Newton's First Law of Emotion: On Science and Feelings


By Adam Ruben

When it comes to expressing elation over a scientific discovery, Archimedes provided a tough template to match. The Greek physicist, upon discovering in the bathtub thathe overflowed an amount of liquidequal to his own volume,famously ran naked through the streets of Syracuse shouting “Eureka!”, having discovered how to displace both water and the shocked pedestrians of Syracuse.

A lot of young scientists have heard that story. It’s a valuable lesson in what scientific discovery feels like, as long as you live in an idealized and apocryphal fantasy world of trolls and unicorns and a lax stance on public nudity.

As a child, my favorite part of the story was ha ha he’s naked. But because I was a child who would someday become a scientist, I also liked the Eureka Moment and its implicit promise that, if I studied science, one day I might experience similar epiphanies.

Real science, however, as adults know, isn’t quite the romantic paroxysm of inspiration we dreamed of. There are gratifying moments in which a solution becomes clear, or an invention functions properly for the first time, but even the most successful scientist in the world doesn’t shout “Eureka!” on a daily basis.

After all, a major component of our success is reproducibility, and reproducibility is in some ways incompatible with Eureka. Part of the charm of Archimedes running naked is that it was a one-time thing—had Archimedes retested his principle, confirmed it, then streaked a second time, the Syracusians would have been like, “Um, Archimedes, you need to go see Human Resources.” (This was Syracuse, Sicily, of course.  If it were Syracuse, New York, Archimedes’ excursion would not only have resulted in him freezing to death, but also successfully pledging a fraternity.)

It’s a little disappointing to learn, for the first time, that you’re not going to regularly scream with joy. You may adore your work, and you may find it fascinating, but when it comes to a scientist’s emotional journey of discovery, pure elation usually ranks behind frustration, confusion, defeat, sleepiness, and the broadly neutral feeling that overlays most areas of our lives anyway.

Some may call this a good thing. After all, we’re meant to conduct our work without the bias that can come from emotional attachment; a scientist too enamored of success may start ignoring the realistic frequency of failure. Nor is ours the only profession whose inherent glamor is overestimated. Trial attorneys spend a tiny fraction of their time shouting “Objection!” and most of their time researching and writing. Poetry professors rarely expand young minds by encouraging students to stand on their desks and rip textbooks in half; more often they’re just grading bad poetry. 

Maybe it’s okay, then, that our true Eureka is more nuanced. It’s not Archimedes’ “Eureka!  I have discovered it!”, but rather, “Eureka, for the moment, and I’m going to check a couple more times, and if it’s still somewhat Eurekish, then excellent, I have the basis for a short paper. So that’s a productive few months.”

It’s also good that we keep our clothes on.