Eureka Moments

The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not “Eureka” but “That’s funny…” —Isaac Asimov (1920–1992).

I had a “Eureka!” moment today. An honest-to-goodness real-all-growed-up-scientist Eureka moment. In my case the particular exclamation wasn’t “that’s funny”, but “NOOOOOOO! What the @%$&*# is that!?” which is a slightly less literary turn of phrase than Asimov gave us, but I think probably more common in the real world.

I saw the weirdness, got my swearing out of the way and then spent about twenty minutes organizing and re-organizing data, then turning my computer upside down to get yet another view. Next I had to go over my methods and try to figure out where I might have screwed something up. And in a moment of absolutely stunning clarity, I found the pattern. And it was a pattern. Everything fit! I actually pulled a passing coworker over to my desk saying “Do you see this?”

I won’t describe it here because it’s boringly specialized and to try to explain it would dull the awesomeness of the moment. But there is a good chance that the finding may help my group further our understanding of the science that’s driving our project.

The thing that I learned today ain’t gonna get me a paper or a patent – some scientist somewhere would undoubtedly look at my announcement and go “Ummm…yeah? We knew that.” But no one in OUR group knew it. This is a special interaction that is (might be) affecting one tiny part of the greater whole of what we’re working on. It wouldn’t be new science, but it would be a new understanding of why we’re seeing the weird things we’ve occasionally been seeing. And hey, it may help us build in controls that will make the final product just a bit better.

Not every Eureka moment leads to the Theory of Special Relativity or Post-It glue, but I think a lot of people – including scientists – feel like if they’re not Einstein or Dr. Gregory House they’re never going to have that moment when a bus drives by and an advert for polka dot bikinis catches your eye and makes you think of the spots that the patient reported seeing, and all sound fades out and you get a stupid blank look on your face and then you shout “SARCCOIDOSIS!”

Nah…For most of us, Eureka moments usually have to be earned with laborious, dull effort. But that means they can be earned with hard work – not just be had by those with innate genius or mad observational and deductive skills.

Annoyingly, Eureka moments also have to be verified. So wish me luck – the results that will support (not prove, mind you) my hypothesis should come off the instrument any moment now!

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Eureka Moments
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