The Power of Dreams

"The Adoration of the Magi" W.Zeitler
— brass quintet and organ

 

To me one of the noteworthy themes of the Christmas story is the prominence of dreams, and how seriously they were taken. We have Joseph’s two dreams – that it was O.K. to marry Mary after all, and that he should skip town with his fledgling family and head to Egypt to escape Herod’s heinous plans. And there’s the dream of the magi telling them not to return to Herod with intel about the Infant. Neither Joseph nor the magi dismissed those dreams as merely revealing their ‘unconscious’ – instead they used those dreams to make major ‘real life’ decision.

 

We normally think of Science as being the very opposite of the ‘irrational’ realm of dreams. Yet, there are a surprising number of instances where a solution to a concrete problem of science or engineering was revealed in a dream. Here are only a few:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • Elias Howe had the intention of inventing a sewing machine. But he couldn’t figure out how to get the threads above and below the cloth to interlock. In 1845 he had a dream that cannibals were preparing to cook him and they were dancing around the fire waving their spears. Howe noticed at the head of each spear there was a small hole through the shaft, and also the up and down motion of the spears. The idea of passing the thread through the needle close to the point, not at the other end, was the insight he needed to make mechanical sewing possible.
  • The enigmatic structure of benzene (a significant constituent of petro-chemicals) stumped the chemical community in the 19th century, including German chemist Kekul´┐Ż who wrestled with the problem for years. Then, in 1865 he had a dream about snakes biting their own tails, and awoke realizing that benzene was a ring. This insight solved the problem and was an important step forward for chemistry in general.
  • In the 1950’s the problem of the structure of DNA stumped the biochemistry / genetics community. Then James Watson had a dream that he was looking down from atop a spiral staircase, and the rest, as they say, is history.

 

And that doesn’t count countless ‘daydreams’, such as young Einstein daydreaming what the world might look like if he could ride a beam of light, and devoting his waking life to solving the meaning of that reverie. Einstein’s daydream – and his willingness to devote his life to solving the meaning of his vision without concern for personal cost/benefit – that changed the world.

 

Wait – when Joseph and the magi took their dreams seriously and acted on them, they too changed the world!

 

The mp3 is here

 

The pdf of the score is here