Is there a word for a solution arrived at by subconscious means?
February 19, 2005 2:15 AM   Subscribe

Is there a word or concise phrase in any language that means "to walk away from a problem, and return to it later with the solution immediately obvious"? Also, if there's a word or phrase (again, in any tongue) that means "the unquestionably perfect solution, so right that there can be no better answer," I'd like to know that as well.
posted by melissa may to Writing & Language (31 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
QED. In a mathematical sense, it is the cap to a proof. QED doesn't say there isn't a better answer, but is usually added to elegant proofs, which are usually "ideal", "efficient", or "beautiful" solutions.
posted by AlexReynolds at 2:55 AM on February 19, 2005

can't think of anything for the 1st question, but "ultimate" or "ideal" answer would do for the 2nd
posted by pyramid termite at 3:32 AM on February 19, 2005

AlexReynolds, QED just means "quad erat demonstrandum", that is, "what we were showing". All it says is that you're at the end of a proof, not that it's particularly elegant or worthy. You may have seen it correlate highly with elegant proofs, but that's mostly because we don't go around showing people the ugly ones.

Sorry I can't help with the question.
posted by gleuschk at 4:45 AM on February 19, 2005

IIRC, QED translates to, "which is to be demonstrated". In other words, a proof that is evidently correct, but has not been actually tested.

For the first question, "sleep on it" heads off in that direction, but doesn't actually get there.

For the second question, doesn't "perfect solution" do it?
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:48 AM on February 19, 2005

QED, when used in non-scientific writing, usually means roughly: "see, of course I'm right." So I'm with AR on this.
posted by CunningLinguist at 5:19 AM on February 19, 2005

I think people use "Eureka!" for solutions that come to you suddenly when you aren't thinking about them. Or the Eureka effect or phenomenon, when describing solutions that come in such a flash of inspiration that "inspired solution" isn't enough.
posted by donkeymon at 5:28 AM on February 19, 2005

Second question: Optimal?
posted by box at 5:38 AM on February 19, 2005

I thought "eureka" literally means "I found it."
posted by fixedgear at 5:45 AM on February 19, 2005

QED is not "which is to be demonstrated," but "which was to be demonstrated." Erat, not est. We've now shown what we set off saying we would show.

And I think I know quite well what you're talking about. A eureka moment isn't really quite right, since there's never a flash of inspiration exactly. You just sit down and look at the problem again and wonder how you ever weren't able to solve it before. Less "aha!" and more "oh, of course." At least, that's what I, a grad student who still does many problem sets a week, think you're talking about. Unfortunately, I've always used a sentence to describe it.

On preview: I second optimal, with the caveat that it definitely makes one ask "optimized how?"
posted by Schismatic at 5:50 AM on February 19, 2005

Psychologists call the "Aha!" moment in problem solving "Insight" and the process of walking away only to have an answer pop into your head when you're not expecting it "Incubation." An Intro Psych or Cognitive Psych textbook will have details. Some famous Googleable examples of insight problems are Luchins Water Jug Problem and Duncker's candle problem.

Here's an intro to insight learning.

If you want to read some stuffy articles on icubation check these out
posted by i love cheese at 6:38 AM on February 19, 2005

box and schismatic have the second one right: "optimal" works. In mathematics, "optimization" refers to the task of finding an extremum of a function -- either its minimum or maximum. This is pretty much the definition of "so right that there can be no better answer".
posted by casu marzu at 6:42 AM on February 19, 2005

I second "sleep on it" for the first question.

As for the second question, my impression is that Melissa was looking for something somewhat less literal than "optimal" or even "QED" (please correct me if I'm wrong, Melissa!). Something with the force of a revelation or a moment of clarity - not just the best answer, but the one that is intuitively, transparently correct. Hmmmmmm.....
posted by googly at 7:10 AM on February 19, 2005

A good idiom for a perfect solution is "the cat's ass."

As in, "peanut butter is the cat's ass for getting gum out of hair."

Obviously, not useful for a business proposal or academic paper.
posted by thejimp at 8:46 AM on February 19, 2005

epiphany works for me.
posted by SPrintF at 9:12 AM on February 19, 2005

WikiPedia: "Eureka is a common interjection to usually express the triumphant discovery of a significant scientific or intellectual fact."

It's a quote from when Archimedes discovered bouyancy. (As explained in cute cartoon form.)
posted by kirkaracha at 9:13 AM on February 19, 2005

In French, the term for thinking of the absolutely perfect comeback as you are walking away is l'ésprit de l'éscalier - staircase wit. It makes me have a mental picture of walking away up the stairs from an argument at the bottom of the stairs, and thinking of something terribly clever on the way up, and smacking oneself on the head ...
posted by librarina at 9:31 AM on February 19, 2005

Stepping outside the realm of math and logic for a moment (since your keywords are simply "subconscious" and "problemsolving"), there is an expression for when the perfect riposte pops into your head as you're going down the stairs after the party: "l'esprit d'escaliers." I have no idea of the actual scope of the idiom in French...
posted by bricoleur at 9:37 AM on February 19, 2005

I would submit the phrase "self-evident" fo the second
posted by zwemer at 9:41 AM on February 19, 2005

It makes me have a mental picture of walking away up the stairs from an argument at the bottom of the stairs, and thinking of something terribly clever on the way up, and smacking oneself on the head

Actually, you're walking down from the apartment where the party was in which you could have used the bon mot had you thought of it.
posted by kindall at 9:53 AM on February 19, 2005

Shoot, I'll suggest "duhreka".
posted by 23skidoo at 10:27 AM on February 19, 2005

epiphany works for me.


"A comprehension or perception of reality by means of a sudden intuitive realization: “I experienced an epiphany, a spiritual flash that would change the way I viewed myself” (Frank Maier)."
posted by ludwig_van at 12:30 PM on February 19, 2005

Can't think of a word, but here's a collection of scientific examples for the first (Kekule came to my mind, and I found this by googling him).
posted by languagehat at 12:44 PM on February 19, 2005

Milan Kundera talks about lítost in Czech. It's a fusion of self-pity, regret and fear. I never really cottoned on to the word but thought I'd bring it up.

There's also a Russian expresssion for 'great' that sounds like patricide.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 1:39 PM on February 19, 2005

Thank you all so much. I'm thinking too of the Latin root of inspiration, inspirare, the literal "to be breathed into" that suggests being filled with knowledge as if from a divine source. All of which sounds very grand for discovering a 7-letter play in Scrabble from a collection of badly matched tiles after one has returned from a trip to the bathroom, but I guess we all can't be Archimedes.

Really, I guess the distinction I'm badly trying to parse is that some inspiration is truly creative and distinctive, whereas some seem manifestly more mechanical. The aha moment i love cheese mentions is helpful, and perhaps l'esprit d'escaliers comes closest to the small, elegant, subconscious realizations I've particularly got in mind. Ultimately, small-scale epiphanies are still epiphanies, but I wish the Germans would come up with some nice compound for the Scrabble sorts anyway.
posted by melissa may at 2:28 PM on February 19, 2005

English doesn't seem handy for condensing both the "eureka" moment, and the fact that it is a revisiting. Since you said any language, I nominate German. Weidereinblick (Again insight), Rückholentdeckung (Return discovery).

I like Duhreka too, with the corollary D'ohreka - a solution borne of a clumsy error (there are plenty of scientific examples for that one).
posted by Jack Karaoke at 2:32 PM on February 19, 2005

I usually say "It'll come to me."

I always thought QED meant "Quite Easily Done."

posted by scarabic at 3:32 PM on February 19, 2005

l'ésprit de l'éscalier...

Uh. Was there a wave of esprit? Did I catch the trailing edge, as is my wont? Right behind you, librarina.
posted by bricoleur at 3:50 PM on February 19, 2005

"QED?" said Russell.
"It's Latin," said Morgan. "It means, `So there you bastard'."
Robert Rankin, Nostradamus Ate My Hamster
posted by gentle at 5:51 PM on February 19, 2005 [1 favorite]

it's possible to have an epiphany without having walked away from the problem ... or even being aware you were solving one ... so i don't think that's quite right

might i suggest l'ésprit de le laboratoire?
posted by pyramid termite at 9:27 PM on February 19, 2005

For the second question, I like ne plus ultra, but then again, I like Latin.
posted by ikkyu2 at 2:43 AM on February 20, 2005

Aside, on QED: 'as was to be proven' was what my favorite math profs told me. Close enough to the meanings others have provided, but more euphonious, perhaps.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 3:15 AM on February 20, 2005

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