Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The final coordination

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The scientist’s temporary relief from constant dissatisfaction with his own accomplishment comes with those interludes in which he projects his technical and theoretical training into a problem of practical application…It is an erroneous impression, fostered by sensational popular biography, that scientific discovery is often made by inspiration—a sort of coup de foudre—from on high. This is rarely the case. Even Archimedes’ sudden inspiration in the bathtub; Newton’s experience in the apple orchard; Descartes’s geometrical discoveries in his bed; Darwin’s flash of lucidity on reading a passage in Malthus; Kekulé’s vision of the closed carbon ring which came to him on top of a London bus; and Einstein’s brilliant solution of the Michelson puzzle in the patent office in Berne, were not messages out of the blue. They were the final coordinations by minds of genius of innumerable accumulated facts and impressions which lesser men could grasp only in their uncorrelated isolation, but which—by them—were seen in entirety and integrated into general principles. The scientist takes off from the manifold observations of predecessors, and shows his intelligence, if any, by his ability to discriminate between the important and the negligible, by selecting here and there the significant stepping-stones that will lead across the difficulties to new understanding. The one who places the last stone and steps across to the terra firma of accomplished discovery gets all the credit. Only the initiated know and honor those whose patient integrity and devotion to exact observation have made the last step possible.

Hans Zinsser, As I Remember Him

Written by nevalalee

May 20, 2018 at 7:30 am

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