Brain Pickings

Free Radicals: How Anarchy and Serendipity Fueled Science, from Newton to Tesla to Steve Jobs

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How Goethe fueled Tesla, why Newton pricked his own eye, and other lessons in breaking the rules of science.

What goes on at the moment of discovery? Is it a flash or a slow burn? Does it come at the end of a long day of work, or upon waking in the morning? Artists might evade explanation and just call it their “muse“, but what about scientists? Science is supposed to come from a rational source, a set of long equations or a series of dogged experiments. But the truth — to which some of history’s greatest scientists can attest — is far more irrational: Discovery is anarchy, inspiration is unexplainable, and getting that Nobel Prize might just be dumb luck.

Free Radicals: The Secret Anarchy of Science by Michael Brooks is the story of scientific rule-breakers, the men and women who experimented on themselves, had fantastic visions and unexplainable hunches, and took once-in-a-lifetime risks, all in the name of pursuing curiosity.

A corridor at Allied Chemical in 1967, by Eliot Erwitt

After the second world war, Brooks explains, scientists were suffering from an image problem. They had created the bomb, cracked the enigma machine, developed nerve gas, and performed experiments on prisoners of war. “You scientists,” declared a 1960s TV drama, “you kill half the world, and the other half can’t live without you.”

After the mad-scientist archetype had done its damage, it was time to rebrand the working scientist, clocking in from 9 to 5 in a crisp white lab coat. Indeed, for the second half of the twentieth century, scientists were perceived as subservient, rule-abiding, lab-dwellers. But for the majority of scientific history, this was simply not the case.

The charicature of Humpry Davy's laughing gas experiments, by James Gillray

Much of medical history involved scientists experimenting on themselves. Issac Newton once stuck a blunt needle, or bodkin, in his eye just so he could record what happened: “there appeared severall white darke & coloured circles… I continued to rub my eye [with the] bodkin.” In the eighteenth-century Sir Humpry Davy began a series of notorious experiments with nitrous oxide by delivering himself the first dose:

This evening… I have felt a more high degree of pleasure from breathing nitrous oxide than I ever felt from any cause whatever — a thrilling all over me most exquisitely pleasurable, I said to myself I was born to benefit the world by my great talents.

Sometimes, as with Davy, self-experimentation led to a moment of inspiration. Kary Mullins, who won the 1993 Nobel Prize for gene copy-technology, would often use LSD to create “a mind-opening experience… much more important than any courses I ever took.” Steve Jobs also called LSD “one of the two or three most important things I have done in my life.”

'The glow retreats, done is our day of toil; / It yonder hastes, new fields of life exploring…' Nikola Tesla was reciting his Goethe poem when he saw his vision of alternating current.

Some of these inspirational hallucinations were undrugged and out of the blue. Nikola Tesla famously developed the self-starting alternating current motor after walking in a Budapest park and reading a passage of Goethe, when he was struck with a vision of a rotating magnetic field. While working on the Manhattan Project, Enrico Fermi had planned to induce radioactivity by shooting a lead target with neutrons, but at the last minute switched out the lead for paraffin for no apparent reason. “It was just like that,” he wrote, “no advanced warning, no conscious, prior reasoning.” For the first time, the experiment worked.

Albert Einstein reportedly once said that the secret to creativity was knowing how to hide one’s sources. Not because they were necessarily wrong, although fudged numbers were a part of Einstein’s success, but because the sources were often times unexplainable. One Nobel Prize winner described a “feeling of guilt about suppressing the part chance and good fortune played” in the work that earned him the holy grail of scientific acclaim.

Steve Jobs on LSD: 'one of the two or three most important things I have done in my life.' The drug was popular among Silicon Valley pioneers.

“Scientific anarchy may not be beautiful,” writes Brooks, “but it gets the job done.” Free Radicals illuminates the role of the irrational in science, the mistakes that make scientists human, and reveals that breakthroughs that change our lives in the most fundamental ways may have the most serendipitous origins.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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