When Discoveries Are Made

The temporal patterns of discovery, and especially when individuals are most likely to have their insights, are perhaps the least-studied aspect of the discovery process, but some interesting phenomena have been noted. The influence of age and changing fields has been noted above. People tend to make discoveries within five to ten years of entering a field, and they tend to have only one major insight per field they enter. Thus changing fields tends to restart the discovery clock, as it were.

Equally important to understanding discovery is that insights seem to occur more often when scientists are not directly working on a problem than when they are. Thus, several studies have shown that only about a third of scientific problems are solved by a direct, brute force approach. An equal number are solved when scientists give upon on the original problem and begin working on a related problem. The remaining third of the problems get solved during leisure-time activities, which range from going on vacation to taking a shower to dreaming the answer in one's sleep. Some investigators, such as Linus Pauling have even gone so far as to claim to be able to 'program' their minds to make use of this leisure time. Pauling said that when he worked on a problem that he could not solve directly, he would turn to something else during his work hours, and think very hard about the unsolved problem every night before he went to sleep. After a few weeks, he would forget to think about the problem before he slept, and then, within a few days, almost inevitably, he would wake with a plausible answer. Other scientists, such as Poincare and August Kekule, the discoverer of the structure of benzene, have reported using similar techniques of purposeful meditation or relaxation to stimulate ideas.

This phenomenon of nonconscious problem solving raises interesting questions for understanding the nature of discovery. As Poincare: noted, it is almost as if the conscious mind, employing the rules of logic, can prevent insights from occurring. In fact, the nature of many discoveries is such that they do break the rules of logic as they are understood at the time, or posit the existence of phenomena that are unknown and so beyond the knowledge of reason.

One can also look at the concept of temporal patterns of discovery from an historical perspective. Discoveries as a whole tend to occur during times of economic growth and cultural mixing. The Scientific Revolution, for example, occurred during a period of prosperity associated with the Renaissance and this historical period is also characterized by many voyages of discovery that led to trade - both economic and intellectual -between cultures as diverse as the Europeans, Arabs, Chinese, and native Americans. Other major periods of innovation in the sciences, such as the Industrial Revolution and the postSputnik era, are also associated with such economic and cultural prosperity.

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