Tag Archives: Eureka

Eureka stories: Five easy pieces of advice from science historian Anna Marie Roos


Archimedes: Wikipedia 

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.        Continue reading Eureka stories: Five easy pieces of advice from science historian Anna Marie Roos

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.”[1]  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.

[1] 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

Picture 007 Woolsthorpe Manor, Newton's birthplace

© 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

figurefiveThe 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

L0057059 Whalebone walking stick, owned by Charles Darwin, England

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.figureeight

Wikipedia Commons

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 [2].  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.

[2] 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. figurenine

Bill Anders, NASA, Wikipedia Commons

And Newton’s work of course helped us actually see the earth rise, but it began with a dream.

Fifth proviso:  DREAMfiguretenS

Photo by Author: Anderby Creek, Lincolnshire


Eureka Magic

Insights are sudden moments of exceptional thinking. The perfect metaphor is that of a bulb lighting up in an instant and illuminating everything around it. Who doesn’t love the story of the genius whose light bulb moments can illuminate everything?


So what is the truth about Eureka? I was given a chance to find out a couple of weeks ago.

With Historian of Science Anna Marie Roos I was part of an event during the Royal Society’s Summer Science Exhibition. The event was called “Cultivating Eureka”, and there was something in the introductory notes about trying to encourage Eureka moments. But, should we actually do this if these moments are to some extent fictions of the imagination? Continue reading Eureka Magic

Anna Marie Roos is contributing her own post on the topic. She talked about some famous Eureka moments and their embroidered history. I followed her with an attempt to conjure up these moments in the audience.

Here magic comes to the aid of science: On YouTube you can watch some amazing magic tricks. For instance those by Richard Wiseman on Quirkology.  Can you work out the solution to some of them? You may well ‘get it’ in a flash of sudden insight.

Psychologist Amory Danek has used a fascinating series of magic tricks to study the nature of insight moments. The results are reported in her paper in Cognition 2013. She highlights a particularly important aspect of insight: the need to let go of strongly held assumptions, when normally it would be madness to let go of them.

For instance, if we see a billiard ball, we assume it to be a round and solid object. But, consider this: You see only one side of the ball – could it be that what you see is only a half sphere, and a hollow one, which might hide other half spheres? This reminds me of the Yorkshire farmers who are looking across the dale. One farmer says to the other: “Yon farmer’s shorn his sheep”. After a while, the other replies, cautiously: “Aye, on wun side”.

What have we learned from scientific studies of insight?

  • It is necessary to have a prepared mind. A totally naïve observer who has no strong assumptions can’t solve the problem at all. There is preparatory thought going on – well before one can have a sudden ‘Aha’ insight.
  • We have to let go of some strong assumptions that we unconsciously have made before getting the insight. This is often counterintuitive.
  • We don’t know how insight happens at all.
  • Just having a lovely ‘Aha’ experience does not guarantee that you found the correct solution to the problem. Remember you can be wrong even if you are intuitively convinced you are right.
Can we will ourselves to have insight?

Not very likely.  Most of our thinking is unconscious and automatic and unconscious processes are hard to penetrate. A danger for both conscious and unconscious modes of thought is that we get stuck in a particular view and we go round in circles.

It may be a good idea to pursue solutions to tricky problems using a two-pronged strategy, both by analytic methods in step wise fashion, and by figuring and reconfiguring patterns. In the refiguring phase some relaxation is necessary so that connections to other and even remote types of knowledge are made.

Eureka graph

To see something in a new light, we need to remove blinkers that are created by sheer familiarity.  We have to let go of our previous knowledge – even though it has always proved a reliable guide.  How strange that knowledge can be a hindrance, but ignorance is not the answer. You need the knowledge, and you need to let go of it.

Does the Social Mind come into this?

How do you get out of a rut? How can you see a problem from a new angle?  Mind wandering, day dreaming, taking a nap, going for a walk are all good ideas. An even better idea is chatting to others. It is always worth talking to another person!

This hypothesis could easily be tested, but as far as I know it hasn’t been yet. The idea of the lonely genius may be just one of those thoughts that is blocking us. Yet it seems obvious that if we listen to others we may suddenly see different perspectives. This may shake up thoughts that have gone round and round in circles. Disappointingly, we have learned very little so far about insight from brain imaging studies. The brain doesn’t light up like a light bulb, but the neural activity during an Aha!- insight experience indicates that novel connections are being made.

Both insight and analytical thinking benefit from our social nature. Eureka moments in history are a vivid example of our unique style of human communication. They may only be stories, but they are  brilliant at conveying ground breaking scientific discoveries and they help us to remember them effortlessly.