Thursday, 27 February 2014


Being a good scientist requires an aptitude for sharp, analytical thinking, being able to critically evaluate evidence and draw sound conclusions. When I was an undergraduate student, I discovered that it also requires a lot of time. All of the time you have. In fact, more time than you have. To be a successful scientist, it seemed, I needed more than a highbrow soundtrack: I needed more hours in the day.

Fortunately, I found a way. I read that Leonardo da Vinci survived on a total of only three hours of sleep per day. He did it by taking a 30-minute nap every four hours. His brain had adjusted to accelerate and compress all of the vital sleep patterns. What a thought! A whole five extra working hours each day! I read further, and discovered that the reason hardly anyone emulates him was that it requires several weeks of painful adjustment that are virtually impossible without trained assistance. There are professional courses that provide just such training, but they are affordable only to the ranks of the richest corporate executives.

That was fine with me. If this already obscure technique was also beyond the budget of my fellow students, then all I needed was a month of iron discipline, and I could start composing my Nobel acceptance speech.

The first day was fine. I even overcame the first two novice problems, finding time to nap during a busy working day, and getting to sleep at irregular times, with one simple solution: lectures. The university lecture system is so conducive to regular napping that I wondered if it hadn't been designed to support the da Vinci sleep plan. Apart from the small embarrassment of my alarm clock going off in the middle of both Algebra and Classical Mechanics, I was well under way. I was a little drowsy as I passed through the early hours of the next morning, but I could keep myself awake by pacing my flat nutting out the opening paragraphs of my Nobel speech ("I must confess that honours and accolades mean nothing to me, but since it would be impolite to refuse this prize…").

The second day was hell. Yesterday's convenient lectures were today's torture. How could I possibly stay awake? In the morning I thought it would help to sit in the front row, where I tried valiantly to pay attention while telling myself that I just had to keep this up for a few more weeks. "Weeks?" my mind frantically asked. "No, no, don't worry, I meant days." Just a minute, did I say that aloud? In the afternoon I moved to the back. It got progressively harder as I entered the second night. I became delirious. I sat in deep mumbling discussions with myself about when I would get to sleep next, and tried to motivate myself with repeated calculations of just how much extra work time I was going to gain, and how quickly it would offset all the time I was losing right now by staring into space for hours on end. I found myself wondering things like, "Does one extra minute of nap count as a sleep-in?"

By 3am I was convinced that, although it felt like I had been sitting on my sofa staring at the opposite wall for the past 45 minutes, it was in reality a sensory illusion concocted by my desperate brain while I slept. The ensuing hours were spent in existential argument over whether or not I was truly conscious. It wasn't quite as gruelling as watching The Matrix, but it was bad enough: the plan was over.

At this point you may be wondering how anyone ever adjusts to the da Vinci sleep plan. The answer is that they don't. It doesn't work for anyone, and there are no executive training courses. I made that up, to see if you could be fooled as easily as I was.

I read about the da Vinci sleep plan in a newspaper article when I was 18. At that age I thought I was a sharp and sophisticated fellow, but I hadn't quite shaken off the childishly naive notion that the media report facts.

In the modern era of the internet, we have replaced faith in second-rate newspaper editors with the more democratic blindness of the google search ranking. Following this current research practice, I have now learnt that (a) no article on the first page of search results for "da Vinci sleep" cites any evidence that da Vinci ever followed this plan, (b) many like-minded hopeful geniuses have tried to follow it, and have almost all failed, and (c) the number of those who have succeeded, and shown a heightened level of concentration, creativity, memory retention, or any other indicator of smartypantsness, and been able to demonstrate this under reliable scientific/medical scrutiny, is not only statistically zero, but, again by the compelling evidence of one page of google search results, exactly zero.

You see, being a scientist requires a lot of time to work, but mostly it requires an aptitude for sharp, analytical thinking, and being able to critically evaluate evidence and draw sound conclusions. That's not easy, because the evidence is not always trustworthy, and the brain is easily fooled. Even when the answer is revealed, it's hard to let go of an attractive idea. To the many hopeful da Vinci's out there, none of the evidence matters. All objections to the plan's feasibility are easily countered with yet another calculation of just how fantastic it would be if it were true. This is the same reasoning that convinces people to gamble: if the potential winnings are large enough, we can replace a careful calculation of the odds by an approximate estimate of "practically certain".

You might think, in your charming innocence, that, once trained, no scientist would be fooled by such nonsense. Sadly, no. Scientists believe as much stupid baloney as anyone else. Maybe a bit less. I can believe that you are less likely to meet a scientist who moonlights as a palm reader, or claims to be able to see your aura, or thinks that your cellphone gives you cancer -- but they do exist. Trust me, they do.

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