Behind many momentous scientific discoveries there seems to have been what we call an “aha moment.” Consider Sir Isaac Newton and the apple which is said to have hit him, causing Newton to hit on the notion of gravity. Consider Archimedes in his bathtub and his “Eureka” moment, which is just Greek for the German “Aha!”
Insights like these are different from those derived from problem solving. It seems that in this case, there is a sudden realization that we can explain something in a way we have never thought of before. In some cases the insight might have come almost immediately, in other cases it took years, if not decades for that lightning bolt to strike.
Consider Charles Darwin.
Darwin was invited to be part of the second voyage of the HMS Beagle. It appears it was a last minute invitation (Here I could segue into what constitutes a ‘what if” moment, but I won’t.) During his five-year long trip, Darwin spent most of his time on land, a good thing for a person prone to sickness, and a good thing for us too, as he was able to collect a lot of samples and make copious notes. This trip, which took him around the world, lasted from 27 December 1831 to 2 October 1836. Even though he was able to collect lots of data, it also appears that he was not until he was back home and reviewing his materials that the “aha!” moment came. When studying rare Galapagos mockingbirds, Darwin started considering the notion that that species changed over time. In other words, Darwin started to think of what we call “evolution.” (The mocking birds are currently part of an exhibit at the Natural History Museum in London.)
It was not until 1859 after further research and after much prodding from third parties, that Darwin finally published his famous tome “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.” It has been a bestseller ever since.
This year marks the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his famous book. These two dates are celebrated across the world, although in the United States, Darwin will have to share birthday cake with a fellow called Lincoln, who happened to have the same birth day. In Houston, activities surrounding Darwin, his work and influence will be coordinated through the Houston Darwin 2009 organization.
A host of Houston-based institutions participate, including the Houston Museum of Natural Science. We have several events lined up, including a Darwin Day Festival on February 7 and a lecture series, starting in March 2009. Come help us celebrate one of history’s most famous Aha moments.