Gut feelings don’t make obvious sense. Consider, for example, the experience of young Barbara McClintock, who would later earn a Nobel Prize in genetics. One day in 1930 she stood with a group of scientists in the cornfields around Cornell University, pondering the results of a genetics experiment. The researchers had expected that half of the corn would produce sterile pollen, but less that a third of it actually had. The difference was significant, and McClintock was so disturbed that she left the cornfield and climbed the hill to her laboratory, where she could sit alone and think.
Half an hour later, she jumped up and ran down to the field. At the top of the field she shouted, “Eureka, I have it! I have the answer! I know what this 30 percent sterility is.” Her colleagues naturally said, “Prove it.” Then she found that she had no idea how to explain her insight. Many decades later, McClintock said, “When you suddenly see the problem, something happens that you have the answer — before you are able to put it into words. It’s all done subconsciously. This happened many times to me, and I know when to take it seriously. I’m so absolutely sure I don’t talk about it, I don’t have to tell anyone about it, I’m just sure this is it.”
This feeling of knowing without being able to say how one knows is common. The French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal is famous for his aphorism “The heart has its reasons that reason cannot know.” The great nineteenth-century mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss admitted that intuition often led him, to ideas he could not immediately prove. “I have had my results for a long time; but I do not yet know how I am to arrive at them.” Claude Bernard, the founder of modern physiology, wrote that everything purposeful in scientific thinking began with feeling. “Feeling alone,” he wrote, “guides the mind.” Painter Pablo Picasso confessed to a friend, “I don’t know in advance what I am going to put on canvas any more that I decide beforehand what colors I am going to use.
Knowing in such ambiguous, inarticulate ways raises an important question. McClintock put it this way: “It had all been done fast. The answer came, and I’d run. Now I worked it out step by step — it was an intricate series of steps — and I came out with what it was.
By David Jiles