When I talk to students, I sometimes advise them, “Follow your curiosity and do things that keep you awake at night.”
Most of us know people who’ve pulled all-nighters in pursuit of a discovery — whether the discovery involved a scientific experiment, a search through a library archive, or a creative endeavor in art, performance or music.
The pursuit of discoveries keeps us up at night because discoveries have the power to change our conception of the world. Many truths trace their roots to a person or group that observed an experimental result that didn’t fit with the existing paradigm. Rather than succumbing to self-doubt, these individuals repeated experiments, explored every hypothesis, and spent many a late night until they confirmed they had indeed discovered something new. And then they had to convince the world.
Discoveries often take years to gain acceptance. Galileo’s confirmation that the Earth travels around the Sun did not happen overnight but rather built on precedents from Copernicus and the ancient Greeks. Charles Darwin gathered data for decades before finally publishing his theory of evolution. The Austrian physicist Ludwig Boltzmann in the late 19th century brilliantly connected the world of atoms and molecules to the tangible, continuum world of our everyday experience, at a time when the very existence of atoms was the subject of heated controversy.
Yet once acceptance occurs, it becomes hard to imagine any other paradigm. When Princeton psychology researcher and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, the Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology, Emeritus, and a professor of psychology and public affairs, emeritus, demonstrated that humans are not always rational actors when it comes to decision making, the discovery confounded economists. Today, knowledge of behavioral science is considered essential for public policymaking.
In these pages, you’ll read about many discoveries, big and small, in the natural sciences, engineering, social sciences and the humanities. For many discoveries, it is too soon to tell what the impact will be. But they all have the potential to inspire us to create, dream, resist doubting our ideas, and do something that we don’t mind losing a night of sleep over. I hope that this issue of Discovery: Research at Princeton inspires you to do things that keep you up at night.
Dean for Research
Class of 1950 Professor in Engineering and Applied Science
Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering