To Archimedes' Bathtub

Not only has the replacement of the bath by the shower aided in the spread of Legionnaire's disease, it may well lead to a decline in inventiveness. The earliest account of scientific discovery that has come down to us is the story of Archimedes, who solved a problem in applied science (a non-destructive assay of a gold crown) while in his bath.

By | April 20, 1987

Not only has the replacement of the bath by the shower aided in the spread of Legionnaire's disease, it may well lead to a decline in inventiveness.

The earliest account of scientific discovery that has come down to us is the story of Archimedes, who solved a problem in applied science (a non-destructive assay of a gold crown) while in his bath. Whether or not the legend is true, bathers will know that the solitude and relaxation of lying in a hot bath—or a cold one during a sticky Sicilian summer—is conducive to reflection, and reflection to insight. It is certain that many a scientist has experienced a flash of insight in his or her bath.

One does not lie or sit, one does not relax, in a shower. Showers also provide constant physical stimulus, giving distraction from mental activity. In showers, one thinks less, reflects less, and then one returns to the hurly-burly of life sooner.

We might even hypothesize that the lack of intellectual progress during the Dark and Middle Ages was linked to the decline in bathing. We may extend our balneognostic theory to account for the failure of mid-2Oth century America (a shower culture) to produce topflight scientists in proportion to its population and wealth. In consequence, America has imported numerous scientists from the bath cultures of Europe and Japan.

The story of Archimedes and his principle is one of the myths and legends of our technological culture. Anthropologists hold that legends encapsulate the life of a culture and conceal statements of the fundamental postulates of that culture, but in disguise, so that interpretation is needed. Students of literature, of a structuralist persuasion, will agree, while Freudians will go a step further, believing that myths incorporate universal truths. But interpretation opens the door to misinterpretation, and also to carrying a sound inference too far, as above.

Let us consider more myths and legends of science to discover what truths they conceal and what use they serve.

Newton's Apple

The stories of Roger Bacon are more magical than scientific, and those of the Renaissance astronomers tend to the theological. The next legend of scientific importance is that of the falling apple that inspired the theory of gravity. I am at a loss to understand how this came about, unless we lack the important detail that the apple did not fall vertically. Newton was surely a man of massive intellect, but hardly that massive. However, it would be enough if he merely believed that the apple had been attracted toward him. It is not surprising that this story is classified as a myth.

A century later, we learn that Watt was inspired to invent the steam engine by observing the lid of a boiling kettle. Since Watt did not invent this engine, but merely greatly improved it, this is also a myth. A few years later Rumford laid a foundation of thermodynamics by observing that heat was generated in industrial drilling operations. A bath features here also, although it was a cannon barrel, not Rumford, in it.

We are now, even by the standards of modern education, within historical times. But the legends continue. Kekulé snoozed in an armchair before the fire, and dreamt of the worm Ourobouros, who eats his tail. Later he saw a circle of monkeys while riding atop a London bus (not, unfortunately, that well-known vehicle of ratiocination the Clapham omnibus). Luckily, Kekulé was a pre-Freudian, so he interpreted his dreams as images of the structure of benzene.

Within living memory, Fleming discovered penicillin by observing the result of the contamination of an agar plate by mould. Others might have thrown the plate away; Fleming did not and is remembered. This is merely the best known of many discoveries arising from accidental contamination.

What do these tales have in common? None of them is set in a library or office, the habitats of contemporary scientists. Only one takes place in a laboratory, one in a factory workshop. All, save one, depict the scientist in everyday human circumstances—bathing, sitting in an orchard or an armchair, or on a bus.

There is a distinct serendipity, of lateral vision, to these tales. Thousands had seen the phenomena observed, only the scientist remarked them. Some of these scientists found what they sought, but in unexpected form, all saw what they found. Those of us who engagein research will know that inspiration comes from unlikely stimuli at odd hours; these legends have the ring of truth.

To scientists, then, these stories teach that he who cannot see that which he finds shall never find that which he seeks. They preach the importance of reflection in quiet, which is needed to allow ideas to emerge from the subconscious. They tell us to abandon picking up and reading the scraps left by the paperchase of science, to stand and stare, to sit beneath a bough alone, with perhaps a jug of wine to release inhibitions, but with no book.

To the world at large these tales show the scientist as a normal human, engaged in everyday life. He may, perhaps, be a little more observant than his fellows, but we all have our failings. The scientist is not represented as that monster, the man who is always right. He is not a monomaniac working all hours in his office on abstruse theories, he is not rashly releasing plague or poison from ill-planned experiments in his laboratory. He is a man with whom one might discuss apple-growing, or how long to boil the kettle when making tea. These legends integrate science with the wider community.

For science as for other cultures, myths and legends hold essential truths and teachings. The objective truth of these stories is immaterial; their teaching is not.

The Myth Debunkers

Of late, scientific legends have come under attack, the stories of Kekulé and Fleming in particular. The mythoclasts are rationalists, men who believe that science advances by plodding hack work in large teams, step by step, with no flashes of inspiration, no serendipitous discovery. From a purely scientific view, this is a brake on progress. It is the duty of a scientist, when putting two and two together, to come up with an answer greater than four. If his theory is not greater than the sum of its parts, it is a failure. The rationalist, however, is so certain that two and two cannot be more than four that he is often willing to accept an answer of three.

Let us preserve our irrational mythology against the attacks of dull men who wish always to be right. Men who doubtless shower several times a day, but believe it unhygienic to take a bath. Men whose reading never leaves them time to sit and stare at the fire, to have visions or insight.

Above all, let us present ourselves to our fellows as their colleagues, though it means we must often admit that we do not know, that we can be mistaken in what we think we do know, that we are not totally logical. In short, let us admit to humanity.

"Simon Roman" is a scientist working in industry His address is 2 Upper Rosemary Hill, Kenilworth, Warwicks CV8 2PA, UK.

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