Episode 10: Discovery!

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.

In this Episode…

 Sawyer headshot 2012

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.


Shane Burns, a professor of Astronomy and Cosmology in Colorado College’s Physics department, tells the story of his participation in the Supernova Cosmology Project‘s nobel-prize winning discovery.


Andrew Price-Smitha 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 Gatesa 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.

One Response to “Episode 10: Discovery!”

  1. Michael DiFranco
    August 10, 2013 at 8:33 pm #

    Thank heaven! I have often thought that it is about time someone answered the question “Is it meaningful to relate each discovery to a specific moment of insight or inspiration?” My answer, as always, would be a resounding “yes and no.” Mostly because I love the idea of an “Ahah!” moment and usually need it to remain motivated. However, as you have pointed out, that moment usually isn’t. More frequently years of diligent work as well as some serendipity and maybe synergy are essential for a significant breakthrough, unless you are writing a song or this sentence. Similarly, Stillman’s brother, did NOT think long and hard but he did solve a problem we all have with excessive media; to boot, I can’t help but laugh out loud every time I think of it. So I still say: “yes and no” and “very enjoyable episode”

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