Progress–whether cultural, scientific, political or personal–is propelled by discovery. Or so we’re told. History sometimes seems like little more than a string of paradigm-shattering revelations, one leading to the next, each bringing us a bit closer to The Truth. It’s no surprise then that we mythologize groundbreaking discoveries (and discoverers) to the extent that we do. Archimedes in the bathtub, Isaac Newton and the apple, Benjamin Franklin’s kite experiment: all of these stories are dubious in origin, apocryphal at best. But for a society founded on the Enlightenment ideals of progress and scientific innovation, the retelling of these stories is of practically liturgical importance; simultaneously affirming the power of the human mind and the mysterious, perhaps miraculous conditions that allow it to make great intellectual leaps into the future.
In this episode of Off Topic, we take a closer look at the moment of discovery, to see whether there is any truth to the Eureka myths that we hold so dear. We speak with modern day discoverers, a psychologist, and person who herself was discovered, all in an attempt to better understand how and why these things happen.
Keith Sawyer, a professor of psychology, education, and business at Washington University in St. Louis, and one of the country’s leading scientific experts on creativity, helps shed some light on the science of discovery.
Andrew Price-Smith, a professor of Political Science at Colorado College, author of Contagion and Chaos: Disease, Ecology, and National Security in the Era of Globalization, discusses a discovery he made about the role of Influenza in the outcome of World War I.
Sylvester James Gates, a theoretical physicist known for his work on supergravity, supersymmetry, and superstring theory, talks about a discovery he made in his field and the popular culture’s reductionist interpretation of it.
Martile Rowland, founder and artistic director of Opera Theatre of the Rockies, discusses her personal process of being discovered as an opera performer.