The Art of Chance-Opportunism in Creativity and Scientific Discovery
“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.”
By Maria Popova
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) — a wonderfully insightful treatise on creativity in science and, by extension, in all endeavors of the mind, written by a Cambridge professor of animal pathology named 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 [but] a way of operating.”
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.
[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.
Published May 25, 2012