Thought Experiments

When asked by a mother what kind of reading she should do to prepare her son to be a scientist Albert Einstein replied “Fairy tales and more fairy tales – the creative imagination is the essential element of a true scientist, and fairy tales are the childhood stimulus to this quality.”

Einstein used his imagination and his “thought experiments” to develop his ideas and concepts for his famous theories.  In one experiment he visualized what it would be like to ride on a beam of light, imagining what it would look like as he sped past a stationary object at such a speed.  He looked back at earth and saw that the light bent.  This sounds crazy, but it is the experiment he performed in his imagination, which he then back-engineered mathematically into a series of equations that would come to be known as the theory of relativity.  The important thing to note here is that he had the experience, or the journey (to use a shamanic term) and then he created the equation that explained what he found out; he made it up.  Niels Bohr also used “thought experiments” all the time and rarely even took notes.

Many scientific discoveries have occurred as the result of a visionary experience or the flash of an intuitive insight.  Nokola Tesla’s father was sure his son would follow in his footsteps by taking over the family business.  One day young Nicola became very ill with a high fever and he was not expected to survive.  Nikola said to his father that if by some chance he survived, he would not take over the family business but would instead go to school to become an engineer.  Tesla dreamed one day of harnessing the tremendous power of Niagara Falls by converting it into usable electrical energy.  One of the many things that he invented was something now called a Tesla coil.  This coil allowed for the conversion of energy derived from rushing water, via a water-powered turbine, into electrical power.  Tesla was employed by Thomas Edison after engineering school.  One day, while feeding pigeons in the park at twilight, Tesla had a vision of a vast oscillating universe that was made up of frequencies of energy.  He developed one of these frequencies that he experienced in this mystical state, harnessing the one that vibrated at 60 cycles per second.  Even though Edison’s name and his company, General Electric, are typically associated with electricity, it was actually Tesla who harnessed alternating current to power our world.

Benzene Ring was discovered by German chemist F. A. Kekulé and to use his own words:

“I turned my chair towards the fireplace and sank into a doze.  Again, the atoms that I had been pondering about were flitting before my eyes.  Smaller groups now kept modestly in the background.  My mind’s eye, sharpened by repeated visions of a similar sort, now distinguished larger structures of varying forms.   Long rows frequently rose together, all in movement, winding and turning like serpents: and see!  What was that?  One of the serpents seized its own tail and the form whirled mockingly before my eyes.  I came awake like a flash of lightning.  This time I spent the remainder of the night working out the consequences of the hypothesis.”

In other words, he went into an altered state, viewed an answer to what had been puzzling him, and upon returning to waking consensus reality spent the rest of the night making his chemical structure or equation conform to his flash of intuitive insight.  He made it up!

Many of the scientific discoveries and theories that we now consider to comprise the bedrock of scientific thought are the result of the dreams, visions, or altered states of geniuses.