12. Audacious and brilliant intuitions

Summary: Having established that society and the human mind follow the same divergent path of overspecialization and failure, followed by cathartic re-engagement of intellect and sense, we can learn how to avoid the failures. It is important to remember that science has frequently been an inspired undertaking. There is plenty of evidence that creativity and problem-solving in science and technology are often more than rational processes.

Excerpt

    It is important to remember that science has frequently been an inspired undertaking. There is plenty of evidence showing that creativity and problem-solving in science and technology are often more than rational processes. The term ‘Eureka syndrome’ applies to the phenomenon of scientists discovering the solution to a problem, at a time when they are not actually working on that problem. The most celebrated example is that of Archimedes, who solved the problem of measuring the volume of an irregular object while he was taking a bath. He noticed that the water level increased when he got in, and that it could be measured exactly. “Eureka” he proclaimed, Greek for “I have found it.” Another is Kekulé, who had been preoccupied with the molecular structure of benzene when he took some time off. While gazing into a glowing fireplace, imagined a sequence of atoms as if they were a ring of snakes, each biting the next one’s tail, thus conceptualizing the closed nature of certain compounds. According to Stephen Pinker, Einstein declared that his ideas of relativity formed in his mind in a dreamlike way: “My particular ability does not lie in mathematical calculation, but rather in visualizing effects, possibilities and consequences.” Mendeleev and his periodic table is an exceptional case of intuition at work. As he began to discover a rough, incomplete pattern of some groups of elements, he also intuitively predicted which unknown elements would be contained by the blank spaces in the table.
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    Scientists who are inspired and courageous innovators, as well as those societies that have deliberately chosen to avoid unproven paths, give hope that modern progress will not have a dismal end. Among the scientists, Roger Bacon, Galileo, Kepler, Curie, Pasteur, Nightingale, Mendeleev, and Einstein are but a few who stand out as visionaries. China’s fifteenth century avoidance of colonial expansion, Ireland’s choice not to have nuclear generators, South Africa’s decision to abandon racism, are instances of several societies that have rejected paths that others have followed uncritically. Our most precious commodity is that creative spirit, the inspiration that encouraged these scientists and societies to put forward bold ideas and make difficult choices.