June 18, 2010


The moment of knowledge, or the point of a new idea's creation, is almost impossible to record unless someone is wired with electrodes to track brain patterns. That is today.


When studying the creative process involved in historical scientific discoveries, historians of science, like Case Western Reserve University’s Alan Rocke, need to employ methods of more distant inference—the very same principle that German chemist August Kekulé experienced to imagine and detail the architectural structure of chemical molecules. In the process, Kekulé changed the field of chemistry, and all of science.

Rocke selected Kekulé as the subject of his new book, Image & Reality: Kekulé, Kopp, and the Scientific Imagination (University of Chicago Press), to discuss the value of the creative process in scientific discovery and how some discoveries come about far from the lab.

The scientist Rocke featured as a case study was involved with one of the earliest historical episodes in which people secured knowledge of phenomena they were unable directly to experience.

During a celebration in his honor in 1890, Kekulé enlightened the audience with two stories about his major work.

Kekulé recalled a London bus ride during which, and in a twilight state, he envisioned atoms playing together and forming bonds. He awoke and headed home to draw pictures of what heralded the onset of the theory of chemical structure—structures of an unseen molecular world not visible to humans at the time who lacked instruments like spectrometers to "see" the actual molecule.

The other story took place seven years later. While on the faculty at the University of Ghent in Belgium, Kekulé experienced a similar episode at his fireside. As he dozed, imagery of what would become the benzene ring, an important chemical molecule at the heart of industrial chemistry, bounced through his thoughts. The imagery of linked atoms was similar to the idea of a snake biting its own tail.

“Chemists at the time were able to determine how various atoms were linked together. And this was not just for molecules consisting of two or three atoms, but 20 or more, all without advanced instrumentation,” Rocke said.

Because of these kinds of discoveries, “this idea of creativity and the imagination should not be undervalued, but promoted and fostered,” Rocke stated about what he considers the broadest theme of Image and & Reality.

Some discoveries come through the visual, and this is not respected enough in education, he added.

Like Kekulé, who could not directly observe these molecular bonds, Rocke had to infer from archival letters Kekulé wrote that these stories were not a figment of a creative imagination. He knows there are skeptics and respects their opinions.

Spending part of almost every summer for the past 30 years in Europe researching this book and three others he has written, Rocke read Kekulé‘s letters and papers in German, offering the first in-depth look at Kekulé’s discovery process.

Amongst Kekulé’s prolific correspondence was a letter he wrote to a friend stating that he had dreamed of this new molecule before the announcement of the benzene ring.

Kekulé was not alone in history nor are such discoveries limited to the scientific world, according to Rocke. He explores how this cognitive process happens to people who are knowledgeable to the point of obsession and are primed for these epiphanies at unexpected moments.

When they almost give up, it sometimes happens, he said.

One of the most famous examples from classical history is the story of the Greek scholar Archimedes, who shouted "eureka, eureka" as the idea for hydrostatics came to him while he relaxed in the public baths.

Others like Sigmund Freud, Isaac Newton, Joseph Priestley, Alfred Wallace, Albert Einstein and others have reported these semi-stupor experiences of discovery.

As historian and psychologist Howard Gruber has quipped, creative moments often involve one of the three B's—the bath, the bed, or the bus.

The unconscious brings the information together when the individual has a chance to sit back and at the point where they let go of the obsession, epiphanies or eureka moments can come, Rocke said.

It is in these moments of reverie, Rocke said, that some of science's major discoveries take place...far away from the lab.

For more information contact Susan Griffith, 216.368.1004.

Posted by: Katie O'Keefe, June 18, 2010 11:55 AM | News Topics:

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