Daydreams and Innovation - 4 minute read

We always think of science as being, well, scientific. You know, rational, methodical, provable. Its through this linear process, you can call it a method, that science has given us our amazing, modern world. But the truth is a bit more strange.

Here’s a quote for you. “[It] always starts with a feeling of certainty with one's whole body, not just with the mind—an esthetic sense, a sensual step…what might be called daydreams. It is always something that is illogical when you first get it.”

That is a quote from Cyril S. Smith, a metallurgist and historian of science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He’s talking about how fundamentally new scientific ideas happen. 

He then reminds us that we, "then must apply logic, mathematics, and rigorous thought to test and extend the ideas."

Innovation happens the same way. 

Let’s take the discovery of the structure of the Benzene molecule. In the mid-1800's this was a burning topic for chemists. It was Friedrich August Kekulé who figured out that benzene was a ring of six carbon atoms each connected to one hydrogen atom and alternating between single and double bonds. 

This breakthrough ushered in the age of structural organic chemistry leading to the rise of the German pharmaceutical industry. Ever wonder why so many big pharmaceutical companies are German: Merck, Bayer, Roche, Schering? It is because Kekule’s set up his his lab at the University of Bonn. 

Honored at a dinner 25-years later Kekule shared, for the first time, the story of how he was nodding off in front of a fire when he had a vision of a snake biting its own tail. This prompted him to imagine benzene structured as a ring. 

Let’s take a moment. An organic chemist, a man devoted to the rational, methodical, linear world of science, had his breakthrough in a vision. The key that unlocked the secrets to the modern pharmaceutical industry and synthetic fibers came to him in a vision. 

It wasn’t happenstance that Kekule was dozing off. The neuroscience tells us our innovative engine turns on only when we’re off task. And this innovative engine in our brains works not by being immensely skilled at one thing but rather by bringing together multiple ideas and disciplines.

Kekule was talented artist who studied drawing, clay modeling, wood carving, architecture, wood turning and glass blowing. The last he was particularly skilled at. When he attended a lecture on experimental chemistry he became fascinated by the mystery of how atoms built themselves into molecular shapes.

Kekule was a chemist with a talent for understanding objects in three dimensional space. His training in the art of forms informed his inquiry into the structure of the benzene molecule. It was the combination of talents mixed with a moment of dozing off, a sensual daydream, that lead to his innovation.

Innovation always involves elements of the irrational and the non-linear. It is essential we leave ourselves the space for it, and trust it when it happens. But its not just about visions and insights.

Kekule had his vision in 1861 but he did not publish a paper until 1865. After describing the snake dream at the dinner honoring him, he said, "Let us learn to dream, and perhaps then we will find the truth. But let us also beware not to publish our dreams until they have been examined by the wakened mind." 

This combination of learning to dream, trusting our dreams to direct us, but then using our waking mind to explore the new direction is at the heart of innovation.

Judah Pollack