5 Dreams That Led to Scientific Breakthroughs

Perchance to discover.


Despite the cliche of the overworked lab tech, scientists do sleep from time to time and, when they do, they dream of the sorts of things they spend their days thinking about: Not the vampires of monsters of fantasy, but the peer reviewers at The International Journal of Fuzzy Systems and fluid dynamics. What does this mean for research? Well, sometimes the march of progress is more of a sleepwalk.

Here are the dreams that forever changed the course of science.

August Kekulé Dreams of Ouroboros

August Kekulé’s discovery of benzene’s hexagonal shape allegedly came from a dream he had about a snake that “whirled mockingly before my eyes” and then bit its own tail. Kekulé, a 19th century German chemist, transferred the ouroboros image into a hydrocarbon ring — six carbon atoms equally spaced, with electrons shared equally and hydrogens branching off the corners — solving the molecular structure of the flammable, sweet-scented chemical.

Srinivasa Ramanujan Dreams of Integrals

Brilliant mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan’s mind didn’t stop just because he was snoozing: “While asleep, I had an unusual experience. There was a red screen formed by flowing blood, as it were. I was observing it. Suddenly a hand began to write on the screen. I became all attention. That hand wrote a number of elliptic integrals. They stuck to my mind. As soon as I woke up, I committed them to writing.” The integrals were theta functions.

Ramanujan is also the reason why, on Futurama, Bender’s serial number is 1,729 (it’s the smallest number, he famously remarked, that can be expressed as the sum of two cubes in two different ways).

Einstein Dreams of Electric Cows

We’ve got a pretty good idea of what you dreamed of as a teenager, but the only things not wearing clothes in young Albert’s most life-changing dream were a bunch of cows. As Portuguese physicist João Magueijo recounts — with astounding detail — in the essay “Einstein’s Bovine Dreams,” Einstein stood at the bottom of a hill watching cows jump away from an electric fence at the exact moment a farmer wired it to a battery. To Einstein, the cows jumped as one, but to the farmer at the top of the hill, the cows jumped in sequence from closest to furthest. The moral of the dream? As the current travels down the line (these bovines have supercow reflexes) they leap, but at the same time the image of the jumping cow has to travel to Einstein, so he sees them jump as one. Time is relative to the observer.

Otto Loewi Dreams of a Telltale Heart

Otto Loewi received science’s highest honor for discovering acetylcholine, a chemical that the vagus nerve transmits from the brain to slow the heart. To figure this out, he placed a slow-beating frog heart, nerve intact, in a tub of salt water, then transferred that salt water to a different container with another beating frog heart. When the second heart began to slow, Loewi reasoned that there was something in the water from the vagus nerve — a neurotransmitter. And the origins of this experiment might have been weird, almost illegible notes Loewi took while he was napping his way through Easter weekend, 1921.


Dmitri Mendeleev Dreams of Tables

There’s a story about the creation of the periodic table that goes something like this: Dmitri Mendeleev, the Russian chemist, was working late trying to figure out a way to organize the known elements. After writing their names on note cards and scattering the deck, he passed out. He then had a sort of Tetris dream in which the cards fell into place. Boom. The guy who fell asleep at a desk woke up with a table.

Are these stories apocryphal? Some may be, but they are surely also indicative of the scientific firepower of the subconscious.

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