedes reputedly said when insight struck, Eureka!

Today, the flash of insight is measurable using brain scans, which show a part of the right hemisphere lights up at that moment. While Anna Marie Roos, a historian of science at the University of Lincoln, advises us to take some “eureka moments” with a grain of salt, she thinks they do have much to say about the creative process.

.. people love them because it simplifies things and takes away all the hard slogging. It’s an analogy everybody understands. Eureka stories are a compression of decades and decades of work into one inspirational moment. It’s like a parable.

Is philosophy simply harder than science?

According to the “spin-off” theory of philosophical progress, all new sciences start as branches of philosophy, and only become established as separate disciplines once philosophy has bequeathed them the intellectual wherewithal to survive on their own.

There is certainly something to this story. Physics as we know it was grounded in the seventeenth-century “mechanical philosophy” of Descartes and others. Similarly, much psychology hinges on associationist principles first laid down by David Hume, and economics grew out doctrines first developed by thinkers who called themselves philosophers. The process continues into the contemporary world. During the twentieth century, both linguistics and computer science broke free of their philosophical moorings to establish themselves as independent disciplines.

According to the spin-off theory, then, the supposed lack of progress in philosophy is an illusion. Whenever philosophy does make progress, it spawns a new subject, which then no longer counts as part of philosophy. In reality, philosophy is full of progress, but this is obscured by the constant renaming of its intellectual progeny.

.. When it comes to topics like morality, knowledge, free will, consciousness and so on, the lecturers still debate a range of options that have been around for a long time.

.. Where philosophy hinges on analysis and argument, science is devoted to data. When scientists are invited to give research talks, they aren’t allowed simply to stand up and theorize, however interesting that would be. It is a professional requirement that they must present observational findings. If you don’t have any PowerPoint slides displaying your latest experimental results, then you don’t have a talk.

.. Plenty of experimentally intractable problems arise right within science. Take the interpretation of quantum mechanics, or the evolution of altruistic instincts. These are scientific questions all right, but they admit no simple experimental resolution. The problem is that, even though we have all the experimental results we could want, we can’t figure out a coherent theory to accommodate them. Philosophical problems arise within science as well as outside it.

The real difference between philosophy and science is not subject area, but the kind of problem at issue. Philosophical issues typically have the form of a paradox.

.. It should be said that scientists aren’t very good at this kind of thing. They are much happier with what Thomas Kuhn called “normal science”, working within “paradigms” of settled assumptions and techniques that allow them to focus on issues that can be settled experimentally. When they are faced with a real theoretical puzzle, most scientists close their eyes and hope it will go away.

.. One of the great scandals of modern intellectual life is the way that physicists brushed the problems of quantum mechanics under the carpet throughout the twentieth century. Led by Niels Bohr and his obscurantist “Copenhagen interpretation” of quantum mechanics, they told generations of students that the glaring inconsistencies apparent in the theory were none of their business. “Shut up and calculate” was the typical response to any undergraduate who had the temerity to query the cogency of the theory. (This slogan has been variously attributed to Paul Dirac, Richard Feynman and others. The indeterminacy of the attribution is itself a testimony to the prevalence of the attitude.)

.. The “boo-hurrah” account of moral judgements was all the rage in the middle of the last century, but no-one any longer defends this simple-minded emotivism.

How did whales get so big? Paleontologists say they’ve figured it out.

most baleen whales remained about 15 feet long. But 3 million years in the past, the scientists reported Tuesday in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, baleen whales underwent a dramatic size shift. The smallest baleen whales vanished. The others grew to double or triple the size.

.. experts previously proposed baleen whales grew large as a way to avoid being eaten. Even the biggest ocean predators from several million years ago — sperm whales such as Livyatan melvillei, or the shark Carcharocles megalodon — would struggle to chomp on anything larger than about 30 feet (smaller than the average humpback whale alive today). But baleen whales didn’t outgrow such carnivores until millions of years after predatory sperm whales appeared in the fossil record.

.. about 3 million years ago, around the same time that baleen whales got huge. First, seasonal windy upwellings began to kick up nutrients along the coast; later, glacial runoff added to the richness of these pockets. The net results were souped-up marine ecosystems where whales could feast.

A Neurosurgeon Reflects On The ‘Awe And Mystery’ Of The Brain

But given that the tumor looks like the brain, and if you’re operating near what we call eloquent brain – that is brain where, if it’s damaged, the patient suffers serious troubles such as paralysis or inability to speak – something like that – it’s very – it can be very helpful to have the patient awake, talking or moving the relevant limbs as you remove the tumor to make sure you’re not doing any harm.

And I was one of the first people to do this in this country many years ago. And it was considered rather eccentric at the time. But, in fact, it’s now the standard way of operating on these tumors and is practiced everywhere.

.. But it is one of the various themes of the book, which is this extraordinary fact which is very hard to come to terms with. It is a fact for all people who work with the brain that thinking and feeling is a physical process. It doesn’t feel like it. You know, my thoughts don’t feel like electric chemistry. But that is what they are. And I find it quite a consoling thought that our modern scientific view of the world which has explained so much – we can’t even begin to explain how consciousness, how sensation arises out of electric chemistry. But the fact of the matter – it does.

.. So does the work that you do as a neurosurgeon increase or diminish your sense of the mystery of consciousness?

MARSH: It increases it.

.. But you’re very nervous, as you describe it, during this procedure because you just recently performed surgery removing a tumor…

MARSH: Which had gone very badly, yes.

GROSS: Yes, from the cervical spine – cervical spinal cord of a woman. And she was left paralyzed on one side of her body.

MARSH: Yes.

GROSS: You fear that you removed too much of the tumor, and that’s what damaged her spinal cord. And you confess to several times when you felt responsible for a spinal or brain damage as a result of a surgery. And I’m interested in why you wanted to share that. You’ve even given a lecture called, like, the 10 worst mistakes I’ve ever made.

MARSH: Well, something like that. I’m a great believer that doctors and patients should, in a sense, be equals, I mean, especially as we give advice. I’ve always hated sort of paternalistic, condescending doctors. And I’m all for patients making demands and patient’s rights. But it’s a two-way process. And I think patients in the modern world where – certainly in England, you can’t open the newspapers without reading about the latest medical scandal and incompetent doctors. Now its incompetent nurses.

The public need to understand that medicine, actually, is often a very uncertain process.

.. I think, on the whole, if you – as a patient, if you go and see a doctor, and you could only choose one quality, I think most of us would go for honesty (laughter) because if you see an honest doctor, if he knows what should be done, he’ll tell you. If he thinks somebody else can do it better than he can, he can tell you. And I think honesty is, in a sense, a more important quality than steady hands or nerves of steel or heart of a lion – all the old cliched ideas of what surgeons should be like.