Monday, October 14, 2013

Birth, death, resurgence (and death again) of an idea

One might think that only few great scientists are blessed with those “eureka” moments when, all in a sudden, a great discovery is standing just before their gleaming eyes, so clear and obvious that it cannot be wrong. In my experience, this expectation is very far from reality.

I think that many, if not all, people working on intellectual activities can experience the same feverish excitement that hit Archimedes in its tub. And they actually do so on a regular basis!

The thing is, the relevance of any scientific achievement is very personal and it is proportional to the effort one has put to reach it. No matter whether such achievement would be universally important or not, it will anyway be so for its discoverer. Only great scientists have the privilege to feel such excitement for great discoveries, but most scientists would anyway feel exactly the same emotion after solving much humbler problems, simply because they finally overcome some long-standing intellectual challenge.

There is another big difference between great discoveries and those made by the “scientist of the street”. The former can last forever whereas the latter hardly survive overnight. Furthermore, because Science is sadistic, the more relevant the discovery appeared at the beginning, the shorter the time it will survive. Therefore, although any scientist can feel the birth of her/his own ideas – whatever small its intrinsic impact might be – it is also true that most of us have also to face the frustration of seeing that idea dying as quickly as it was born. I like to believe the same happens to great scientists as well.

Sometimes this process repeats itself continuously, each new idea being accompanied by more mistrustful joy and its possible death being followed by less sorrow. I consider myself lucky in this respect, because I can easily get over-excited after having some new idea (if not in front of a computer, this usually happens on the way back walking from work, so my humble suggestion is to leave your car in the garage) but I don't feel particularly sad when such idea turns out to be completely wrong, as it happens most of the times.

Actually, I think this experience is common to the majority of my colleagues and it is truly fortunate that the excitement following some potential new idea largely overcomes the almost-unavoidable letdown for its failure. After all, I believe, such feeling is the real thrust of the scientific process, the reward any scientist is intimately working for.

The one above is my own contribution to the outreach project "Birth of Ideas", created by Ana Sousa and Vitor Cardoso. If you have an interesting anecdote to tell, please read the instructions and submit your contribution!
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