The popular view of scientists is that of methodical and logical individuals. The scientist evaluates the available data regarding some problem or question of importance, comes up with hypotheses, designs and carries out experiments or observations, processes the results, and comes up with answers. Indeed the scientific pursuit is often comprised of systematic, coherent, and incremental approaches to uncovering the ways of nature, but the view that this is the only way scientists operate is a simplification of the complexity of scientific thinking. Science is replete with stories of madness and passion, stubbornness and irrationality, perilous quests and hopeless struggles, and ego trips and selfless deeds. And this should not surprise anyone. Scientists are, after all, human, and as humans they are affected by the same emotions and contradictions that afflict all human beings, and they often get their ideas by the same means that most non-scientists do. One of these methods of obtaining ideas is no other than dreams. Many scientists of renown have gained inspiration for their work from dreams.
The German chemist August Kekule had been trying to figure out the structure of an organic compound called benzene. One day when he dozed off, he dreamt of carbon atoms that joined each other forming a chain. Then the chain of atoms turned into a snake, and the snake bit its tail and started spinning. Kekule woke up and realized that the structure of benzene must be cyclical as opposed to linear. This insight turned out to be true and paved the way for the creation of a new branch of chemistry (aromatic chemistry) and a better understanding of the nature of chemical bonds.
The German pharmacologist Otto Loewi had been trying to figure out how nerve signals are transmitted. One night he had a dream of how he could figure this out, and he promptly went to the lab to perform the experiment. He dissected a frog’s beating heart with the vagus nerve still attached and placed the heart in a saline solution. Loewi then proceeded to stimulate the nerve by electrical means, and this had the effect of slowing down the beating heart. He took the solution that bathed the first heart and added it to another’s frog beating heart that he had dissected with no vagus nerve attached to it, and the second heart slowed down too! Loewi had discovered a nerve signal that was released from the stimulated nerve in the first heart and which leaked out to the bathing solution. This chemical signal was still strong enough to be able to act on the second heart when the bathing solution was placed in contact with it. The chemical he discovered that day was eventually shown to be what we today call acetylcholine. Loewi received the Nobel Prize for his discovery in 1936.
The Russian Chemist Dmitri Mendeleev was trying to come up with a way to classify all the known elements according to their chemical properties. He had a dream of a table where the elements were arranged in a certain order. When he woke up he quickly wrote it down. Not only was he able to organize all the known elements, but he was able to predict that new elements would be discovered, and he listed their properties. He was eventually proven right and his discovery, the periodic table, is the pillar of modern chemistry.
The brilliant Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan made important contribution to several fields in his discipline. He was a very religious person and claimed that many of his mathematical discoveries were presented to him in dreams by the Hindu god Narasimha.
Another mathematician, the American Donald Newman, who made important advances in mathematical areas such as approximation theory, had some approaches for solving problems revealed to him in dreams where he interacted with both known and unknown people.
The British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace dreamt about the theory of evolution by natural selection while hallucinating in the middle of a bout of malaria. He is considered a codiscoverer of the theory along with Charles Darwin.
The above, of course, are just some of the big names. Many average scientists have also benefited from their treks to the land of dreams.
So how does this square with the idea that science is methodical, logical, and rigorous? The answer is that the scientific method provides a framework for testing ideas. This is the methodical, logical, and rigorous part of science. However, there is nothing in the scientific method regarding what the source of these ideas should be. Dreams, intuition, messages from God or from “beyond”, you name it. When it comes to ideas, anything is fair game for scientists. However, it is what comes after the conception of an idea that makes science what it is.
Every idea, no matter its origin, must be put to test. And the horrible little secret of science is that most ideas crash and burn when measured up to the evidence. It is great to read about a scientist like Loewi coming up with a Nobel Prize winning idea in a dream, but the truth is that stories like those of Loewi, Kekule, Mendeleev, and others are the exception rather than the rule. The vast majority of scientists experience repeatedly during their careers what the British biologist Thomas Huxley called “the tragedy of science”: the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly little fact. But despite the slain hypotheses, scientists dream on!