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July 3, 2007

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The Eurekronomicon

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.

Posted July 3, 2007 at 12:32 | Comments (5) | Permasnark
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Briefly Noted, Society/Culture


ahem. why don't yooooouuuuu write it? or at the very least illustrate it? i would buy it in a second, and i'm sure you could convince publishers of the same.

Posted by: Laura on July 3, 2007 at 01:32 AM

Turns out that David Perkins, a professor in Project Zero (think: Howard Gardner) at Harvard, has written a variety of this book. It's called "Eureka: The Art and Logic of Breakthrough Thinking"---probably more law of light bulbs than you'd want, but there are quite a few stories.

Posted by: Dan on July 3, 2007 at 04:34 AM

When I stopped into the bookstore yesterday I found an ominous black volume staring at me. Called "The Myths of Innovations." Written by a guy I ought to despise (helped build MS IE), but who I'm coming to love as I read.

In the second chapter he argues that our fascination with "Eureka moments" is an attempt to make innovation look easy. Our perspective: "It just came to him!" The real story: "It just came to him... after many thousands of hours (and weeks and months and years) of toil and failure."

Neat book... worth picking up.

It's a fair point. But at the same time -- insights DO occur, and sometimes all of a sudden. Not that they are without causes: In part the goal of the Eurekronomicon(tm) would be to trace out the antecedents for breakthrough thinking -- the years of toil, etc.

For there is a difference between toil that leads to eureka and toil that leads nowhere. The problem is we don't KNOW the difference very well. (Unless it's just luck, which I am not yet ready to accept.)

Also noted: This book looks relevant. Eagerly await the trade paperback.

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