How I Learned About That Little Light Bulb In Your Head


I think it was in some science course or other that I first heard the saying that "chance favors the prepared mind." It's one of my favorites; it makes a lot of sense.

What it means, of course, is that ideas don't just pop into our heads out of nowhere. We get ideas because we have a need for them at the moment, which causes us to see the world in a more analytical light than usual.

Take Archimedes, for example, who is considered by many to have been the greatest scientist who ever lived. One day he was given a challenge by the King, who suspected that his crown, which was supposed to be made of pure gold, was a fake, a mixture of gold and some other, cheaper, metal.

The trouble was that no one knew of a way to tell whether it was or wasn't pure gold, and so the King had a problem.

He asked Archimedes to solve it.

Back in the days when that challenge was placed upon Archimedes, 373 years before the birth of Christ, science was, to say the least, primitive. The chances of anyone finding a workable method of testing gold for purity were mighty slim.

Nevertheless, Archimedes came up with an idea, tested it, and discovered a method of determining one of the important properties of materials, a method still in use today.

Where did he find it?

In a rather unlikely place. He was lying in his bathtub, presumably thinking about his problem, when something he noticed gave him an idea. Maybe he was scouting around in the water for the soap -- if they had soap bars back in those days. Maybe he was trying to float a toy sailboat made out of a wood chip and a leaf as so many of us have.

Maybe some water just slopped over the edge of the tub.

We don't know what he noticed. He never said, but he must have noticed something because stark naked and dripping wet he leapt up out of the tub and ran out into the street.

"Eureka!" he screamed. "Eureka!"

Eureka is Greek for, "I found it!"

Now if you or I were to leap out of the tub and run out into the street stark naked, dripping wet, and yelling, "I found it," we would end up in a little rubber room waiting for a relative to come claim us. But old Archimedes got away with it, times being what they were.

Apparently he had realized that when an object is placed in water it displaces an amount of water equal to its volume, and thinking about that he must also have suspected that objects made of differing elements, such as gold, or silver, or copper, had different volume-to-weight ratios.

Anyway, he tried out his idea, it proved to be correct, and his problem was solved. All he had to do, you see, was take an object of pure gold that weighed exactly as much as the King's crown, put it in water, and see how much water it displaced.

Then, by putting the King's crown in water, he could see how much water it displaced. If the crown was pure gold it would displace the same amount of water as an equal weight of pure gold.

It didn't. Case closed.

I once had an idea when I was in the bathtub. And I, too, yelled as I leapt up out of the water.

The idea was: Don't fall asleep in a hot tub and wake up when the water temperature has dropped to four below zero. I don't know if my mind was prepared for that idea or not. My body sure wasn't.

I also once had another idea, one that actually lit up a light bulb in my head. Really! I'm not kidding! I had read that you could hear through your teeth, and that you could prove it by holding a phonograph needle between your teeth and putting it against a record. Trouble was, I couldn't get that danged little needle to stay still between my teeth.

Then I noticed that the needle in the arm of my old record player was held there by a small bolt with a knurled knob.

"Well," I told myself, "if I clamp my teeth onto that bolt it'll be the same as holding the needle between my teeth."

It might even work. I don't know. I never found out. What I did find out was that if you clamp down on one of the old AC-DC appliances with your teeth you'll discover that your teeth conducts 110 volts with no difficulty at all.

And you'll see a beautiful picture of a 2,000-watt light bulb, accompanied by lightning flashes and the screams of a 15-year-old idiot yelling in what could very well be Greek. "Oh yeah!"

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