July 3, 2007
Tell me this has never happened to you waiting for a red light:
Like me, you probably don’t associate the traffic lights on Southampton Row with the end of the world. But it was while waiting there in 1933 that the Hungarian polymath Leo Szilard conceived the idea of a nuclear chain reaction, and thus the creation of the atomic bomb.
In the Telegraph, Tibor Fischer continues:
The car contains Szilard and his de facto chauffeur, Wigner (only Szilard would use a future Nobel Laureate as his taxi service). They are trying to find Albert Einstein to convince him of the need to urge the US government to start building an atomic bomb before the Nazis do.
When they finally locate Einstein and outline how chain reactions can be achieved, Einstein comments: “Daran habe ich gar nicht gedacht” (I hadnít thought of that). The resulting letter from Einstein to Roosevelt triggers the Manhattan Project. Itís an eerie example of how profoundly one man can influence history.
Someone write this book immediately: a compendium of eureka moments. It should include not just the canonical — Archimedes in the bath, etc. — but also the less-famous and, best of all, hitherto-unknown moments. Quantity would be the goal: an epiphany per page, hundreds of them in total, some big, some small.
The goal wouldn’t be so much to infer patterns or derive some big Law of Lightbulbs (although you might end up doing both along the way) as it would be to simply create a storehouse of stories about insight… a book that, when browsed, might even generate some new ones as well.