Here is an extract from an article in Scientific American.

‘Fact or Fiction? Archimedes Coined the Term "Eureka!" in the Bath’ (Biello 2006)

The famed mathematician made many important scientific contributions. Was this exclamation really one of them?

Let's begin with the story: the local tyrant contracts the ancient Greek polymath Archimedes to detect fraud in the manufacture of a golden crown. Said tyrant, name of Hiero, suspects his goldsmith of leaving out some measure of gold and replacing it with silver in a wreath dedicated to the gods. Archimedes accepts the challenge and, during a subsequent trip to the public baths, realizes that the more his body sinks into the water, the more water is displaced--making the displaced water an exact measure of his volume. Because gold weighs more than silver, he reasons that a crown mixed with silver would have to be bulkier to reach the same weight as one composed only of gold; therefore it would displace more water than its pure gold counterpart. Realizing he has hit upon a solution, the young Greek math whiz leaps out of the bath and rushes home naked crying "Eureka! Eureka!" Or, translated: "I've found it! I've found it!"

The article goes on to suggest that there is little historic truth in the story which has been changed by authors over time and that the scientific method is not even entirely accurate. However, it concludes by saying: ‘The suspect foundations of the eureka moment take nothing away from the word's ability to uniquely and concisely convey the flash of inspiration.’

It is likely that the flash of inspiration is built on the foundation of experience and time for reflection. Archimedes had probably been subconsciously mulling over the problem before the solution suddenly “jumped” out at him and he jumped out of the bath.

There are other similar stories of apparent light bulb moments of insight. One of these is of the chemist Kekulé. He had been working on the structure of benzene for some considerable time without success when he had a daydream of a snake holding its own tail. This led him to the sudden realisation that the carbon atoms in benzene were in the form of a ring.


Thinking Points

In your experience is insight a sudden step-change/lightbulb/eureka moment or something that develops more gradually?

Think about an example of a time when you had an insight. Jot down some notes:

  • Where were you?
  • Who was with you?
  • Was there a key question or statement that led to the insight? If so, what was it?
  • What was the insight?
  • How did you respond in the moment?
  • What further thoughts did you have later?
  • How did gaining that insight benefit you and others?