MORNING COFFEE 19 - eureka!

by Susan Weber

Even brilliant thinkers get flustered when they learn they’ve earned the Nobel Prize. Amartya San’s phone rang at 5 A.M. and he immediately thought “something terribly tragic” must have happened. Once the fact of his award had sunk in, he fixed himself a cup of coffee. William Sharpe thought his call was a hoax and had to check it out on CNN. Louis Ignarro dropped to the ground on a runway in Naples when a local professor with police escort met him at his plane to hand him a letter from the committee. “I was so surprised and jubilant,” Ignarro said. A recent laureate believed the call, but when he hung up he had a hard time putting on his socks.

In ancient times thinkers were riled up too when faced with consequences of their work. Archimedes, whose military devices had kept Syracuse safe from the Romans for three long years, yelled at the soldier finally sent to arrest him. The old genius was in the middle of working out a geometric puzzle in the sand and cried, “Don’t step on my circles!”

Archimedes was your classic unrelenting problem solver. In the Syracusian heyday, King Hiero II asked him to verify that the royal crown was made of pure gold. Archimedes weighed the crown, but to calculate density he’d need the volume, which was tricky to do without melting down the king’s headpiece. Next time the inventor bathed, he watched bathwater overflow the tub. He suddenly realized he could determine the crown’s volume by submerging it and measuring the water displaced. He leapt from his bath and ran naked through the streets crying, “Eureka! Eureka! (I have it! I have it!)” The principle of buoyancy was born without a Nobel to vouch for its significance. The dripping wet, ebullient scientist would have to do.

Neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky, giving a lecture in Cleveland, compared empathy to compassion. Empathy, he said, is feeling for another person’s plight. Compassion is doing something difficult and brave to solve the problem. It’s fair to say Nobel laureates exercise compassion when they answer human quandaries through their work. Like Archimedes’ catapults, grapples, and burning mirrors, their discoveries help their fellow citizens persevere.

Looking into 2018, we raise a toast to empathy and compassion around and within us. May we honor the inquisitive ones, mad naked thinkers compelled by both.

Photo by Mdf CC BY-SA 3.0