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Physics: Discovery and Intuition

Connections Through Time,   Issue 19: April - June 2003

"The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift."

- Albert Einstein

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"The Mystery of the Universe" by Rassouli

Science does not have a theory that explains or predicts the characteristics of intuition, and yet, many great scientific discoveries relied heavily on intuitive insights.  The connections between intellect and intuition are one of the great mysteries of our universe.

Isaac Newton supposedly watched an apple fall from a tree and suddenly connected its motion as being caused by the same universal gravitational force that governs the moon's attraction to the earth.  John Maynard Keynes, the famous economist, said  "Newton owed his success to his muscles of intuition. Newton's powers of intuition were the strongest and most enduring with which a man has ever been gifted."

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The structure of the benzene molecule was discovered after an intuitive dream and lots of analytical thinking focused on understanding molecules in general, and benzene in particular.

A well-documented case of intuition concerns Frederick Kekule's (1829 - 1896) discovery of the structure of benzene.  Kekule saw the answer in a dream of a snake coiled and biting its tail.  In an intuitive flash, he realized that the molecular structure was characterized by a ring of carbon atoms.  Benzene is a 6 carbon ringed compound with 6 hydrogen atoms with the carbon-carbon bonds arranged alternately single and double. This discovery opened the way to modern theories of organic chemistry.

Kekule wrote about his dream in his diary ". I was sitting writing on my textbook, but the work did not progress; my thoughts were elsewhere.  I turned my chair to the fire and dozed. Again the atoms were jumbling before my eyes.  This time the smaller groups kept modestly in the background. My mental eye, rendered more acute by the repeated visions of the kind, could now distinguish larger structures of manifold conformation; long rows sometimes more closely fitted together all twining and twisting in snake-like motion.  But look! What was that?  One of the snakes had seized hold of its own tail, and the form whirled mockingly before my eyes.  As if by a flash of lightning I awoke...".

It is important to recognize that Kekule was immersed in the problem of how atoms combine to form molecules, and he was focused on benzene.  These intuitive discoveries seem to occur when there is a strong emotional focus and intention to solve a specific issue.  Another good example of the need for emotion and focus concerns Archimedes.

While visiting the baths, Archimedes suddenly awoke to a significant principle that would enable him to measure the volume of an object based upon the amount of water it displaced.  At the time he had been wrestling with a royal problem.  The ruler Hiero suspected that he had been cheated by the goldsmith who had crafted his crown.  Archimedes' job was to determine the volume of the crown, so as to learn, from its weight, whether or not it had been made of pure gold.  The Roman architect Vitruvius recounts the eureka moment of Archimedes' discovery:

When he went down into the bathing pool he observed that the amount of water which flowed outside the pool was equal to the amount of his body that was immersed.  Since this fact indicated the method of explaining the case, he did not linger, but moved with delight he leapt out of the pool, and going home naked, cried aloud that he had found exactly what he was seeking.  For as he ran he shouted in Greek: eureka, eureka.  (Ref.)

We close with 2 quotes from Einstein and his views on intuition and discovery.  Remember Einstein was very aware and appreciative of the work of others as the foundation of his work.  Yet, when it came to discovering something truly new and innovative, Einstein said:

"The only real valuable thing is intuition."

"The intellect has little to do on the road to discovery. There comes a leap in consciousness, call it Intuition or what you will, the solution comes to you and you don't know how or why".



Albert Einstein Quotes

Isaac Newton

Friedrich August Kekule 

Adrienne Clarkson - Speech April 2002

Poetry and Science: A View from the Divide

Go to another section of this issue:
Cracked Pots are Okay       Applications: The Future is Made Now

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