It is well known that “Eureka” is Greek for “I have found it” and is connected with Archimedes making his discovery of the principle of buoyancy when taking a bath.
This story has been repeated until it has become legendary. And that is the problem. Eureka stories are told with the benefit of hindsight and to eulogise the investigator. Did Archimedes discover the principle of hydrostatics? Most likely. Did he streak through the streets of Syracuse to announce it? That is less certain. Most of what we know about him comes from secondary accounts from Plutarch and Livy, who wrote centuries after Archimedes died in 212 BC.
Let’s take the other most cited Eureka example, Newton and the Apple. It comes from the Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton’s Life written in 1752, not penned by Newton, but by the antiquarian William Stukeley, a friend and fellow Lincolnshire man. Stukeley wrote:
on 15 April 1726 I paid a visit to Sir Isaac . . . din’d with him…after dinner, the weather being warm, we went into the garden, & drank thea under the shade of some appletrees, only he, & myself. amidst other discourse, he told me, he was just in the same situation, as when formerly, the notion of gravitation came into his mind.
Author at Woolsthorpe
Newton gave the discovery of gravity to the world in his Principia Mathematica (1687). But did he make these discoveries in 1666, when he was at Woolshorpe, the family farm in Lincolnshire, sitting under the apple tree?
Historian Simon Schaffer has noted, “the historical record reveals that until the mid-1680s, Newton never developed a concept of universal gravitation and stayed firmly wedded to Cartesian models” of planetary motions in which fine-particled ethers in the atmosphere moved the planets in their orbits. “Only in 1684 did he finally invent the term “centripetal force” to describe the action pulling bodies towards their orbits’ centres.” We also have to remember that by 1797, Newton’s heirs institutionalised Stukeley’s story to establish his reputation as a precocious genius. So, Eureka stories are problematic as historical sources.
 Simon Schaffer, “Making Up Discovery,” in Dimensions of Creativity, ed. Margaret A. Boden (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996), 15.
First proviso: Be careful of heroic parables
© The Royal Society
Both of these stories, however, tell us a little about creativity. Archimedes and Newton made analogies between disparate things and combined them together in unique ways—the bath and displacement of the metal; the falling apple and gravity.
Second proviso: We need to remove blinkers that are created by sheer familiarity
The second thing we notice in the Eureka stories is that both discoveries were made when Archimedes and Newton were relaxing. Comedian John Cleese compared creativity to a tortoise that will only come out slowly and shyly. Basically, the creative tortoise (image courtesy The Royal Society) needs to feel safe to express itself, and having time to relax and be quiet each day is important for creative work; excessive external stimuli kills creative thinking. As Cleese says “We don’t know where we get our ideas from. We do know that we do not get them from our laptops.”
Third proviso. It is important to quiet the mind for creative thinking. Get off the mobile. Walk
Some recent studies at Stanford University suggest walking is effective to stimulate creativity. Experimental results indicated that 100 percent of those who walked were able to generate at least one high-quality, novel analogy on a “divergent thinking test” compared to 50 percent of those who remained seated. Interestingly, walking did not affect focussed thinking, the ability to solve one problem at a time. Uta Frith’s blog post has more to say about the necessity of a dual-pronged approach to solving tricky problems.
It does appear though that several creative achievers routinely walked to generate ideas. Darwin had his thinking path at Down House, knocking flints out of the way with his stick as he ambled. The picture is one of his walking sticks. When the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson walked, he said that his head was “bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing, I see all.” How is that for a manifesto of improving empirical observation? Artist Christopher Cranch portrayed Emerson as a giant eyeball in a suit.
So, you laughed at the caricature of Emerson?
Fourth proviso. Laugh and play, in and out of the laboratory
We have all heard of the “accidental discovery” by Alexander Fleming of Penicillin. What we don’t hear is Fleming actually cultivated a form of chaos and play. He loved games, modifying the rules, for example putting golf holding the club as a snooker cue. A member of the Chelsea Arts Club, he also fashioned art from bacteria “painting on the petri dish” figures like houses, or even a ballerina.
To do his live paintings, he constantly would cultivate different species just to see if something interesting developed. Using his deep knowledge of microbiology, Fleming was courting discovery by courting the unexpected.
Let’s go back to Newton and the Apple. Stukeley related in his conversation with Newton: “he began to apply this property of gravitation to the motion of the earth, & of the heavenly bodys . . . & thus he unfolded the Universe”. Newton was, if anything, intellectually courageous, a quality characteristic of creative scientists.
A number of Newton’s colleagues were also intellectually courageous as well, thinking, for example, about busting the boundaries of flight and space. John Wilkins wrote The Discovery of a New World in the Moone (1638) and he and Robert Hooke purportedly spent time in the courtyard of Wadham College, Oxford designing flying machines powered by giant springs to “boing” us up to the lunar surface. Their work together reminds us that counter to most Eureka stories, creative science is often collaborative, not done by a lonely genius. Our colleagues are important in the development and refinement of creative ideas.
Science fiction involving lunar travel also made its appearance at this time with Kepler’s Somium (1608), as well as Francis Godwin’s Man in the Moone (1638), in which his space travellers went to the moon in a ship powered by giant swans . Such theories about bird migration were thoroughly developed in the seventeenth century, reflecting the new interest in the heavens. Charles Morton (1627–1698), best known for his work the Compendium Physicae, compiled a treatise in 1686 in which he hypothesized that birds migrated to the moon and used Godwin’s work as a guide.
 Anna Marie Roos, Luminaries in the Natural World: the Sun and the Moon in England, 1400-1720 (Basel and Oxford, 2001), chapter four.
Need you laugh, this book contains one of the first descriptions of an earth-rise: Then should I perceive a great shining brightness. . . So that it seemed unto me no other than a huge Mathematicall Globe, leasurely turned before me, wherein successively, all the Countries within the compass of 24 howers were represented to my sight.
Bill Anders, NASA, Wikipedia Commons
And Newton’s work of course helped us actually see the earth rise, but it began with a dream.
Photo by Author: Anderby Creek, Lincolnshire