The Eureka Moment

by Jörgen Eriksson on September 30, 2012

In this blog post, we will take a journey from a creative moment in the life of Archimedes, to the recent breakthrough of social media. Underlying the text but not explicitly described are the complexities of “big data”.

Archimedes imageEureka is a ancient Greek work, translating as “I have found it”. This statement is attributed to the Greek scholar Archimedes. He was the most famous mathematician and inventor of ancient Greece, born in in Syracuse, Sicily, in 287 BC, where he spent most of his life.

There are two interesting facts about Archimedes. The first is that he was born and lived his life in Sicily, in a time when the Greek culture was spread across the Mediterranean. To be Greek in that time was more a matter of cultural and class alignment, than of geographic heritage.

The second interesting fact is him being considered one of the greatest mathematicians of all time. However, Archimedes mathematical work was not continued in any important way in the classic age. It was not until some of his mathematical writings were translated into Arabic in the eighth century AD that attempts were made to extend his results.

Later, in the sixteenth century, Europeans came to know his work and build on it. It is said that the rediscovery of the work of the ancient Greek mathematicians, among the foremost of whom was Archimedes, was the main accelerator behind the mathematical triumphs of the 17th century, and the works of Kepler, Fermat, Leibniz and Newton.

Classic bathtubArchimedes is said to have proclaimed "Eureka!" when he stepped into a bath and noticed that the water level rose, and then suddenly understood that the volume of water displaced must be equal to the volume of the part of his body he had submerged.


Sometimes new ideas can appear as it did for Archimedes, like an instant flash of insight and revelation. Here are some examples of Eureka moments in the invention of popular products.

Post-it notes

Post itThe 3M Company, formerly known as the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company, is a US based multinational conglomerate, known for its superior product innovation capabilities. One such innovation was created by Dr. Spencer Silver who spent years trying to get his colleagues excited about his low-tack, pressure-sensitive adhesive. The world yawned. But one day another 3M scientist, Arthur Fry, was in church, not a bad place for a eureka moment, and came up with a use for Dr. Silver’s glue. Arthur Fry was annoyed that the bookmarks in his hymnal wouldn’t stay put. He thought adding Dr. Silver’s adhesive to some paper might do the trick. Not only was he right, but people have been coming up with uses for the Post-Its ever since.

Velcro

VelcroVelcro is a company that produced the first commercially marketed fabric hook-and-loop fasten. It was invented in 1948 by the Swiss electrical engineer George de Mestral. One day George de Mestral took his dog for a walk in the woods, also a good place for a eureka moment. When he and the dog got back, Mestral noticed burrs all over his pants. The tricky little devils would not come off. Looking at the burrs under a microscope, he saw that they had tiny hooks that had attached themselves to the loops of thread in his pants. De Mestral patented Velcro in 1955.

The microwave oven

microwave ovenA microwave oven is, as most of us knows, a kitchen appliance that heats food by dielectric heating accomplished with radiation used to heat polarized molecules in the food. Microwave ovens heat foods quickly and efficiently because excitation is fairly uniform. Dr. Percy Spencer invented the first microwave oven after World War II from radar technology developed during the war. Initially named the "Radarange", it was first sold in 1947. According to legend, Spencer had a bit of inspiration when a candy bar he had in his pocket melted near the radar he was working on. Spencer, being a clever engineer, knew that the microwaves being emitted by his magnetron could penetrate the exterior of a food and cook it from the inside – unlike using plain old heat from an oven, or fire which cooks food from the outside in.

Television

TelevisionPhilo Farnsworth was born on August 19, 1906. His family lived in a log cabin in a place called Indian Creek near Beaver, Utah. The family moved to a farm in Rigby, Idaho, in 1918 and Philo was excited to find his new home was wired for electricity, with a generator providing power for lighting and farm machinery. The 14 year old Philo Farnsworth was plowing a potato field one day when it suddenly just came to him how electrical television could work. According to legend, the back-and-forth motion of the till inspired him. Farnsworth realized that an electron beam could scan images line by line – simply put, that was the basis for almost all TVs until LCD and plasma screens. He went on to demonstrate the first operational, all-electronic television system in 1927. 


Also in science there have been famous Eureka moments, for example:

Special Relativity

EinsteinIt was only recently that psychologists discovered the science behind Eureka moments. That Eureka moment involves first being stuck and then relaxing your mind. That’s exactly how special relativity came to Einstein. For years he had been trying to reconcile, or prove one of two seemingly contradictory theories about space and time. While riding a street car home one day, he was struck by the sight of Bern’s famous clock tower. The answer was simple and elegant. Time can beat at different rates throughout the universe, depending on how fast you move.

AC – Alternating Current

TeslaThe Croatian Nikola Tesla was one of those strange people for whom eureka moments were the norm. Ideas for inventions would spring from his head, fully formed. One of his most famous Eureka’s, though, was the idea for alternating current. From the first time he saw direct current demonstrated, Tesla knew that there had to be a better way, but the answer eluded him. One day he was out for a walk when it just came to him. He used his walking stick to draw a picture explaining how alternating current would work to his walking partner. Tesla partnered with George Westinghouse to advocate for Alternating Current, or AC, over Thomas Edison’s DC, or Direct Current. AC eventually was adopted as the standard.

Cartesian Geometry

Rene DescartesForget "I think there for I am." Rene Descartes’ real gift to mankind is a great reason to sleep late: an important aha moment. Descartes liked to stay in bed until around noon. The habit started when he was a sick kid, and he stuck with it for the rest of his life. But don’t think that Descartes was wasting time hitting the 17th century equivalent of the snooze button over and over. One day, while watching a fly flit around above his head, Descartes realized he could describe the fly’s position by saying how far it was from the walls and ceiling.

Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR)

Kary MullisOne Friday night in 1983 Kary Mullis was driving from Berkeley, where he worked, to Mendocino, Calif., where he had a cabin. The drive is about three hours long, but the brainstorm Mullis had behind the wheel will most likely last forever. Mullis was not trying to solve a particular problem during that drive, just thinking out loud when, it occurred to him, he came up with PCR, an idea to use a pair of primers to bracket the desired DNA sequence and to copy it using DNA polymerase, a technique which would allow a small strand of DNA to be copied almost an infinite number of times, and thus be exponentially amplified. That amplification allows for all kinds of applications, everything from the diagnosis of hereditary diseases to catching criminals and paternity testing.

Nerve impulses

Otto Loewvi

The German pharmacologist Otto Loewi discovered that nerve impulses were transmitted chemically, not electronically, all thanks to a dream. In the early 1900’s scientists first proposed the idea of chemical transmission of nerve impulses, but 15 years later it was still just that – a hypothesis. Otto Loewi was about to change all that. The story goes that just before Easter Sunday, in 1920, Loewi dreamed of an experiment he could do that would prove once and for all how nerve impulses were transmitted. He woke up in the middle of the night, excited and happy, wrote the experiment down and went back to sleep. When he woke up, he couldn’t read his notes. Luckily, he had the same dream the next night. The experiment and his later work earned him the title, the "Father of Neuroscience."


Creativity in the Workplace

So, as legend tells us, Eureka moments have brought human knowledge forward in the discovery of the workings of the world. According to legend, one could think the Eureka moment, innovation or creativity is the reserve of poets, artists, musicians, inventors and scientists, brilliant people working on their own and having fantastic ideas.

However most inventions and scientific advances really come after hours upon hours of hard work.

Tired worker

In the highly competitive globalized marketplace, creativity is the key to the solution of challenges at the workplace in order to yield that blissful moment of success. Innovation or creativity is fundamental to all business and organizational advancement. Without creativity, stagnation, decline and demise are ever more quickly inevitable in a frighteningly competitive globalized marketplace. On this blog, we have previously written articles about creative personalities and innovation. A good summary in one sentence of what corporate innovation is all about is, is a quote from John Sculley, former CEO of Pepsi and Apple:

“The future belongs to those who see possibilities before they become obvious”.

However in an increasingly complex world, creativity is more and more about previous knowledge, culture, teamwork and collaborative open innovation. A similar trend can be seen in science.

The Graying of Science

Conventional wisdom is that big scientific discoveries are made by the untainted minds of the young. Albert Einstein famously said, "A person who has not made his great contribution to science before the age of 30 will never do so."

But the age at which star scientists make their biggest discoveries or have their greatest insights has been rising since Einstein did his path breaking work at age 26 in 1905. The "age of invention," as the Economist Benjamin F. Jones of the Kellogg School of Management puts it, is rising. Therein lies a threat to prosperity. Mr. Jones knows this because he has actually counted, as was recently reported in an article in the Wall Street Journal.

Scrutinizing the lives of more than a century of Nobel Prize winners, Mr. Jones found that chemistry laureates who did award-winning research before 1905 did their seminal work at an average age of 36. Those whose landmark work was done after 1985 did it at an average age of 46.

Nobel awards

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, 60% of physicists did their prizewinning work before turning 40; at the end of the 20th century, only 19% did. Werner Heisenberg won the physics Nobel in 1932 for work on quantum mechanics he did at age 24.

Raymond Davis won in 2002 for experiments to detect cosmic neutrinos that he began at age 51 and completed at age 80. The average age at which Nobel scientists and great inventors did their key work rose by about six years over the 20th century, Mr. Jones estimates. The same goes for the typical age at which Americans get their first patent.

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This trend is clear even after taking into account longer life spans, which means more older scientists. One reason is that scientists are getting a later start. At the start of the 20th century, great minds began actively doing research at age 23. At the end of the 20th century, it was age 31. The student stage is longer.

Over the past 40 years, according to Unites States National Science Foundation surveys, the age at which the typical science and engineering Ph.D. finished the degree has climbed about two years to just over 31.

Why? Mr. Jones’s hypothesis is that it takes more time to get to the discover-new-things stage because there simply is more to learn first.

Newton, borrowing a thought others had expressed earlier, wrote in 1675: "If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." To which Mr. Jones adds: "If one wants to stand on the shoulders of giants, then one must first climb the giant’s back. As knowledge accumulates, the harder this climb can become."

The lives of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg and other young entrepreneurs of our modern age seem to challenge the notion that the age of young inventors is over. Mr. Jones has an explanation:

When a field is young or taking off in a completely new direction, years of schooling don’t matter much. It is at such moments that young minds often produce breakthroughs.

JobsGatesZuckerberg

About Jörgen Eriksson :

Jörgen Eriksson is the founder of Bearing and is the Chairman of the firm since it was created. He has successfully expanded Bearing into covering projects on four continents. He is also Adjunct Professor of Innovation Management at the International University of Monaco and at Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya in Barcelona and he is an active member of the Founders Alliance organisation.

Working with consulting engagements across Bearings practices, he has over the past fifteen years participated in and supervised a large number of client projects, from innovation system development and place development and branding, to merger and acquisition assignments and leading edge research and business development activities for key clients.

His new book, Branding for Hooligans, will be published in 2015. It is about how innovation and branding are key survival factors in our modern times of hyper competitive markets.

Prior to Bearing, he was Director of Europe, Middle East, and Africa for Trema Treasury Management, a technology and consulting services provider, supplying financial software solutions for the global financial industry, Clients included The European Central Bank, Citibank, SEB, South African reserve Bank, Deutsche Bank, Abu Dhabi Investment Authority (ADIA), as well as many other large financial institutions and Fortune 500 companies.

Early in his career Eriksson was educated at the Stockholm School of Economics, where he studied economics, financial economics and philosophy. He then worked in Scandinavian investment banks and also for the Swedish Institute of National Defense Research.

You can contact Jörgen on e-mail jorgen.eriksson@bearing-consulting.com, connect on LinkedIn on http://fr.linkedin.com/pub/jörgen-eriksson/0/38/8a0/ and follow him on twitter on joreri508.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Jan Vik October 11, 2012 at 18:37

Hej Jörgen!
Great posting! One thing though, about the microwave, don’t think common people (like me) know much about that dielectric stuff 😉
Then, Mr Spencer’s chocolate bar (that he kept in his pocket) melted – what surprise!
I think that he was very excited about the eureka moment when a girl asked him: “What is that in your pants!”
… and he invented the story about the chocolate bar!

Great stuff, keep it coming.

Kind regards,

Jan

Jörgen Eriksson Jörgen Eriksson October 11, 2012 at 18:38

I do agree with you 🙂

/Jörgen

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