Vol. 15 No. 4
Spring 2006
One evening in 1829, while nodding off before a fire, German chemist Friedrich Kekulé began dreaming of atoms, dancing in the fl ames, forming chains that “frequently rose together, all in movement, winding and turning like ser- pents.” Then, “one of the serpents seized its own tail and the form whirled mockingly before my eyes. I came awake like a fl ash of lightning.”

Earlier, Kekulé had been pondering the structure of the chemical benzene. He knew benzene was composed of six carbons and six hydrogens—but how were they arranged? No linear assembly made sense. The image of the snake biting its tail unveiled the answer: Benzene was circular. Kekulé stayed up that night, sorting out the details of a landmark finding, revealed in a moment of scientific epiphany.

Where does scientific creativity come from? Is science even creative? After all, science isn’t about creating things from mud and sand; it is about revealing the truth. But the truth hides in a sealed chest. Creativity comes in figuring out how to pick the lock. There is no formula for creativity; every breakthrough owns a strange and personal history. But there are some common elements: obsession, skepticism, insecurity, and serenity.

Obsession is a common phenomenon of the brain. Men especially have curious obsessions, including what must be the biggest waste of brainpower of all time—sports trivia. My father and brothers collect parts from vintage Model Ts. But rather than assemble cars, they simply fill barns with rusting parts, hanging from ropes like an automobile slaughterhouse. It all seems pointless.

But obsession has its positive side as well. Only through obsessive familiarity with a problem can one make progress. One must be constantly pondering the facts, tossing out observations and revisiting the problem from new vantage points.

Skepticism is not a common feature of the human mind. Authority’s power is remarkable—people cleave to any half-baked notion spoken by those who claim supreme knowledge. As a young boy, I held my older brother in highest esteem—he knew much about the world’s mysteries. One day, while dipping my head into the toilet bowl, he explained that toilet water always swirls in the same direction. This was said to result from the Corriolis Force, created by the Earth’s rotation. Decades later, I was explaining this phenomenon with great authority when I realized that my source was a rather mean 11-year-old. So I looked it up, and found that it is in fact not true: A toilet’s shape determines how the water swirls. Right then, I was forced to discard several notions imparted to me by my brother, including where babies come from.

A lack of insecurity is what stands between most individuals and real discovery. Because Charles Darwin was beset with a fear of being wrong, he assembled overwhelming evidence to support his hypotheses. As a result, no credible scientist questions evolution. By contrast, crackpots are never paralyzed by self-doubt. Claude “Rael” Vorilhon maintains that in 1975, aliens took him for a ride on a spaceship and explained exactly where life comes from: They had planted it on Earth. Today, 35,000 followers in 85 countries buy into this version of how life started, and the Raelian movement is arguably the fastest-growing religion in the world. A message from space aliens concerning the origins of life is more credible than scientific evidence? The Raelians are not alone; nationwide polls in 2004 found that nine in 10 Americans reject evolution as the sole origin of humans.

Finally, serenity frees the mind from distraction. The most famous scientific epiphany for molecular biologists came to Kari Mullis, a biochemist at UC Berkeley, while stuck in traffic—admittedly an odd place to achieve serenity. His thoughts turned to the challenge of working with tiny amounts of DNA. Suddenly, the idea for amplifying DNA using Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) struck him, and he stopped his car to work out the steps. This revolutionary tool has sent repercussions through society, helping to solve perplexing criminal cases and proving innocence in many more.

So get in your car and steer for those traffic jams. The next great scientific discovery could be yours—although it might be a more pleasant journey in a comfortable chair by your fireplace.

—Erik M. Jorgensen, Ph.D., is a University of Utah professor of biology; scientific director, The Brain Institute at the University of Utah; and an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

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