Have you ever been so occupied with a thought or a problem that it continues to be with you in your head, even while you are asleep? Ever woken up with a bright new idea that you conjured up while lost in the mysterious land of dreams?
We might not exactly know why we dream but history has shown many instances where taking a problem to bed has often helped a troubled mind reach an epiphany – particularly with regards to science and innovation.
The story of science is full of unexpected breakthrough moments. While some ideas that changed the world forever were stumbled upon by accident, a few were the result of simply ‘sleeping on it’!
Here are five discoveries and inventions that were conjured up by great thinkers in their dreams!
1. Kekule’s discovery of the benzene ring structure
In your Organic Chemistry lessons, you would have come across the cyclical molecular structure of benzene. It was the German chemist, Friedrich August Kekule, who discovered this structure on a cold winter night in 1865. Kekule had been trying to understand the arrangement of atoms in benzene. It was proving to be quite a challenge because its ratio of carbon and hydrogen atoms was unlike that of any other organic compound known at the time.
Kekule dozed off on his armchair while preoccupied with the problem. As he drifted into sleep, he dreamt of the atoms dancing about, arranging themselves in the form of a snake swallowing its own tail. When he woke up, Kekule had a eureka moment! The molecules of benzene are made up of rings of carbon atoms. Understanding the structure of benzene opened up an entirely new field of study – what is today called aromatic chemistry.
2. The structure of the DNA molecule
Kekule was not the only scientist whose serpentine dreams led to breakthroughs! In 1953, a young American scientist, Dr James Watson had a strange dream where two serpent-like structures were entwined together.
Inspired by the revelation, Watson went on to co-author a paper with fellow British scientist Francis Crick where they proposed the double helix structure of DNA that we all instantly recognise today. The duo was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology for their discovery in 1962.
3. Proof of nerve cells sending chemical signals
In 1903, German biologist Otto Loewi believed that human nerve cells communicate with each other via chemical signals. But he couldn’t figure out how to prove it. Seventeen long years later, the answer came to him in a dream! He woke up in the middle of the night with the revelation, and in his sleepy state, scribbled it down. But in the morning, he couldn’t remember the dream and neither could he decipher his illegible writing! As luck would have it, the next night, he dreamt of the same problem and figured out an experiment to prove it too.
Inspired by the dream, Loewi carried out research, and in 1921, he proved that nerve cells communicate across gaps called ‘synapses’ using chemical signals. In 1936, his dream won him the Nobel Prize in Physiology!
4. Mendeleev’s design of the periodic table
There have been quite a few variations of the periodic table. But the one that we all use today comes to us thanks to Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev. Like his predecessors, Mendeleev was obsessed with the properties of elements and arranging them in logical order. He made cards for each element and noted all their properties on them. After arranging and rearranging the cards for hours in many configurations, he finally went to sleep and that’s when it occurred to him. In his dream, the elements arranged themselves by atomic weights. Mendeleev wrote about his discovery: “In a dream, I saw a table where all the elements fell into place as required. Awakening, I immediately wrote it down on a piece of paper.”
Mendeleev’s periodic table was so efficient that he left gaps in it for yet-to-be-discovered elements, some of which were added several years after his death.
5. Alfred Russel Wallace’s theory of natural selection
When we think about the theory of evolution, it’s Charles Darwin who we immediately recall. But did you know that the credit to the discovery is also shared by a British naturalist named Alfred Russel Wallace? He is also the one who coined the word ‘dinosaur’. Alfred Wallace travelled to distant parts of the globe trying to figure out the connection between species separated by geographic barriers. His quest was to understand how new species are formed, but the answer remained elusive for many years. In 1858, he suffered from a fever that gave him violent dreams and hallucinations. In them, he saw the unfolding of the tale that would go on to be the basis of evolution by natural selection.
Do you know of other such discoveries and inventions that occurred as a result of a happy accident? Tell us in the comments below.
Suraj is a self-proclaimed audiophile and a jack-of-all-trades writer with a diverse set of interests. An amateur quizzer on the side, he claims that the first object he fell in love with was a book on flags at age 3. His favourite punctuation mark is the Oxford Comma, which coincidentally happens to be one of his favourite songs too!