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Agassiz's Fish

Dreamed ca. 1840 by Louis Agassiz

Louis Agassiz (1807-1883) was a Swiss-born naturalist, zoologist, geologist, and teacher who emigrated to the US in 1846. He trained and influenced a generation of American zoologists and paleontologists and is one of the founding fathers of the modern American scientific tradition. Later generations have named everything from mountain peaks to deep-sea features in his honor. Illustration of fossil fish from Les Poissons Fossiles, Louis Agassiz, 1843. Source: Strange Science

While Agassiz was working on his vast work "Poissons Fossiles", a list of all known fossil fish, he came across a specimen mostly hidden inside a stone slab. He was unsure of its structure and therefore hesitant to try extracting it, since the wrong approach could ruin the specimen.

Here's his wife's account of what happened next:

"Weary and perplexed, be put his work aside at last, and tried to dismiss it from his mind. Shortly after, he waked one night persuaded that while asleep he had seen his fish with all the missing features perfectly restored. But when be tried to hold and make fast the image it escaped him. Nevertheless, he went early to the Jardin des Plantes, thinking that on looking anew at the impression he should see something which would put him on the track of his vision. In vain--the blurred record was as blank as ever.

"The next night he saw the fish again, but with no more satisfactory result. When he awoke it disappeared from his memory as before. Hoping that the same experience might be repeated, on the third night he placed a pencil and paper beside his bed before going to sleep.

"Accordingly, towards morning the fish reappeared in his dream, confusedly at first, but at last with such distinctness that he had no longer any doubt as to its zoological characters. Still half dreaming, in perfect darkness, he traced these characters on the sheet of paper at his bedside. In the morning he was surprised to see in his nocturnal sketch features which he thought it impossible the fossil itself should reveal. He hastened to the Jardin des Plantes, and, with his drawing as a guide, succeeded in chiselling away the surface of the stone under which portions of the fish proved to be hidden. When wholly exposed it corresponded with his dream and his drawing, and he succeeded in classifying it with ease."

Did Agassiz's dream merely extrapolate from the visible parts of the fossil more intelligently than his conscious mind, or had his unconscious noticed additional clues in the slab that his conscious mind had overlooked?


Mme Agassiz's account of the three dreams is from John Bigelow's The Mystery of Sleep; the framing narrative is Nikola Tesla's, from an interview in "Tesla, The Modern Sorcerer" by Daniel Blair Stewart


This dream-account is brief and secondhand, but I've included it (and other dream-inspired scientific and technical innovations) to counter a myth I've run across among dream-skeptics. It goes like this:

Dream-thinking just isn't scientific. The only example you ever hear of is Kekulé and the benzene ring, and he didn't really dream that; it was just a daydream on the bus.
Now Kekulé's account of his "dreams" is admittedly florid and imprecise; it's not clear if he slept or was just in a deep reverie (though he later called these "dreams" and surely he ought to know best). But in many other cases, there is no such uncertainty. Agassiz's dream, Loewi's dream proposing a way to prove nerve impulses are transmitted chemically, Howe's dream leading to the modern sewing machine, Einstein's dream of sledding near the speed of light, Ramanujan's mathematical dreams, Parkinson's dream of the M9 fire-controller that turned the tide against the Luftwaffe--all these and more show dreams to be just as useful in science and technology as they unquestionably are in the arts and humanities. But these stories aren't well known at all.

Culturally, hard scientists don't talk much about the sources of one's ideas, particularly if those sources have any taint of mysticism. The scientific method theoretically has no problems with hypotheses coming from dreams (or dice, or the Tooth Fairy)--what makes it science is testing, and scientists quite naturally focus on whether hypotheses pan out. Theoretically, at least. But blabbing about dreams won't win you any grants!

In contrast, in the arts there's a distinct cachet to claims like "That song/story/image came to me in a dream; I'm just channeling some mysterious spirit." If anything, it may boost sales and funding.

So this notion that dreams are soft, squishy, inappropriate for science and serious research may be driven by differences in reporting, driven in turn by economics! But don't confuse talk with behavior. I've seen no evidence that intuition and dreams play less of a role in science.

But don't worry. If your department head asks, we haven't had this little chat. You were never here.

--Chris Wayan

LISTS AND LINKS: fish - bones - work - creative process - labs & research - museums - archeology & paleontology - science in general - dreamwork - subliminal dreams - apparent ESP in dreams - tour the Agassiz Basin on Siphonia, an Earth drained of 90% of its water... or the land of Agassiz on Abyssia, where deep is high and high is deep

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