By definition, “Inspiration is an unconscious burst of creativity in a literary, musical, or other artistic endeavour.” Though scientific discoveries are not included in the definition, I shall highlight few instances when revolutionary scientific ideas emerged as a result of an inspiration.
Let us take a few examples:
- Sir Isaac Newton is credited with proposing theory of gravitation. It is believed Newton came up with the idea while sitting in his garden when an apple fell on his head or nearby. This event made Newton ask why did the apple fall on ground and not go up in the sky. Newton came up with the idea that due to gravitational force apple came down on the ground. Apple used to fall from tree even before Newton came up with his theory. But at the given moment his mind had asked a specific question.
- August Kekule is regarded as one of the principal founders of modern organic chemistry. In 1865 he reported his discovery of the benzene ring as the basis for another major group of carbon molecules. The dream was that of the self-devouring snake, which, Kekule said, led him to the benzene ring.
- There is a popular story that a boiling kettle had inspired James Watt to come up with an idea to use power of steam and improve efficiency of steam engine. Scottish engineer James Watt patented a steam engine that produced continuous rotary motion. Watt’s ten horsepowerengines enabled a wide range of manufacturing machinery to be powered.
- Sir Alexander Fleming discovered the antibiotic penicillin. He came back from holiday to find that fungus growing on bacteria culure plate was stopping growth of bacteria. It was an accidental discovery. Dr. Fleming had the ability to understand its importance. In his own words, “One sometimes finds what one is not looking for. When I woke up just after dawn on Sept. 28, 1928, I certainly didn’t plan to revolutionize all medicine by discovering the world’s first antibiotic, or bacteria killer. But I guess that was exactly what I did.”
The above instances where an idea flashed in the mind of a scientist while looking at a routine event. The flash happens because the observer engages in problem solving, reads as much as possible about the problem, and thinks deeply about it. An external event simply stimulates the mind to synthesise a solution to the problem. It is important to undertand that it is the mind of observer that comes up with the idea.
It must be understood that an inspiration only tells us how a thing can possibly be done. One has to design experiments to prove the inspiration actually works on ground. To cite a few instance,
- Alexander Fleming published about his discovery of penicillin in 1929. It was only in 1944 commercial scale penicilling was produced by Howard Florey and Ernst Chain.
- James Watt arrived at his critical insight on use of steam to generate power in 1765. It was only in 1776, first commercial engines were installed.
- Even today, to discover a new idea that may lead to discovery of a new drug may take three years of hard work. Thereafter, development of the drug for human use takes as long as ten years.
To quote, Thomas Alva Edison, “genius is one percent inspiration and ninty nice percent perspiration. Edison was an American inventor and businessman who developed many devices which greatly influenced life worldwide.
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