7 Great Examples of Scientific Discoveries Made in Dreams

While we sleep, our subconscious minds continue to work on problems our conscious minds have failed to solve.

Most people who have struggled with a crossword clue know that sometimes they have found the answer easily after sleeping on the problem.

‘Sleeping on it’ has also led to major scientific discoveries, such as the seven examples below.

Discovery of the Periodic Table

Mendeleev's Periodic Table

With his long hair, his beard, and his passion for chemistry, Dmitri Mendeleev was a charismatic professor. He had his beard cut once a year.

Dmitri Mendeleev was obsessed with finding a logical way to organize the chemical elements. It had been preying on his mind for months.

In 1869 he wrote the elements’ names on cards – one element on each card. He then wrote the properties of every element on its own card.

He saw that atomic weight was important in some way, but he could not find a pattern.

Convinced that he was close to discovering something significant, Mendeleev moved the cards about for many hours until finally he fell asleep at his desk.

When he awoke, he found that his subconscious mind had done his work for him! A logical arrangement of the elements had come to him. He later wrote:

Dmitri Mendeleev“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.”

Dmitri Mendeleev, 1834 to 1907

More about Dmitri Mendeleev


Discovery of Evolution by Natural Selection

Alfred Russel WallaceAlfred Russel Wallace had traveled in Brazil and South East Asia recording the species he found, trying to understand the differences he saw when species were separated by geographical barriers.

For years he had been considering the problem of how new species could arise, but could not find the answer.

In 1858 had an extreme dream, in the shape of hallucinations caused by a tropical fever. When the fever had gone, he found that the theory of evolution by natural selection had come to him.

More about Alfred Russel Wallace


Discovery of the Structure of Benzene and Aromatic Chemistry

August KekuleAugust Kekulé had been worrying about how the atoms in benzene arranged themselves.

It was a tough problem, because the ratio of carbon and hydrogen atoms was unlike that seen in other hydrocarbon compounds.

On a cold night in 1865, he had been working on the problem in his room.

Unable to find a solution, he turned his chair to the fire and dozed.

Benzene Snake

He began dreaming of atoms dancing. Gradually the atoms arranged themselves into the shape of a snake. Then the snake turned around and bit its own tail.

The image of the snake, tail in its mouth, continued to dance before his eyes. When Kekulé awoke, he realized what the dream had been telling him:

Benzene molecules were made up of rings of carbon atoms.

Understanding these aromatic rings opened up an extremely important, completely new field of chemistry and a new understanding of chemical bonding.


Thousands of New Mathematical Ideas

Srinivasa RamanujanSrinivasa Ramanujan had negligible formal training in mathematics. He died tragically young, aged 32. In his short lifetime he produced almost 4000 proofs, identities, conjectures and equations in pure mathematics.

Although he died in 1920, the richness of his ideas and conjectures in fields such as Elliptic Functions and Number Theory – nearly all of which were correct – were ahead of his time, and continue to inspire and direct the research carried out by mathematicians today.

The Cambridge University mathematician Godfrey H. Hardy, who worked with Ramanujan, expressed the thought that if mathematicians were rated on the basis of pure talent on a scale from 0 to 100, he himself would be worthy of 25, J.E. Littlewood 30, David Hilbert 80, and Srinivasa Ramanujan 100.

Ramanujan said that the Hindu goddess Namagiri would appear in his dreams, showing him mathematical proofs, which he would write down when he awoke. He described one of his dreams as follows:

Srinivasa Ramanujan“While asleep, I had an unusual experience. There was a red screen formed by flowing blood, as it were. I was observing it. Suddenly a hand began to write on the screen. I became all attention. That hand wrote a number of elliptic integrals. They stuck to my mind. As soon as I woke up, I committed them to writing.”

Srinivasa Ramanujan, 1887 to 1920

Discovery of the Scientific Method

Rene DescartesRené Descartes built much of the framework of the modern scientific method. He wrote down this framework in his work Discourse on Method.

One of his main lines of thought was skepticism – that everything should be doubted until it could be proved.

His four main ideas for scientific progress were:

1. Never accept anything as true until all reasons for doubt can be ruled out.

2. Divide problems into as many parts as possible and necessary to provide an adequate solution.

3. Thoughts should be ordered, starting with the simplest and easiest to know, ascending little by little, and, step by step, to more complex knowledge.

4. Make enumerations so complete, and reviews so general, that nothing is omitted.

Descartes wrote that the basis of the Scientific Method came to him in dreams he had on November 10, 1619.


Proof that our Nerves Transmit Signals Chemically

Otto LoewiIn 1903 Otto Loewi had the thought that nerve signals were possibly transmitted using chemical instructions. He could not think of how he could prove his new idea.

In 1920 Loewi had a dream about the problem. He woke excitedly during the night and scribbled notes about the dream.

In the morning, he could not remember the dream, and he could not read his nocturnal notes either!

The following night, he dreamed about the problem again. The dream was about an experiment he could use to prove his idea, and this time he remembered it.

He carried out research based on his dream and published the work in 1921, establishing that signalling across synapses was indeed chemical, as he had suspected.

It might seem a little ironic that it took 17 years for subconscious thoughts to come to the surface in the man some scientists now call the father of neuroscience!

Ironic or not, in 1936 the great man was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine for the work that came to him in a dream.


The Fossil Fish

Louis AgassizLouis Agassiz was the world’s foremost expert on fish species – both current and extinct.

He had been trying to understand the structure of a fossil fish for two weeks, but could make no progress.

Agassiz’s wife wrote about how the solution came to him in the form of dreams over three nights:

He had been striving for two weeks to decipher the somewhat obscure impression of a fossil fish on the stone slab in which it was preserved.

Weary and perplexed, he put his work aside at last, and tried to dismiss it from his mind.

Shortly after, he woke one night persuaded that while asleep he had seen his fish with all the missing features perfectly restored. But when he tried to hold and make fast the image it escaped him. Nevertheless, he went early to work, thinking that on looking anew at the impression he should see something which would put him on the track of his vision.

In vain the blurred record was as blank as ever. The next night he saw the fish again, but with no more satisfactory result. When he awoke it disappeared from his memory as before.

Hoping that the same experience might be repeated, on the third night he placed a pencil and paper beside his bed before going to sleep.

Towards morning the fish reappeared in his dream, confusedly at first, but at last with such distinctness that he had no longer any doubt as to its zoological characters. Still half dreaming, in perfect darkness, he traced these characters on the sheet of paper at the bedside.

In the morning he was surprised to see in his nocturnal sketch features which he thought it impossible the fossil itself should reveal. He hastened to work, and, with his drawing as a guide, succeeded in cutting away the surface of the stone under which portions of the fish proved to be hid-

When wholly exposed it corresponded with his dream and his drawing, and he succeeded in classifying it with ease.

Summing Up

The subconscious mind is very powerful. Provided the conscious mind absorbs plenty of data while awake, the subconscious mind can process and make sense of the data while asleep. Some of the greatest scientific discoveries in history are testament to the importance of sleep and dreams in the operation of our minds.


The Universe that Understands Itself?

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Image Credit: NASA/The Doc

Once upon a time, about 200 million human lifetimes ago, a universe began. This was not just any universe. It was a universe with some very remarkable properties. Were there an infinite number of physical laws that could have been used to build a universe, or were the laws that could produce a viable universe rather restricted? How were the laws decided?

The universe that began so long ago was one in which matter and energy were interchangeable, linked by the speed of light squared; in other words, a universe in which E = mc2. It would have been a very different universe had E = mc; the universe would then be a cold, dismal place.

Stars no Stars

Had the laws of science not been exactly as they are, space would most likely look like the left side of this image, not the right.

In this remarkable universe, the speed of light was so high that a tiny amount of matter could be converted into an enormous amount of energy, an amount given by E = mc2; it would have been a very different universe if the speed of light had been the cruising speed of a snail; again, cold and dismal describes the result.

This was a universe in which tiny particles of matter were formed when an initial big-bang of expanding energy cooled; we call these particles atoms. In this universe, atoms had a property called mass, giving them a mutual attraction, which could pull them together with sufficient force to form stars, in which they would be squeezed into larger, more complicated atoms. Had this mutual attraction (we call it gravity) been half as strong as it is, the universe would not be what it is now. There would be no stars and – you guessed it – the universe would be a cold, dismal place.

The universe is, however, not cold and dismal, because stars formed. Stars have two vital roles in the universe: they assemble matter into a variety of different building blocks – the chemical elements – and produce the energy that enables these chemical elements to do interesting things.

Many stars have already died in supernova explosions, liberating the elements they have synthesized into cooler space. At more moderate temperatures than the interiors of stars, most elements don’t stand aloof from other elements. They combine with one another to produce compounds. Molecules based on carbon have a particular talent for complexity, and have acquired the ability to make copies of themselves.

The Crab Nebula

The Crab Nebula is what we can see today of a supernova in the year 1054 that ripped a star apart. Chemical elements the star had synthesized were sprayed into space, possibly to form new solar systems and even life.

One of the highly interesting things the carbon-based molecules eventually did was to assemble themselves into Albert Einstein, who discovered that E = mc2. Albert Einstein tried to understand the laws that made our universe viable. He was a small part of this universe. You, dear reader, are another.

This is a universe, therefore, whose components eventually assembled themselves in such a way that they would turn around, look at themselves, and try to understand how they and their universe had been created; a universe whose building blocks would become intelligent.

Our universe is a remarkable phenomenon.

Carl Sagan once wrote:

“We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”

Of course, he wasn’t alone in forming a hypothesis of this sort. Others had got there first. George Wald said:

“A physicist is an atom’s way of knowing about atoms.”

And before that, Niels Bohr had said:

“A physicist is just an atom’s way of looking at itself.”

Is there a reason an atom or a cosmos would want to look at itself?