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Posts Tagged ‘remix’

25 MAY, 2012

The Art of Chance-Opportunism in Creativity and Scientific Discovery: A 1957 Guide

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“To be perfectly original one should think much and read little, and this is impossible, for one must have read before one has learnt to think.”

What a magical Rube Goldberg machine of discovery literature is — the original “inter-net,” if you will, with the allusions, citations, and references in one work opening doors to countless others. One such Rube Goldberg chain reaction began in last month’s Dancing About Architecture: A Little Book of Creativity, which first led me to the 1939 gem A Technique for Producing Ideas, and then to The Art of Scientific Investigation (public library; public domain) — an absolutely fantastic treatise on creativity in science and, by extension, in all endeavors of the mind, originally written by Cambridge University animal pathology professor W. I. B. Beveridge in 1957. Using a wealth of anecdotes and case studies of legendary scientists and watershed discoveries, Beveridge synthesizes insights on what makes successful science. But with entire chapters exploring subjects like serendipity, intuition, and the imagination, he goes far beyond the scope of science to deliver a potent prescription for the mental techniques that best prepare us for discovery and creativity in any discipline — because, after all, as John Cleese once put it, “Creativity is not a talent. It is a way of operating.”

One recurring emphasis by Beveridge is the eclecticism of influence necessary for true originality and the idea that creativity is combining and connecting things:

Successful scientists have often been people with wide interests. Their originality may have derived from their diverse knowledge … Originality often consists in linking up ideas whose connection was not previously suspected.

[…]

Therefore reading ought not to be confined to the problem under investigation nor even to one’s own field of science, nor, indeed, to science alone.

Beveridge also repeatedly insists on method, on process over product, illustrating his point by citing a number of famous scientists. For instance, the great French physiologist Claude Bernard observed:

Good methods can teach us to develop and use to better purpose the faculties with which nature has endowed us, while poor methods may prevent us from turning them to good account. Thus the genius of inventiveness, so precious in the sciences, may be diminished or even smothered by a poor method, while a good method may increase and develop it … In biological sciences, the role of method is even more important than in the other sciences because of the complexity of the phenomena and countless sources of error.

Bernard offers validation for the idea that ignorance fuels science by observing:

It is that which we do know which is the great hindrance to our learning, not that which we do not know.

Henry Bessemer, who discovered the method of producing cheap steel, corroborated this:

I had an immense advantage over many others dealing with the problem inasmuch as I had no fixed ideas derived from long established practice to control and bias my mind, and did not suffer from the general belief that whatever is, is right.

This osmotic balance of influence — “what’s been done before” — and original thought is, as Beveridge illustrates, the central paradox of creativity. To those who deny the combinatorial nature of creativity, the poet Lord Byron quipped:

To be perfectly original one should think much and read little, and this is impossible, for one must have read before one has learnt to think.

In a chapter titled “Preparation,” Beveridge offers a solution:

The best way of meeting this dilemma is to read critically, striving to maintain independence of mind and avoid becoming conventionalized. Too much reading is a handicap mainly to people who have the wrong attitude of mind. Freshness of outlook and originality need not suffer greatly if reading is used as a stimulus to thinking and if the scientist is at the same time engaged in active research. In any case, most scientists consider that it is a more serious handicap to investigate a problem in ignorance of what is already known about it.

(Cue in Carl Sagan’s wisdom on balancing skepticism and open-mindedness.)

Francis Bacon, pioneer of the scientific method, phrased it thusly:

Read not to contradict and confute, nor to believe and take for granted … but to weigh and consider.

One particularly interesting technique Beveridge recommends in preparing the mind for originality involves index cards to create florilegia of reading materials:

Most scientists find it useful to keep a card index with brief abstracts of articles of special interest for their work. Also the preparation of these abstracts helps to impress the salient features of an article in the memory. After reading quickly through the article to get a picture of the whole, one can go back to certain parts, whose full significance is then apparent, re-read these and make notes.

Bear in mind, this is the 1950s. Yet the description and function of this method bears a striking resemblance to using a platform like Tumblr today, which lets us “clip” excerpted information onto “index cards.” To say, then, that every scientist should have a Tumblr isn’t such a terrible idea after all.

Beveridge opens a chapter on “Chance” with some timeless wisdom by Nobel-winning French bacteriologist Charles Nicolle:

Chance favors only those who know how to court her.

This, of course, is a play on Pasteur’s famous maxim, “Chance favors the prepared mind,” which Steven Johnson modified to “chance favors the connected mind” more than half a century later, in his study of where good ideas come from.

Beveridge argues that although the role of chance in discovery appears to be common knowledge, the exact magnitude of its importance is rarely realized or fully understood. He offers the following advice on reaping the benefits of chance in pursuing discovery:

Although we cannot deliberately evoke that will-o’-the-wisp, chance, we can be on the alert for it, prepare ourselves to recognize it and profit by it when it comes. Merely realizing the importance of chance may be of some help to the beginner. We need to train our powers of observation, to cultivate that attitude of mind of being constantly on the look-out for the unexpected and make a habit of examining every clue that chance presents. Discoveries are made by giving attention to the slightest clue. That aspect of the scientist’s mind which demands convincing evidence should be reserved for the proof stage of the investigation. In research, an attitude of mind is required for discovery which is different from that required for proof, for discovery and proof are distinct processes.

[…]

A good maxim for the research man is ‘look out for the unexpected.’

(And, one might argue, for the artist as well.)

Beveridge makes the case for cultivating this serendipity-opportunism through the stories of famous scientists. The influential medical educator and researcher Alan Gregg wrote:

One wonders whether the rare ability to be completely attentive to, and to profit by, Nature’s slightest deviation from the conduct expected of her is not the secret of the best research minds and one that explains why some men turn to most remarkably good advantage seemingly trivial accidents. Behind such attention lies an unremitting sensitivity.

And writing of his father, Charles Darwin’s son put it thusly:

Everybody notices as a fact an exception when it is striking and frequent, but he had a special instinct for arresting an exception. A point apparently slight and unconnected with his present work is passed over by many a man almost unconsciously with some half considered explanation, which is in fact no explanation. It was just these things that he seized on to make a start from.

(Cue in legendary graphic designer Paul Rand, who knew that the “role of the imagination is to create new meanings and to discover connections that, even if obvious, seem to escape detection.”)

Citing polymath-surgeon Sir Henry Souttar, Beveridge captures the single most important condition for cultivating a capacity for chance discovery:

It is the content of the observer’s brain, accumulated by years of work, that makes possible the moment of triumph.

(Celebrated designer Paula Scher can attest to this.)

Beveridge dives deeper:

The scientist who has an independent mind and is able to judge the evidence on its merits rather than in light of prevailing conceptions is the one most likely to be able to realize the potentialities in something really new. He also needs imagination and a good fund of knowledge, to know whether or not his observation is new and to enable him to see the possible implications.

He offers compelling historical evidence for the additive, combinatorial nature of creativity, countering the genius-myth of how creativity works:

[M]any of the classic discoveries were anticipated in this way but were not properly developed until the right man came along. Edward Jenner was not the first to inoculate people with cowpox to protect them against smallpox, William Harvey was not the first to postulate circulation of the blood, Darwin was by no means the first to suggest evolution, Columbus was not the first European to go to America, Pasteur was not the first to propound the germ theory of disease, Lister was not the first to use carbolic acid as a wound antiseptic. But these men were the ones who fully developed these ideas and forced them on a reluctant world, and most credit rightly goes to them for bringing the discoveries to fruition. It is not only new ideas that lead to discoveries. Indeed few ideas are entirely original. Usually on close study of the origin of an idea, one finds that others had suggested it or something very like it previously.

(Mark Twain spoke to this in his brilliant letter on originality to Helen Keller.)

Beveridge summarizes his insights on chance:

Interpreting the clue and realizing its possible significance requires knowledge without fixed ideas, imagination, scientific taste, and a habit of contemplating all unexplained observations.

Next week, we’ll be taking a look at Beveridge’s ideas on intuition and the imagination — stay tuned.

The Art of Scientific Investigation is available as a free download in multiple formats from The Internet Archive, but be aware the text was digitized poorly using optical character recognition and is plagued with legibility errors.

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11 MAY, 2012

Henry Miller on Originality

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“And your way, is it really your way?”

In response to yesterday’s brilliant letter from Mark Twain to Helen Keller, addressing the myth of originality, reader Skip Zilla flags this beautiful passage by Henry Miller, from the anthology Stand Still Like the Hummingbird.

Miller eloquently encapsulates the combinatorial nature of creativity and the constant borrowing and repurposing that takes place as we build upon what came before and recombine existing bits of knowledge and ideas to create what we call “our” ideas.

And your way, is it really your way?

[…]

What, moreover, can you call your own? The house you live in, the food you swallow, the clothes you wear — you neither built the house nor raised the food nor made the clothes.

[…]

The same goes for your ideas. You moved into them ready-made.

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10 MAY, 2012

Mark Twain on Plagiarism and Originality: “All Ideas Are Second-Hand”

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“The kernel, the soul — let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances — is plagiarism.”

The combinatorial nature of creativity is something I think about a great deal, so this 1903 letter Mark Twain wrote to his friend Helen Keller, found in Mark Twain’s Letters, Vol. 2 of 2, makes me nod with the manic indefatigability of a dashboard bobble-head dog. In this excerpt, Twain addresses some plagiarism charges that had been made against Keller some 11 years prior, when her short story “The Frost King” was found to be strikingly similar to Margaret Canby’s “Frost Fairies.” Heller was acquitted after an investigation, but the incident stuck with Twain and prompted him to pen the following passionate words more than a decade later, which articulate just about everything I believe to be true of combinatorial creativity and the myth of originality:

Oh, dear me, how unspeakably funny and owlishly idiotic and grotesque was that ‘plagiarism’ farce! As if there was much of anything in any human utterance, oral or written, except plagiarism! The kernel, the soul — let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances — is plagiarism. For substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily used by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them; whereas there is not a rag of originality about them anywhere except the little discoloration they get from his mental and moral calibre and his temperament, and which is revealed in characteristics of phrasing. When a great orator makes a great speech you are listening to ten centuries and ten thousand men — but we call it his speech, and really some exceedingly small portion of it is his. But not enough to signify. It is merely a Waterloo. It is Wellington’s battle, in some degree, and we call it his; but there are others that contributed. It takes a thousand men to invent a telegraph, or a steam engine, or a phonograph, or a telephone or any other important thing — and the last man gets the credit and we forget the others. He added his little mite — that is all he did. These object lessons should teach us that ninety-nine parts of all things that proceed from the intellect are plagiarisms, pure and simple; and the lesson ought to make us modest. But nothing can do that.

Steve Jobs, of course, knew this when he famously proclaimed that “creativity is just connecting things” — and Kirby Ferguson reminds us that Jobs didn’t technically invent any of the things that made him into a cultural icon, he merely perfected them to a point of genius. Still, this fear of unoriginality — and, at its extreme, plagiarism — plagues the creative ego like no other malady. No one has countered this paradox more eloquently and succinctly than Salvador Dalí:

Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing.

Letters of Note

Top image, ‘Miss Keller and Mark Twain, 1902,’ courtesy of American Foundation for the Blind

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