Delivered in a Daydream: 7 Great Achievements That Arose from a Wandering Mind [Slide Show]
Daydreaming and downtime can lead to solutions for difficult scientific problems and provide inspiration for creative works. Some of history's best-known scientific and literary achievements grew out of such mental meandering
Hemulen via Wikimedia Commons
Mental Blizzard Turkish novelist and 2006 Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk found inspiration from daydreams for works such as
Snow (2004, Knopf). In a speech titled “the Implied Author” that Pamuk gave when he received the Puterbaugh literary prize in 2006 , Pamuk declared: "I long for inspiration to come to me (as poems did to Coleridge—and to Ka, Snow's hero) in dramatic ways, preferably in scenes and situations that might sit well in a novel. If I wait patiently and attentively, my dream comes true. To write a novel is to be open to these desires, winds and inspirations, and also to the dark recesses of our minds and their moments of mist and stillness.
For what is a novel but a story that fills its sails with these winds, that answers and builds upon inspirations that blow in from unknown quarters, and seizes upon all the daydreams we've invented for our diversion, bringing them together into a meaningful whole?" Denis Barthel via Wikimedia Commons
Mind-Wandering Heights As children in the 1820s the novelists Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë, along with their brother, Branwell, created two make-believe realms called Gondal and Angria in their parsonage on the English Yorkshire moors. Angria, a confederacy of states, teemed with both fashionable aristocrats and lower-class citizens who frequented inns and taverns and similar locales. In various plots Angria would become enmeshed in war, revolution and other dramatic events. In Gondal, Emily and Anne's secret state, warfare and politics alternated with romantic intrigues. Gondal's women were more assertive and resourceful than those of Angria, in which passive beauties pined for their lovers. These two fantasy lands, about which the children wrote in several hundred matchbox-size books, planted the mental seeds for the novels the sisters would write as adults. These masterpieces included
Jane Eyre (Charlotte), Wuthering Heights (Emily) and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (Anne). Mr. Absurd via Wikimedia Commons
Highway Hunch Mixing free-thinking into a recipe of science has led to modern-day revelations as well. One Friday night in 1983 Kary Mullis, then a chemist at Cetus Corp., was driving on California Highway 128 from Berkeley to Mendocino where he had a weekend cabin in the woods. He was blithely contemplating the construction of the DNA molecule, out of nucleotides, the building blocks of this molecule of life. At milepost 46.58, he came up with an idea for duplicating DNA fragments in unlimited quantities within a chemical soup of nucleotides, DNA-synthesizing enzymes and other molecular ingredients. Previously, DNA strips could only be made in living cells, laboriously, and in small amounts. Mullis called the technique that grew from his thoughts the polymerase chain reaction or PCR. As a result of his invention, Mullis shared the 1993 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Recalling his driving stints, Mullis said in an interview, "that's when I did most of my thinking….because day-to-day life at the lab doesn't allow a lot of time."
Hydrargyrum via Wikimedia Commons
Silver Lining? Around B.C. 200 the king of the Sicilian seaport city Syracuse posed a puzzle for the Greek mathematician Archimedes. The king had been given a crown that was supposed to be pure gold, but he suspected that the goldsmith had added some silver. Archimedes was to determine, without melting down the crown, whether the king's suspicions were well founded.
Archimedes first studied the problem diligently, testing numerous hypotheses, but could not solve it. So he decided to take a break, asking his servant to draw a bath. As he settled into the tub, the water level rose. Archimedes then realized that the same effect could be used to determine the volume of the crown. He leapt up and ran out into the street naked. "Eureka!" he shouted. He had recognized that equivalent weights of different substances, such as silver and gold, occupy different volumes. By observing the volume of water the crown displaced—perhaps as compared with a gold reference sample of the same weight—he could thus determine whether it also contained a less dense metal such as silver. As it turned out, the king was right to be doubtful: Archimedes' test revealed that silver was present.
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Carbon Copies The daydream coalesced later into Kekulé's theory of molecular structure. It solved the problem of five carbons and 12 hydrogens in the following way, using the knowledge that each carbon atom can link to four other atoms in creating a compound. These three compounds create three different substances simply by virtue of structure: pentane [
left], methylbutane (aka isopentane) [ center], and dimethylpropane (aka neopentane) [ right]. Pngbot via Wikimedia Commons
Atomic Tango August Kekulé von Stradonitz, who helped found structural organic chemistry in the mid-1800s, is known for a famous reverie that revealed the arrangement of atoms in a molecule. Kekulé had long wondered about this arrangement—and in particular he wanted to know how two molecules that were composed of the same atoms—say five carbons and 12 hydrogens—could be different substances, a blowing agent, say, or an ingredient in toothpaste. The answer came to him while riding home one evening on a horse-drawn "bus". Years later, Kekulé described it this way, according to the book,
Eurekas and Euphorias: the Oxford book of scientific anecdotes by Walter Bruno Gratzer (Oxford University Press, 2002), "I fell into a reverie, and lo, the atoms were gamboling before my eyes…. I saw how, frequently, two smaller atoms united to form a pair; how a larger one embraced the two smaller ones; how still larger ones kept hold of three or even four of the smaller; whilst the whole kept whirling in a giddy dance…" ArtMechanic via Wikimedia Commons
Explosive Insight Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard first considered the notion of converting mass into energy after he had read that his colleague Ernest Rutherford had discounted the possibility in a 1934 lecture. Then a few weeks later, while crossing a London street, Szilard suddenly realized that if there were an element whose nucleus, when hit by a neutron, would split into two parts and release two of its neutrons, those neutrons could split other nearby atoms. This would lead to a "chain reaction" in which billions of atoms could be split in millionths of a second. And so Szilard came up with one of the core ideas behind nuclear fission, which led to atomic bombs and reactors.
Panoptik via Wikimedia Commons
Relativity Revelation Albert Einstein's unleashed imagination was an important ingredient to his success. After months of intense mathematical exercises he homed in on the gist of his special theory of relativity while taking a break from his work "and let his imagination wander about the concepts of space and time," wrote Guenther Knoblich and Michael Oellinger in the October 2006
Scientific American MIND. In his mental meanderings Einstein imagined two bolts of lightning striking the front and back of a moving train at the same instant. He realized that those strikes would not seem simultaneous to a person standing next to the track even if they did seem so to an individual on the moving train. Einstein described his moment of insight in 1924: "After seven years of reflection in vain [1898 to 1905] the solution came to me suddenly with the thought that our concepts and laws of space and time can only claim validity insofar as they stand in a clear relation to our experiences; and that experience could very well lead to the alteration of these concepts and laws." Hemulen via Wikimedia Commons Advertisement Advertisement