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Posts Tagged ‘innovation’

23 MAY, 2013

Uncommon Genius: Stephen Jay Gould On Why Dot-Connecting Is The Key to Creativity

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“The trick to creativity, if there is a single useful thing to say about it, is to identify your own peculiar talent and then to settle down to work with it for a good long time.”

“Originality often consists in linking up ideas whose connection was not previously suspected,” wrote W. I. B. Beveridge in the fantastic 1957 tome The Art of Scientific Investigation. “The role of the imagination is to create new meanings and to discover connections that, even if obvious, seem to escape detection,” legendary graphic designer Paul Rand seconded. Indeed, longer ago than I can remember, I intuited the conviction that creativity is a combinatorial force — it thrives on cross-pollinating existing ideas, often across divergent disciplines and sensibilities, and combining them into something new, into what we proudly call our “original” creations. Paula Scher has likened the process to a slot machine; Dorion Sagan has asserted that science is about connections; Gutenberg has embodied it. And some of history’s most celebrated creators have attested to it with the nature of their genius.

A slim and near-forgotten but altogether fantastic 1991 book by Denise Shekerjian titled Uncommon Genius: How Great Ideas Are Born (public library | IndieBound) synthesizes insights on creativity from conversations with 40 winners of the MacArthur “genius” grant — artists, writers, scientists, inventors, cultural critics.

In the first chapter, titled “Talent and The Long Haul,” Shekerjian seconds the notion that a regular routine is key to creativity:

There’s no use trying to deny it: a conscious application of raw talent, far more than luck or accident, is at the core of every creative moment. … The cultivation of aptitude, far more than coincidence or inspiration, is responsible for most creative breakthroughs.

[…]

The trick to creativity, if there is a single useful thing to say about it, is to identify your own peculiar talent and then to settle down to work with it for a good long time. Everyone has an aptitude for something. The trick is to recognize it, to honor it, to work with it. This is where creativity starts.

Among the geniuses illustrating her point is the great paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, whom we lost eleven years ago this week and who has done more for the popular understanding of science than anyone since Carl Sagan by demonstrating why science and philosophy need each other with his singular blend of a humanist’s sensitivity and a scientist’s rigor. But Gould’s greatest gift, per his own account, is what Arthur Koestler has famously termed “bisociation” — the ability to link the seemingly unlinkable, which lies at the heart of innovation, the kind of pattern-recognition science says fuels creativity and is the architecture sustaining all “original thought.” Gould tells Shekerjian:

My talent is making connections. That’s why I’m an essayist. It’s also why my technical work is structured the way it is. How do the parts of the snail shell interact? What are the rates of growth? Can you see a pattern? I’m always trying to see a pattern in this forest and I’m tickled that I can do that. … I can sit down on just about any subject and think of about twenty things that relate to it and they’re not hokey connections. They’re real connections that you can forge into essays or scientific papers. When I wrote Ontogeny and Phylogeny I had no trouble reading eight hundred articles and bringing them together into a single thread. That’s how it went together. There’s only one way it goes together, one best taxonomy, and I knew what it was.

But this gift — the same crucial talent-of-the-future that Vannevar Bush identified in 1945 when he presaged “a new profession of trail blazers … who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record” — wasn’t, perhaps because of its abstract and thus intangible nature, easy for Gould to identify at first:

It took me years to realize that was a skill. I could never understand why everybody just didn’t do that. People kept telling me these essays were good and I thought, All right, I can write, but surely what I’m doing is not special. And then I found out that it’s not true. Most people don’t do it. They just don’t see the connections.

Gould notices another aspect of his poorly understood kind of genius — people’s tendency to conflate it with a kind of general-purpose, omniscient intelligence:

A lot of people think I’m very well read because I quote all these sources and they’re reasonable quotations. They’re not hokey. They’re not pulled out. And I keep telling them, ‘I’m not particularly well read. I just don’t forget anything.’

I’m not badly read — I’m just sort of an average intellectual in that respect — but the thing is, I can use everything I’ve ever read. Most people cannot do that. They’ll probably access just a couple of percent of what they have. So, therefore, when they see me citing so much they assume I have fifty times more but I don’t. I’m using a hundred percent of what I have. They’re using two percent of what they have.

With a sentiment Steve Jobs would come to echo just a few years later in his famous proclamation that “creativity is just connecting things,” Shekerjian summarizes:

Gould’s special talent, that rare gift for seeing the connections between seemingly unrelated things, zinged to the heart of the matter. Without meaning to, he had zeroed in on the most popular of the manifold definitions of creativity: the idea of connecting two unrelated things in an efficient way. The surprise we experience at such a linkage brings us up short and causes us to think, Now that’s creative.

But she concludes by emphasizing something celebrated creative minds like Alexander Graham Bell (“It is the man who carefully advances step by step, with his mind becoming wider and wider … who is bound to succeed in the greatest degree.”) and Thomas Edison (“Success is the product of the severest kind of mental and physical application.”) also knew — the idea that genius is nothing without consistent effort:

Stephen Jay Gould’s talent for forging vital connections happens to go to the heart of creativity, but, even so, it’s a talent that wouldn’t amount to much if he didn’t work at it. Endurance counts for a lot in cultivating talent to the point of being able to do creative things with it — endurance and a concentration of effort to a specific sphere of activity. As D. N. Perkins, another researcher in the field of creativity, put it: Be creative in a context, for to try to be original everywhere, all at once, all the time, is an exhausting proposition.

For more of Gould’s genius, see the indispensable I Have Landed — the tenth and final of his timeless essay anthologies, originally published in 2002 mere weeks after Gould passed away from cancer. As for Uncommon Genius, it is uncommonly excellent in its entirety.

Thanks, Ken

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23 APRIL, 2013

Meet Marty Cooper, Inventor of the Cell Phone

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“If you try to build a device that does all things for all people, it won’t do any of them very well.”

“Often what the world calls nonsensical, becomes practical,” Alexander Graham Bell observed in reflecting on his early work that would eventually produce the telephone. Yet how nonsensical the notion of a wireless phone must have seemed even to him at the dawn of the 20th century. But a mere seven decades later, in April of 1973, the first cellular phone made its debut. To celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the era-defining technology, filmmaker David Friedman has profiled inventor Martin “Marty” Cooper (b. 1928) in the latest installment of his wonderful series of portraits of inventors.

What’s important about any technology is that the technology is — hopefully — invisible, but at least transparent and maybe intuitive. … The purpose of technology is to make your life better. Most cell phones don’t do that very well — in fact, they force us to become engineers, to learn a bunch of new things. We shouldn’t have to do that. The ideal phone would be one where I would just talk to the phone — or maybe the phone would read my mind — and it would do things to make my life better. … If you try to build a device that does all things for all people, it won’t do any of them very well. So I think that’s where we are with cell phones today.

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20 MARCH, 2013

The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Behind the Bomb

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From janitor to chemist, the women of Oak Ridge worked hard and talked little.

The civil servant was given only one clue where she would be going: a train ticket to Knoxville, Tennessee. She packed her best clothes, wore a new pair of shoes, and gave herself entirely to the project at hand: don’t ask questions, don’t talk unnecessarily, do your part to win the war. She arrived at a place that was more of a camp than a town, half-built prefabricated houses, an administration center, three reactors, and a foot of mud sure to suck off any shoe that stepped in it. On the books, she had arrived at the Clinton Engineer Works, a refinery plant for “Tubealloy.” Off the books, she had arrived at Site X of the Manhattan Project, where uranium would be enriched before it was shipped to Site Y in Los Alamos for use in “The Gadget.”

In The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II (public library), Denise Kiernan tells the story of the Oak Ridge center of the Manhattan Project, a town of 70,000 workers — primarily women — who lived in a camp-like environment of propaganda, barbed wire, checkpoints, code words, and spies, while working a thousand different jobs, all of which contributed to the events of August 6, 1945 and the dropping of the atomic bomb.

Operator at a reactor control panel.

Women who had graduated from high school but couldn’t afford college could take the civil service exam. In a matter of months, they might be transferred to jobs in Washington, D.C., New York, or even abroad, without being informed where they were going or how long they would be there. Workers transferred to Oak Ridge were told to get on a train to Knoxville. College-educated women were recruited for their skills, but not always for their specialties. One woman who had wanted to be an engineer accepted a job as a statistician, which was considered more appropriate for her gender. Unskilled local women were also necessary to the project, and these locals often found themselves applying for work at the very place which had evicted their families.

Reactor operators worked multiple shifts to keep the plant going twenty-four hours a day.

Once at Oak Ridge, the workers were fingerprinted, interviewed, assigned a job, and given a clearance badge. Housing was limited and cramped in dormitories that often didn’t have heat. Food at the cafeteria was in short supply and lines were long. Everywhere there was mud, ruining shoes and clothes, and dirtying hallways. One employee remarked that the entire operation seemed more like camping than living, but work had opened up for women and it was their patriotic duty to take it.

Control room at one of three reactor plants.

Officially members of the Clinton Engineer Works, the employees at Oak Ridge adhered to a coded language whose real meanings were known to few. The Clinton Engineer Works was a waystation for “Tubealloy,” or uranium. Those higher up knew that the Tubealloy was being enriched at the Oak Ridge power plants for “the Gadget.” In official documents, Oak Ridge was known as “Site X,” and Los Alamos as “Site Y.” Billboards greeted workers throughout the day: “Your pen and your tongue can be enemy weapons. Watch what you write and say…” The local newspaper, the Oak Ridge Journal, wasn’t allowed to print the names of anyone in its columns. Some women were specially recruited to spy on each other, reporting any breaches in security to the higher-ups.

Workers were encouraged by billboards hung all over the town to to keep to themselves.

A patriotic billboard encouraging fast work and an end to the war.

A billboard emphasizing secrecy.

Tennessee was a Jim Crow state, and while the project wasn’t officially segregated, it abided by segregation in practice. All African-Americans on the project were laborers, domestics, or janitors. Married men and women were forced to live apart in huts with up to five people, while white workers were housed in dormitories and single family dwellings. Women were only allowed to visit their husbands if they had the proper clearance and documentation, proving they were married.

Trailers were brought in to alleviate a housing shortage.

On August 6, 1945, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima killed in an instant the equivalent population of the project at Oak Ridge—more than 70,000 people. In the President’s address to the nation about the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, he mentioned the work done at sites near Santa Fe, New Mexico and Oak Ridge, Tennessee. This was the first that anyone had heard about their involvement with the atomic bomb. Secretary of War Henry L Stimson, explained that the workers had been rigorously kept in the dark:

The work has been completely compartmentalized so that while many thousands of people have been associated with the program in one way or another, no one has been given more information concerning it than was particularly necessary to do the job.

This, however, was giving the employees at Oak Ridge little credit. One chemist, who analyzed product from one of the reactors, knew that she was doing was atomic in nature — but she didn’t have enough pieces to puzzle together the larger picture. Her superiors knew more, but they never talked about it. No one talked in this town of 70,000. For three years. they had kept their work a secret from the outside world, and most impressively, from each other.

Shift change at a uranium enrichment facility in Oak Ridge.

A Girl Scout troop visits X-10 in 1951.

A lively story about the tens of thousands of women who made the bomb — from the power-plant janitor struggling each day through the mud to the exiled physicist in Sweden — The Girls of Atomic City offers a bottom-up history revealing that the atomic bomb was not simply the product of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s genius, but also of the work of women at every level of education and class.

Photographs by Ed Westcott courtesy American Museum of Science and Energy, Oak Ridge

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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