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You probably don't take too much time out of your day to stop and think about how important the chemical benzene is to your life, but it did revolutionize the production of things like cars, rubber, fuel, leather clothing, and other items that Fonzie couldn't do without. Benzene also served as a primary component of explosives during World War I. It's used for everything, is what we're saying, so figuring out how to make it was kind of a big deal.
"We tried replacing it with meth, but that just barely worked."
That brings us to Friedrich August Kekule von Stradonitz, who in the mid-1800s was the closest thing that science had to a rock star. Some would attribute this to his ridiculously pretentious-sounding name, while others would probably point to his discovery of the founding principles of chemical structure, a discovery that was very much the "Stairway to Heaven" of its day.
Seen here in a rare moment of not banging science groupies and snorting science cocaine.
Kekule was looking for his next big challenge: For several years, scientists had been trying to crack the molecular structure of benzene because, again, they were pretty sure it could change the world. However, every configuration of molecules that they tried didn't work for a variety of science reasons, a problem that Kekule soon ran into during his own experiments. That is, until he had help from a dream about motherfucking snakes.
Exhausted from having every avenue of inquiry ironically hampered by the laws of chemical structure that he had invented years earlier, Kekule decided to have himself a fireside nap. Once asleep, he had a dream in which he was surrounded by snakes that formed themselves into hexagons, which he realized upon waking was the shape of the benzene molecule he was trying desperately to crack.
Wait, dreams about being surrounded by snakes? Meth was definitely involved in this.
Legend has it that after Kekule woke, he worked through the night to successfully recreate what he'd witnessed, presumably spending the whole time trying to tie a bunch of garden snakes together. Or maybe he just didn't want to fall asleep and have more snake nightmares. Either way, it worked.
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You hopefully know the name Rene Descartes, but maybe don't remember exactly what he's responsible for. The Cartesian coordinate system you learned in school (and likely never used again) is named after him, and he's the guy who said "I think, therefore, I am." But he's also credited with the formulation of the scientific method. At a time when scientific inquiry was best described as "burn anyone who tries to prove you wrong," Descartes found a better way, one that relied on reason instead of guesswork and threats. This would be one of the big reasons modern civilization exists.
"... and after we invent air conditioning and Xboxes, we can always go back to burning people."
What's more, Descartes recounted that he thought the whole thing up after a series of wack-ass dreams (he didn't use the phrase "wack-ass," but he might have used the 17th century equivalent). In the dreams, he found himself caught inside a vicious whirlwind. And, if that wasn't bad enough, he was also being pursued by a group of ghosts. And he was having a wicked craving for exotic types of melon (we assume he went to bed while hungry for melon).
Descartes had to wait in a ghost-filled melon-craving purgatory until the winds died down and he was taken into a room that kept trying to set him on fire with red-hot sparks and deafen him with near-constant thunderclaps. Somehow, he escaped this torture den and found himself inside a peaceful, still room with only a book for company (this is still in the dream, mind you). Descartes opened the book and read a single line: "Quod vitae sectabor iter" ("What path shall I take in life?"). Then a man appeared next to him and spoke "Est et non" ("Yes and no"). The man and the book then disappeared, leaving Descartes to think about how utterly unhelpful that answer was.
"Sorry, but death turns you into kind of a dooooouche ..."
But Descartes believed that this dream had been communicated to him by God himself, and what was more, he knew what it meant: that he was to try to reinvent the way humans think about the universe. To that end, he went on a pilgrimage and dedicated the rest of his life to figuring out the principles of science. We never found out if he ever got that melon.
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Related Reading: The power of dreams doesn't stop here. This article will show you all the crazy ways dreams influence reality -- did you know that Republicans have more nightmares than Democrats? And if you're more interested in hacking your dreams, Chris Bucholz can help you gain control over your subconscious. Still itching for more ways to master your dreams? Consider this article your shopping list.