Doing Science by Not Doing Science

Eureka moments often happen when you are not looking for it.

Photo by Andrew George on Unsplash

“A student in Rutherford’s lab was very hard-working. Rutherford noticed it and asked one evening:

-Do you work in the mornings too?

-Yes—proudly answered the student sure he would be commended.

-But, when do you think? —amazed Rutherford.”

Ari Ben-Menahem, Historical Encyclopedia of Natural and Mathematical Sciences

I seek an apology for using a clickbaity title. Trust me. To summarize the entire article in one sentence, I couldn’t find a better headline than that.

Science has been done for thousands of years. But its unprecedented growth has been well-documented in the last three centuries.

The people who did it had a lot of “free time” in the centuries before. They could even sit beneath an apple tree, stare at nothing, and let an apple fall on their head. As if a serendipitous idea had disguised itself in the form of an apple.

But in the last couple of decades, that “free time” has come to the brink of being extinct. Thanks to the advent of technology. Scientists lack the time to do the thing they’re supposed to do. Think.

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Professors are busy bringing in funds, attending administrative meetings, and juggling with emails. Graduate students and postdocs are busy all day doing experiments, collecting data, and writing papers.

They’re thinking apparently, but they’re not thinking exactly. It looks like scientists have turned into typical knowledge workers. They all execute “tasks” and have time paucity to ponder about why these tasks are important.

Can we do groundbreaking science in this way? With this army that is overworked and exhausted? I doubt it, seriously.

The anecdote I used at the start makes sense, at least in this 21st century. If Rutherford was alive in this era of busyness in science, he might have wondered, “If these folks are hustling all day, when they’ll think, when they’ll do the exceptional science”.

Science is like an art. If you keep constantly focusing on a set of known ideas, you’re unlikely to stumble upon revolutionary ones. You need to take sabbaths from science to nurture epoch-making discoveries.

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So, take a break. From science.

Pursue a hobby that pleases you. Or socialize with the people you care about. Or go on a vacation. Or do something that doesn’t have any connection with your research.

Relinquish the administrative services and routine experiments for a few days. And let your mind wander to discover the ‘uncovered’.

You can only do “thought experiments” when you’re not doing the real ones.

Take a famous example. Example of Albert Einstein. He had a ton of hobbies when he wasn’t scribbling complex equations. Playing violins, going sailing, and replying to letters from his fans. During his days at Princeton, he used to go on long walks on a daily basis. 

One of Einstein’s quotes speaks about his attitude toward his daily life.

“Keep in mind that besides the eight hours of work, each day also has eight hours for fooling around, and then there is also Sunday”

He managed to figure out how gravity works and ushered in a new era for quantum mechanics. Became the brightest scientist of the 20th century. This couldn’t have happened without the work-life harmony that he maintained throughout his life.

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Let’s take another example. A contemporary one.

Mattias Bjoernmalm, a former research fellow at Imperial College London, wrote an eye-opening piece of advice on Science. One evening, when his experiment wasn’t working out and overworked Mattias was in despair, a postdoc reached out to him.

“‘I think, it’s time to go home and get some sleep’, said the postdoc smiling. ‘Taking a break is also hard work, you know?’”

Later on in that article, Mattias wrote and I quote—“That conversation helped me understand that exciting, novel ideas don’t come from a mind constantly under pressure. My best ideas and ‘aha’ moments almost always come after I allow my mind to relax, to drift”.    

That chit-chat changed the way Mattias perceived his work. The biomedical scientist started working smarter, not harder. And guess what? He went on to become one of Europe’s “highly promising researchers”, received ICL President’s Award, and was an invited member of the World Economic Forum expert network.

Photo by Maddy Freddie on

Great thinkers and scientists around the world have sought to take breaks. During leisure, they could explore the world. Leisure was part of their life, not a luxury.

Being an academic, I feel the same. The working culture we’ve managed to foster won’t lead us anywhere.

You can’t discover anything truly exceptional if you’re stuck in this vicious cycle. You need to get out of it, let your mind wander, and do more thought experiments than real ones.

Here I repeat. Take a break. From science. For the sake of doing it better.

If you encounter Rutherford anytime around you and are questioned, be sure to reply that you think in the evening and work in the morning. And be honest about your words.

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