Isaac Asimov's essays have been favorites of mine since I was a teenager, and while I can't claim to have read them all (he was the most prolific writer in the history of the world, if one excludes 'writers' who have computers write for them) I have read a lot. So I was excited to hear that a previously unpublished essay of his, On Creativity. And like many of his essays, this is spot on.
To summarize his conclusions, intellectual creativity (creation of startlingly new scientific ideas in particular, but not only that) tends to occur when previously unconnected ideas are examined together by a person in a conducive situation. And, he argues, a key feature of that conducive environment is the freedom to be playful, to unabashedly look foolish, to pursue ideas that don't seem likely to go anywhere with people whose expertise has no obvious connection to one's own. He implies, and it is at least as true now as when he wrote it in 1959, that the structure and strictures of science-as-a-business (including in academia) tend to discourage this. Connecting previously unconnected ideas is less likely when everyone is a specialist in her own field, not only unaware of the big ideas in other areas of science, but obligated by the strictures of specialist journals, specialist department, etc. to not wander too far afield. In the world of reputation building and publish or perish, things like playfulness, acceptance of foolishness, and exploration of uncertain goals is potentially fatal. Funding applications not only require that you know exactly where you will end up, but also that you already have a significant portion of the data needed to get there.
At previous jobs, and in previous stages of my life, I often felt (and was told) that my intellectual creativity was my greatest strength. As things now stand, I have surprisingly little space for creativity, and when I do come out with something really original, I get something along the lines of, "Huh. That's different. What about this other thing that we all know about?" So the question I must ask myself is, how (and where) can I find a place where my creativity is an asset, not only for me, but for science and the world?
Wednesday, October 22, 2014
Friday, October 03, 2014
Yesterday, two students came to my office. They asked me to help them organize a BioBlitz, a rapid assessment of what species are present, at Svanninge Bjerge, the site where I taught my field course this spring. One of these students was in that course, the other I have seen around but don't really know. I asked all the basic questions. What do you envisage? Where will you do it? When? How will it be funded? We had a good long conversation, and I offered what support I can, while making clear I may no longer be in Denmark when this all happens. They frowned. I asked, "Where did you get the idea to do this? Why do you want to?" They looked at each other. The one I don't know, smiled sheepishly. "Well, I couldn't take your course last year. And after the course, all the students who did take it made all of us who couldn't fell incredibly jealous. They talked about it endlessly, like it was everything they could ever want in a course. Like we would go to a bar and instead of whatever we were talking about, they would be all about pinning beetles. Rather than fight about it, we agreed to try to organize something similar for ourselves. And it would really be great if you could be involved." I needed a moment to focus on maintaining my composure.