Brain Pickings

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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How We Measure the Universe, Animated

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How to determine the distance of stars using standard candles.

Somewhere between Fibonacci’s invention of arithmetic, which changed the world of numbers as we know it, and scientists’ ambitious visualizations of the scale of the universe lies a daunting fundamental question: How do we actually use these numbers to measure the universe? That’s precisely what the Royal Observatory Greenwich answers in this wonderful short animation, a teaser for a new exhibition titled Measuring the Universe: from the transit of Venus to the edge of the cosmos.

In a nod to this morning’s affirmation of the additive nature of scientific discovery, narrator Dr. Olivia Johnson observes:

What’s most incredible to me is how all these measurements build on each other. It’s only by knowing the scale of our Solar System — the distance between the Earth and Sun — that we’re able to measure the distances to nearby stars using parallax.

The charming animation was done by Robert Milne, Ross Phillips, and Kwok Fung Lam.

Laughing Squid

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Gonzo: A Graphic Biography of Hunter S. Thompson

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Fear and loathing in six panels.

The past few years have given us some stellar graphic nonfiction, lending the comic book genre to “grown-up” storytelling ranging from photojournalism to media history to biography. Gonzo: A Graphic Biography of Hunter S. Thompson (public library) offers exactly what it says on the tin, and does so brilliantly — an uncommon biography of legendary iconoclastic author (and garden fence expert) Hunter S. Thompson (July 18, 1937–February 20, 2005), revered as the father of Gonzo journalism and reviled as an addict, a bum, a liar, a thief, a sociopath, a hedonistic outlaw. In bold black-and-white graphics and a few well-chosen words, author Will Bingley and illustrator Anthony Hope-Smith tell the story of how a disillusioned troublemaker kid from Louisville became a global literary icon, exploring in the process the most uncomfortable nooks and crannies of social order, individual liberty, and American culture.

Hope-Smith tells The Wall Street Journal:

Visually, the trick was to not shy away from the ‘Fear and Loathing Hunter.’ Rather we could have fun playing with him but then be ready to dial it right back in order to show his humanity through subtlety of expression and body language. We tried to create a balance between the man and his performance.

Thanks, Kirstin

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Women Are Heroes: A Global Portrait of Strength in Hardship by French Guerrilla Artist-Activist JR

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Poignant and powerful portraits of physical and emotional survival amidst atrocity.

Last year, French guerrilla street artist JR won the $100,000 TED Prize for his Inside Out project — a global participatory project seeking to inspire civic engagement through art. But JR’s arguably most provocative project dates back to 2008, when he embarked on an ambitious quest to document the dignity of women in conflict zones and violent environments in his mural-sized portraits, exhibited both as lo-fi public space installations in the local communities whose spirit they capture and in glossy galleries around the world — “a project with many images and few words.” Women Are Heroes, a beautiful addition to these 7 favorite books on street art, collects several dozen of JR’s poignant portraits of women from Brazil, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Kenya, India, and Cambodia, each accompanied by a moving personal story.

To be sure, this isn’t some fluffy feel-good after-school art project. The stories these women relay — repeated rape, children slain before their eyes, extreme domestic abuse, property devastation — are utterly heart-wrenching. Told in simple, honest words, often tragically matter-of-factly in a way that bespeaks the raw reality these women have had to accept as daily life, they reach for the deepest heartstrings of your empathy and speak to our most unguarded shared humanity. And yet, though at first blush these stories might appear hopeless, wretched, resigned by virtue of their sheer severity, they’re underpinned by the quiet dignity, optimism even, that makes these strong women not victims of their circumstances but champions of survival, emotional and psychological, in the face of odds that make one question how this universe could possibly be benevolent.

Juxtaposed with JR’s stunning portraits — sometimes wistful, often optimistic, always expressive and celebratory of their strong subjects — these women’s stories come to life with remarkable power and respect.

Editor Marco Berrebi observes this parallel in the introduction:

Each of JR’s photographs is an ‘autonomous’ work. It exists through its own aesthetic, with no need to be ‘explained.’ But the narrative gives it its emotional power.

Jessie Jon, Liberia

'I am around ninety years old. I had a happy life. A good husband. I tattooed his initials on my chest. Unfortunately, he died in 1976.

The worst day of my life is still buried deep inside my soul. I had two daughters before the war. But then the war started here and my daughter got pregnant. We started running away. But the belly of my daughter was very big and we had to rest. They asked: 'Is it a girl? Is it a boy?' They opened the belly and took the baby out of the stomach. They threw the baby in the water and they killed my daughter.'

Image © JR; caption text by Marco Berrebi

Benedita Florencio Monteiro, Brazil

'I'm sixty-eight years old. I was born in Fortaleza, and I wasn't even twenty when I arrived here. I got married, then became a widow after my husband died when I was thirty-five. I've been all alone ever since. I had five children, all of them married.

There was that tragedy when my grandson died. They killed him. He was living with me. He was twenty-four years old. The army was on the square when he came back from the funk dance, and they asked him to lift up his shirt. When he refused, they grabbed him and took him away with two others to the Mineira favela, which is controlled by rival dealers.

They did it out of sheer meanness. He used to go by there every day on his way to school, and everyone here knew him. Everyone who was on the square saw it. They betrayed them for sixty reais. Then they killed them down there. They cut them up in pieces and threw them into the trash bin. They vandalized them. They not only cut them up, but they also shot my grandson in the face five times. He was studying. He was about to get his degree.

I want peace and justice here. My dream is to buy a house somewhere else and leave this place.

Image © JR; caption text by Marco Berrebi

Ebby Kadenyi, Kenya

'I am fifty years old and am suffering very much with many problems in my life at the moment. I worked as a housemaid for over thirty years, and then three years ago I was fired and have not been able to find any more work. I come from a very large family (my mother had thirteen children, and when you include grandchildren and great-grandchildren, there are around fifty of us), and when I was working I looked after many of my family members, as most of my brothers and sisters are jobless.

I helped to educate four of my siblings because my parents did not have jobs and could not afford to educate us all. One of my brothers now has a good job as a teacher, but sadly he has become a drunkard and has forgotten about his family. If we go to him to ask for help, he just shouts at us and tells us to go away.

I would like to buy my own land so that I can care for my family.'

Image © JR; caption text by Marco Berrebi

Salete De Franca De Lima, Brazil

'I'm sixty-nine years old. I was born in Manaus and came here when I was a year old. I've lived here my whole life. I have eight children, seven grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren. I've got a big family. I wouldn't change this place for anywhere, because I like it here. I grew up here and raised my children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

When I was a little girl, it was horrible here, because there was no electricity or water. I used to get up at four in the morning to fetch the water. It was from four to six. There was only water between four and six. So I had to be there at the tap at four o'clock… I'd fill five barrels of water and four buckets.

When I got married, a married woman couldn't work. You had to stay at home. So I made a deal with him that I would never work during my life, but he had to pay me a salary every month. He agreed and still pays me very month. A deal's a deal.'

Image © JR; caption text by Marco Berrebi

Praveen Mazahar, India

'My problems began after my marriage. My husband beat me because of difficulties over money. He spent his days playing cards and drinking. Then I had children and life became even more difficult. I ran up debts here and there.

I am now working near the dargah, for an association that educates and cares for children. I lost everything, but my trials, every argument with my husband and his brutality, convinced me I was right. Even though he himself was incapable of feeding us, my husband used to tell me every night that I was good for nothing, that as a woman I couldn't do anything. Now I am looking after my children and educating them!

My daughters now know that women, too, can be very independent, that they have the same rights as men. Even if I marry them off, I will not give them a dowry. If they wish to choose their own husbands, I will let them. If they don't want to get married, I will accept that, too.

They can read and write; they are very knowledgeable. At least, we try to be well informed. I say to my girls, 'Learn, learn everything you can, to cope with any situation. You never know what life has in store.'

Image © JR; caption text by Marco Berrebi

Shaha Jaham, India

'I founded an association that I called the Women's Association Against Dowries. My work enabled me to create a network of acquaintances among associations… My dream was to set up a refuge for women and children, and this dream has come true. We had to teach women who had fled their homes, or had been thrown out, how to live alone, work, and bring up their children.

My work was difficult; I had to fight constantly, among other things against society, the administration, and the police. A woman's life is like a rose: her body is surrounded by thorns. You see the rose, but no one sees the thorns. Even today my struggle continues.

In India, a woman's life is one long struggle. So struggle has become a woman's second nature. All I have endured in the past -- my sons and daughters now have their own families -- but there is one thing I can never forget: my daughter was burned alive. I sometimes think they will kill me, too, because of my militancy, but I am not afraid, because my work with associations has enabled me to regain my self-confidence.

I have brought up my children in a spirit of tolerance. When my son was married, I warned him he must treat his wife with respect, never mention the rape of which she had been the victim, and he accepted this… My granddaughter wanted to choose her own husband, but no one wanted her to. 'Why?' I asked, 'If she wants to marry a boy she loves, let her marry him.' And in a fortnight, I had organized her wedding.

My work brings its rewards every day.'

Image © JR; caption text by Marco Berrebi

The true power of JR’s project, however, lies not in the lavish, enormous, beautiful Women Are Heroes tome but in the impact his work is having on the very communities from whence it is sourced. The Guardian recounts the story of one onlooker in Monrovia, who didn’t know what an art exhibition was and received the following explanation from another:

You have been here for a moment looking at the portraits, asking questions, trying to understand. During that time, you haven’t thought about what you will eat tomorrow. This is art.

Images © JR courtesy of Abrams Books

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