The Eureka Moment

In science fiction, the Eureka Moment often happens at the climax of a story. The audience has been waiting for the entire film/book/episode to see how the characters are going to get out of the technological jam they’ve found themselves in: their formula for interstellar travel doesn’t work, their ship’s engines have failed, they’ve been unable to communicate with an alien species. Take your pick. There is a scientific problem, and the crew or character needs a scientific solution, which one or more of them has been working on for days, weeks, months, and/or years, only to find themselves up against seemingly unyielding technological barrier.

Just when the stakes could not be higher (they’re heading straight into the black hole, nooooo!), the protagonist has a seemingly mundane conversation with someone, or sees and everyday scene from a new angle, or is reminded of a childhood memory. This thematically relevant realization leads them to the one piece of the puzzle they had not yet understood: the key to getting out of their current predicament.

“Of course!” they say, more to themselves than anyone else, and break off the conversation that led them to their realization to race down the hallway and begin scratching frantically at a blackboard. Moments later, they have their solution, and the day is saved.

I’m writing all this to, yes, point out that the Eureka Moment in science fiction is a little bit of a cliche. Obviously, scientific breakthroughs in reality are most often the result of years of research and team work, and rarely involve someone tossing all their papers in the air and yelling “Eureka!”, then kissing the person they’ve had quite a bit of sexual tension with but to whom they’ve never verbally expressed interest.

But also. Sometimes, this is how breakthroughs work. I have to point out that there is a large helping of truth to the fictionalized eureka: realizations are often teased to the surface of consciousness because of seemingly everyday sights, old memories, and mundane conversations. These are, after all the narrative approximations of the most powerful tools we have, as people: observation, education, and each other. The Euerka Moment in fiction and real life is often also made possible by getting some new eyes on the problem: often, a puzzle’s impossibility has become a fact for a long-time solver– for someone else, a solution is well within reach.

In fact, the most objectionable part of the Eureka Moment in fiction is probably actually the part the comes right after, when the solution the protagonist has come to is easily implemented and the rest of the story resolves quickly. That, I think we can all agree, is truly the stuff of imagination.