Dream: Pioneer to Scientific Invention

Written By:

Engr. Md. Mobarak Hossain Polash
Assistance Professor, Dept. of EEE

Dreams are one of the most common phenomena in human life. Every human being in the earth is familiar with dreams. In every moment, billions of people have billions of dreams which have mostly no impact on dreamer’s personal life or his or her surroundings. But sometimes this uncontrolled natural event drive the history towards some most fascinating and epoch making inventions. This collected article is dedicated to those dreams and dreamers who really help the mankind to step forward into new era. The history of science is full of stories of scientists claiming a “flash of inspiration” which motivated them.

Chemical transmission of nerve impulses- Dr. Otto Loewi

“Most so called ‘intuitive’ discoveries are such associations made in the subconscious.”
Otto Loewi (1873-1961) won the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1936 for his work on the chemical transmission of nerve impulses. In 1903, Loewi had the idea that there might be a chemical transmission of the nervous impulse rather than an electrical one. He let the idea slip to the back of his mind until 17 years later he had the following dream. According to Loewi:
“The night before Easter Sunday of that year I awoke, turned on the light, and jotted down a few notes on a tiny slip of paper. Then I fell asleep again. It occurred to me at 6 o’clock in the morning that during the night I had written down something most important, but I was unable to decipher the scrawl. The next night, at 3 o’clock, the idea returned. It was the design of an experiment to determine whether or not the hypothesis of chemical transmission that I had uttered 17 years ago was correct. I got up immediately, went to the laboratory, and performed a single experiment on a frog’s heart according to the nocturnal design.”
It took Loewi a decade to carry out a decisive series of tests to satisfy his critics, but ultimately the result of his initial dream-induced experiment became the foundation for the theory of chemical transmission of the nervous impulse and led to the Nobel Prize.

Madame C.J. Walker – From Dreamer to Millionaire
Madame C.J. Walker (1867-1919) is cited by the Guinness Book of Records as the first female American self-made millionaire. Walker was an entrepreneur, philanthropist and social activist. She best sums up her rise from a childhood in the poor south to being the head of an international, multimillion dollar corporation.Madame Walker founded and built a highly successful African-American cosmetic company that made her a millionaire. Walker was suffering from a scalp infection that caused her to lose most of her hair in the 1890’s. She began experimenting with patented medicines and hair-care products. Then she had a dream that solved her problems:
“He answered my prayer, for one night I had a dream, and in that dream a big, black man appeared to me and told me what to mix up in my hair. Some of the remedy was grown in Africa, but I sent for it, mixed it, put it on my scalp, and in a few weeks my hair was coming in faster than it had ever fallen out. I tried it on my friends; it helped them. I made up my mind to begin to sell it.”

The Sewing Machine
Elias Howe (1819-1867) was trying to build a machine that would automate the process of sewing, so that it could be done more quickly. He took a regular needle with a point on one end and a hole on the other end and tried to build a machine that could manipulate the needle and thread the way a seamstress’ fingers could.It didn’t work. It was frustrating.Then he had the dream. Apparently his frustration was influencing his dreams: He dreamed that he had been captured by natives and they had ordered him to invent the machine by morning or he would be executed. He still couldn’t do it, even in his dream.His dream continued. He dreamed that it was morning, and the natives were closing in on him, thrusting their spears back and forth menacingly as they got closer to him. Now the tips of the spears were almost touching him as the natives thrust them forward.Suddenly he realized that there was something different about the spears: They had holes going through the points of the spears, from one side to the other. A hole at the point end of the spear moving back and forth, back and forth.He woke up, rushed into his shop and did just the opposite of what he had done before – something that was so “illogical” that he hadn’t thought of it in the beta waking state: He drilled a small hole in the point end of the needle instead of the back end, put thread through the hold, pushed it through the cloth, used another threat below the cloth and he had invented the sewing machine.
Mathematical Genius and Dreamer- Srinivasa Ramanujan
“Inspiration and insight for his work many times came to him in his dreams.”
Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887-1920) was one of India’s greatest mathematical geniuses. He made substantial contributions to the analytical theory of numbers and worked on elliptical functions, continued fractions, and infinite series. In 1914, he was invited to work at Cambridge University by the English mathematician G.H. Hardy who recognized his unconventional genius. He worked there for five years producing startling results and proved over 3,000 theorems in his lifetime. According to Ramanujan, a Hindu goddess, named Namakkal, would appear and present mathematical formulae which he would verify after waking. Such dreams often repeated himself and the connection with the dream world as a source for his work was constant throughout his life. Infinite series for π is one of his dreams of mathematical discovery. Ramanujan described his dreams of elliptical functions:
“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 results in elliptic integrals. They stuck to my mind. As soon as I woke up, I committed them to writing…”

Artillery Gun Leveler
In 1940, when Nazi armies were victorious everywhere, D.B. Parkinson, an engineer at Bell Labs, was designing a carded potentiometer for civilian telephones. One night, he dreamed he was on the continent, close to an allied artillery piece. The remarkable thing about this gun was that every shell it fired it nailed a German plane. Parkinson expanded on this part of his dream:
“After three or four shots one of the men in the crew smiled at me and beckoned me to come closer to the gun. When I drew near he pointed to the exposed end of the left trunnion. Mounted there was the control potentiometer of my level recorder. There was no mistaking it. It was identical this item.”
Bell Lab engineers quickly saw how Parkinson’s potentiometer could be applied to antiaircraft gun control. The M9 gun director was the practical result of Parkinson’s dream. In one week in August of 1944, the M9’s were credited with destroying 89 of 91 V-1 buzz bombs launched from the Antwerp area toward England.

Chemistry – The Periodic Table
Dimitri Mendeleyev (1834-1907) fell asleep while chamber music was being played in the next room. He understood in a dream that the basic chemical elements are all related to each other in a manner similar to the themes and phrases in music. When he awakened, he was able to write out for the first time the entire periodic table, which forms the basis of modern chemistry.
Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity
A young Albert Einstein conceived the theory of relativity in a dream. He dreamed that he was sledding down a steep mountainside, going faster and faster, approaching the speed of light, which caused the stars in his dream to change their appearance. Meditating upon that dream, Einstein eventually worked out his extraordinary scientific achievement, the principle of relativity. Einstein then had to go back, and while employing great intricacy and detail, study the math he had been able to skip during college. It took eight years to accomplish this.After years of working to figure out the general theory of relativity, the solution came to Einstein suddenly in a dream “like a giant die making an indelible impress, a huge map of the universe outlined itself in one clear vision”.
Mathematical Process
Celebrated Mathematician Henri Poincare tried day after day to discover some general method by which a whole group of equations could be solved. He related that one night he retired to rest, after thinking deeply on the problem for a long time, and on getting up the next morning discovered to his intense surprise on his table several sheets of paper on which he had worked out a complete solution to the problem.
The Structure Theory of Molecules
“Let us learn to dream!”
Friedrich August Kekulé (1829-1896) was one of the most prominent chemists and the principal founder of the theory of chemical structure. Kekulé discovered the tetravalent nature of carbon, the formation of chemical/ organic “Structure Theory”, but he did not make this breakthrough by experimentation alone. According to him, a vision of dancing atoms and molecules that led to his theory of structure, it happened while he was riding on the upper deck of a horse-drawn omnibus in London.
“I fell into a reverie, and lo, the atoms were gamboling before my eyes! Whenever, hitherto, these diminutive beings had appeared to me, they had always been in motion; but up to that time, I had never been able to discern the nature of their motion. Now, however, I saw how, frequently, two smaller atoms united to form a pair; how a larger one embraced the two smaller ones; how still larger ones kept hold of three or even four of the smaller; whilst the whole kept whirling in a giddy dance. I saw how the larger ones formed a chain, dragging the smaller ones after them, but only at the ends of the chain. This was the origin of the Structural Theory.”

The Benzene Structure
Friedrich August Kekulé had a dream that helped him discover that the Benzene molecule, unlike other known organic compounds, had a circular structure rather than a linear one. According to Kekulé:
“One of the snakes had seized hold of its own tail, and the form whirled mockingly before my eyes. As if by a flash of lightning I awoke; and this time also I spent the rest of the night in working out the consequences of the hypothesis.”
The snake seizing its own tail gave Kekulé the circular structure idea he needed to solve the Benzene problem.

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Battle Plan
Hannibal, who many described as a military genius, based his battle plans against the Romans in his dreams. Hannibal invaded Italy based on a dream. Even the idea to use elephants came to him in a dream.Hannibal prayed to pagan gods, and was told one of them would go with him on his attack in Italy. In that dream, he was told, “Do not look back.” He did, and saw a scaled dragon laying waste to orchards, towns, and villages. He asked what it was and his guide told him it was the destruction of Italy.

Subliminal Clues from Fossil Perceived In Dream
Louis Agassiz (1807-1883) was a Swiss born naturalist, zoologist, geologist, and teacher who immigrated to the US in 1846. He trained and influenced a generation of American zoologists and paleontologists and is one of the founding fathers of the modern American scientific tradition. While Agassiz was working on his vast work “Poissons Fossiles”,a list of all know fossil fish, he came across a specimen in a stone slab which he was, at first, unable to figure out. He hesitated to classify it and extract it since an incorrect approach could ruin the specimen. At that time, Agassiz reports having a dream three nights in a row in which he saw the fish in perfect original condition. The first two nights — being unprepared — he did not record his image.
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Illustration of fossil fish from Les Poissons Fossiles, Louis Agassiz, 1843. Source: Strange Science

By the third night he was ready with pen and paper, and when the fish appeared again in the dream he drew it in the dark, still half asleep. The next day he looked at his drawing which had remarkably different features from the ones he had been working out, hastened to his laboratory and extracting the fossil realized it corresponded exactly to his dream. Agassiz’ creative dream of the fossilized fish may have been induced by having perceived unconsciously a clue in the stone slab which he had ignored while awake.

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