Good science needs imagination

We are very happy here that the much anticipated reincarnation of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos has arrived and that Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the writers, and crew look to have done a wonderful job.  One of the themes Dr Tyson touches upon several times in the first episode is the importance of imagination to the hard work of the empirical method.


I recently finished Sean Allen’s book, Brave Genius, about Albert Camus and Jacques Monod. (Let me add to what I said below.  The book is excellent, well-written, well researched, and well worth anybody’s and everybody’s time).  Monod won the Nobel Prize in medicine along with two colleagues, Andre Lwoff and Francois Jacob.  During their work when Monod (and maybe Lwoff) were on vacation from the Paris summer, Jacob stayed behind, working in the lab and trying to figure out what if any role our genes had in governing the enzyme adaptations they were trying to understand.  


He was very frustrated (and no doubt hot), gave up the day’s effort and went to a movie with his wife.  Shortly into the film he ‘imagined’ a solution and became so excited his wife suggested they leave the movie so he could work on it.  (Can’t you see that?)  When Monod returned from his holiday a few days later, he was very skeptical about Jacob’s idea but they explored it empirically in the lab and Jacob’s imaginative flash of insight led to the discovery of messenger RNA, the go-between by which DNA governs all cellular activity. Voila!

Also, remember the story of August Kekule, the chemist who discovered the ring structure of the benzene molecule around 1885.  He described  having a dream about an ouroboros, an ancient symbol of a snake grasping its own tail, and awakening to realize that the benzene molecule was a ring of 6 carbon atoms.  And don’t forget Einstein daydreaming on the trolley to and from his job at the patent office.  We’re talking about the scientific power of dreaming here.


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