The Breakthrough Mindset - 2 minute read

Often the key to achieving a breakthrough is giving yourself the permission to assume something is true, or to assume something is possible, even if you do not have proof. Einstein achieved his first breakthrough by assuming the speed of light was constant and that Maxwell's four laws of electromagnetism were true. 

Or consider Fred Hoyle. Hoyle was an English astronomer in the late 1940's when he helped solve a very thorny problem, the beryllium bottleneck. 

Inside stars, hydrogen atoms fuse together to make helium. Helium atoms then fuse together to make beryllium. The problem is that this particular type of beryllium exists for only one quintillionth of a second. As far as scientists could tell stars should just burn themselves out. They should go from hydrogen to helium to beryllium and then darkness.  What could possibly happen in one quintillionth of a second to stop the beryllium from disappearing?

Hoyle noted that if one more helium atom fused with the beryllium it would create carbon-12. Carbon-12 is the most abundant carbon isotope in the universe. However, the statistical probability of the proper energy level existing to create carbon-12 is miniscule. Add to that that even if the proper energy level did exist it had to happen in one quintillionth of a second.

Why even bother looking? Vegas bookmakers would never take this bet.

This is where Hoyle's breakthrough mindset came in. Hoyle said to himself, "Well, I exist. The sun exists. And carbon-12 is abundant in the universe. So regardless of the statistical improbability of this process occurring, I'm going to assume it works." Armed with this assumption he he tried his theory out. he calculated the necessary energies and spins of the atoms for the stars to produce carbon-12. Later experiments proved Hoyle's theory correct. 

The strange reality of our existence is this, in one quintillionth of a second, against all odds, the right conditions exist to turn beryllium into carbon-12 and keep our sun burning. Like many breakthrough ideas this seems impossible. One part of the breakthrough mindset is suspending your disbelief long enough to give things a go.

Judah Pollack