Recently a Dutch TV crew came to my home for an interview about my latest research in astronomy. When I told them I get many of my new ideas in the shower, they decided to film a scene showing the shower still running and me rushing from the bathroom, dressed in a robe, to my computer.
But despite their best efforts, there was no way for them to get a visual of my ideas and where they actually come from. The same video could have been made with the previous occupant of the house who shared none of my scientific ideas. He and I happened to use the same shower, eat in the same kitchen and sleep in the same bedroom, altogether sharing the same spaces (at different times) but with very different outcomes. Where do ideas come from?
Ideas originate from pregnant minds, just as babies emerge from the bellies of their mothers. What makes a mind fertile? For one thing, it is the freedom to venture without the confines of traditional thinking or the burden of practical concerns. If a quantum system is probed too often, it tends to stay in the same state.
The same is true for the mind of an individual if it is interrupted too often by others. Immersing oneself in the trivia of common wisdom resembles reading yesterday’s news in the daily newspaper, with no prospect for making a difference. Senior researchers aim to establish echo chambers in which their voices are heard loud and clear through their group members. This is an antidote to pregnancies with new ideas. Early career scientists might not fulfill their discovery potential if they accept the limits established by their mentors. Innovation occurs when researchers deviate from group thinking or fashion.
By its nature, persistent conservatism is ultimately doomed to a culture shock. In December 2013 I gave a pedagogical lecture on the topic of “Gravitational Wave Astrophysics” to students at the 30th Jerusalem Winter School in Theoretical Physics on Early Galaxy Formation. Some 10 minutes into my lecture a young lecturer at the school who specializes in traditional astronomy raised his hand and asked: “Why are you wasting the time of these students? We all know that this field will not be of use to them in their careers.”
In September 2015, while many of the same students were still working on their PhDs, LIGO discovered gravitational waves from the black holes merger GW150914. The subsequent detection of electromagnetic counterparts to the neutron stars merger GW170817 ushered a new era of multi-messenger astronomy, and the lecturer’s prophecy was demonstrated to be officially wrong by the announcement of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics. In hindsight this blunder might not be surprising. Think about how riders of horse-drawn carriages viewed Ford's Model T car or how the executives of Encyclopedia Britannica viewed Wikipedia in its early days.
Another “anti-pregnancy pill” involves the mundane burdens of life that consume the mind with practical concerns. This explains why I tend to get ideas in the shower, because it offers me vacation time from interruptions associated with my duties as chair of an astronomy department and director of two centers. Without vacations from distractions, ideas are scarce. There are many alternatives to the shower that would offer the same fundamental benefit; vacations are sometimes defined by what they escape from more than by what they offer as a substitute.
How could we cultivate an environment that nourishes ideas? The recipe starts with creating a culture that encourages informal questioning and inquiry, tolerates mistakes and promotes innovation. For example, the Socratic method of dialogues—which encouraged critical thinking and challenged authority—led to a rich literature of insights in philosophy and ethics, and is suitable also to science. But even fertile soil cannot guarantee blossoming vegetation without seeds. How could we seed an academic environment with ideas?
Ideas often originate from dialogues in which an individual hears about a challenge and recognizes a new path for solving it. It is therefore crucial to create a space in which challenges are discussed openly and without fear, stimulating new solutions. An excellent historic example was Bell Labs, which for decades in the mid-20th century assembled creative physicists and engineers into a single corridor where their daily conversations led to radio astronomy and the discovery of the cosmic microwave background as well as inventions that include the transistor, photovoltaic cell, laser and CCD, along with many other breakthroughs. It is essential to include young people in the conversation, because they lack baggage and are willing to march into uncharted territories.
The desire to create innovative environments extends well beyond academia because it carries great financial benefits to businesses, such as Amazon, Google, Apple, Microsoft or SpaceX. Yet the most beautiful discoveries in science occur for free and are not designed by corporate boards. It is well known that if you wish to obtain a traditional result with little variance, all you need to do is assemble a large committee; this outcome is guaranteed by the central limit theorem of statistics.
Finally, a word of caution for innovators: it is not enough to plant the seeds. Once born, ideas need to be attended to and developed, for the same reason babies need to be fed in order to mature as adults. Many excellent ideas were lost due to neglect. In analogy with start-up companies, a good idea must be followed up by a feasibility study that evaluates its promise and nurtures its further growth if it appears promising. Risks are inevitable, because in the dense fog of innovation you cannot tell if you are facing a plateau, a steep hill or a cliff just a few steps ahead. But once successful, a single excellent idea could be worth the investment in a hundred failed ones. And certainly worth the full attention of a Dutch TV crew.
Socratic Wisdom: The Model of Knowledge in Plato’s Early Dialogues. Hugh Benson. Oxford University Press. 2000.
Cycles of Inventions and Discovery: Rethinking the Endless Frontier. Venkatesh Narayanamurti and Toluwalogo Odumosu. Harvard University Press. 2016.