The Eureka Moment
Robin Gilbert-Jones | On 11, May 2014
It is a fairly easy task to dispense with the idea that science and beauty are entirely separate realms of enquiry.
Indeed one could, as Richard Dawkins suggests, make an “aesthetic case” for the scientific worldview. More challenging perhaps is to understand science’s emotional core. Scientists themselves, have in the past been dismissed as coldly empirical and lacking in sentimentality. This is a difficult thing to defend against, as science is itself the pursuit of logical outcomes based on objective analysis and must always be guarded against allowing emotions and human desires to affect these outcomes or their interpretation. In this, the accusation that scientists inhabit a realm of pure cold rationality has been hard to shake off for some. Emotion is surely synonymous with bias. This rather mean-spirited notion, however, fails to account for the fact that people who have chosen their career path, particularly in academic circles (scientists or not) are passionate about their discipline.
Archimedes’ “Eureka-moment” is now firmly embedded in popular folklore and most people who have studied physics at any level in school will be familiar with it. Despite the fact that this story is most likely fictional (the earliest record of it is by the Roman writer Vitruvius 200 years later describing a method which wouldn’t have been strictly accurate), it is perhaps more significant in the psychological effect it describes than the scientific. The almost revelatory awareness of your discovery in real time. This is the great joy and paradox of science; that a moment of pure crystallising rationality can be, according to the lucky few to have experienced it, a moment of overwhelming emotional exaltation.
One of the more recent examples of this can be found in Andrew Wiles, the mathematician who proved Fermat’s last theorem. Here is a man who studies mathematics of all things, an intangible realm of pure logic, overcome with what he has discovered:
“Suddenly, totally unexpectedly, I had this incredible revelation. I realised what was holding me up was exactly what would resolve the problem I’d had” he goes on, “It was so indescribably beautiful, it was so simple and so elegant and I just stared in disbelief for twenty minutes.”
I imagine this is comparable to how Peter Higgs felt as he shed tears at CERN when the paradigm-confirming particle he predicted was confirmed, or the collective jubilation at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory when the Curiosity rover touched down unscathed on the Martian surface.
We are fortunate to live in a time when at least a share of this exaltation is available to laymen and enthusiastic amateurs. The public’s interest in science is increasingly catered for in television programming and a new generation of celebrity scientists are enjoying tremendous popularity. This year we have Neil DeGrasse Tyson presenting a modern reimagining of Cosmos and Brian Cox’s various Wonders shows have cemented him as the Attenborough of physics. Social media too is replete with amateur science pages, podcasts and more. A whole trend of scientific monologues set to music and imagery (in collections such as the Sagan Series and Great Minds) have become very popular lately and lectures, interviews and educational material of all kinds are now available for all who will take the time to indulge in them.
The pleasure of science is as simple as Richard Feynman’s phrase, ‘the pleasure of finding things out’ and it’s a credit to the inquisitive impulses of our species that discoveries of such infinite complexity can be the source of such simple but visceral human joy.
“The idea that we’ve now understood something never grasped by anybody who ever lived before…that exhilaration, especially intense for the scientists involved but perceptible to nearly everybody, propagates through the society, bounces off walls and comes back at us.” – Carl Sagan