Etienne Klein is a research director at CEA, conducting experiments in Physics, and involved in great achievements such as Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest and highest-energy particle accelerator.
Here he tells us a colourful story about the way original ideas raise in the scientific field.
“How good ideas spurt out in the Maths & Physics fields? Well, there are many factors influencing the way we make a discovery, or generate a fresh idea: social imaginaries, chance, contacts, personal temper, brilliant mind, or even madness are crossing the road for invention. As all ingredients can play a part in this serendipitous mix, it prevents from any simple automatic approach allowing producing innovation in step: innovation process is far from following a regular cadence such as the one of the wipers!
I could provide you with a thousand of examples: well, I’m exaggerating! Let’s say I could name 20, and I will actually pick up 3 relevant examples among them.
Let’s start with the French Henri Poincaré : we commemorate these days the 100th anniversary of his death. Poincaré was a universalist scientist: mathematician, theoretical physicist, engineer, and a philosopher of science. He tells the story that, in the course of his hard work on arithmetic functions, he gets excited, multiple ideas come up, which are difficult to sort, and he can’t manage to solve the problem. Then he leaves the city where he lives, in order to participate to a running race. During the journey, he completely forgets about his algebrian issue. After a break, the moment he gets back in the omnibus, here comes the unexpected idea of completing an analogy between Fouchs functions and Euclide functions. “Even though I had no time to check, I was absolutely sure this was the clue, and indeed it was.” he will write later.
How did the Austrian Schrödinger finalize the equation which bears his name, a cornerstone in quantum theory? At the age of 38, Schrödinger reviews the thesis completed by Louis de Broglie, where it is stated for the first time that electron can behave as waves. Schrödinger is questioned: what are these waves, how do they spread? His brain gets like a boiling pot, he urges to find the equation describing the waves, but he’s stuck. So he takes a break and goes skiing with a former mistress. That’s during his stay in the mountain, and at an intimate time with his companion, that Shrodinger, famous for his rich love life, confessed to have had the revelation of the famous equation.
A few years later, English physicist Paul Dirac predicts the existence of antimatter. He understands that a particle is paired to its antiparticle: they can only appear together. Where does this idea of pair come from? His mother had actually told him a strange story when he was a child, that remained a strong souvenir: a young priest was visiting his parishioners to make acquaintance when he met a woman, mother of five pairs of twin. “Are you always having twins with your husband?” asks the priest. “No Father, sometimes I don’t get pregnant.” said the woman, as if she could not have one child at a time, but only pair of childs.
In these poetic examples of science, each scientist found his personal way to discovery, that he can further reiterate. The hardest thing is still to complete the first discovery, as no leading track exists yet.”
Though innovation path may appear serendipitous, make no mistake, innovation only connects with alert mind and seeking spirit.
“Discovery holds meaning only for the one whose mind is prepared to draw an inference, the one who has applied himself most perseveringly to the subject.” claimed Charles Goodyear.