Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Asimov’s ABCs

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Isaac Asimov

By now, many of you have probably already seen the previously unpublished essay on creativity by Isaac Asimov that appeared last week in Technology Review. We owe its appearance to Arthur Obermayer, who worked for Allied Research Associates in Boston and asked Asimov, a friend of his, to sit in on some of their brainstorming sessions. Asimov eventually declined to participate further, saying that receiving access to classified information would inhibit his work as a writer, but he left behind a short piece on creative thinking and the conditions that encourage it, both individually and in groups. It’s a charming, useful read, and it centers on a point that I’ve made here many times before:

Obviously, then, what is needed is not only people with a good background in a particular field, but also people capable of making a connection between item 1 and item 2 which might not ordinarily seem connected…Once the cross-connection is made, it becomes obvious.

Asimov mentions the famous example of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, who independently saw a connection between Malthus’s “Essay on Population” and the problem of evolution, inspiring Thomas Henry Huxley to exclaim: “How extremely stupid not to have thought of that!” This kind of thinking by combinations, or what Arthur Koestler calls “bisociation” in The Act of Creation, lies at the heart of all creativity, and that’s as much the case today as when Asimov was writing. Earlier this year, for instance, the lab headed by Eric Betzig—who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry this month—announced an approach for improving the resolution and speed of microscopy images, using adaptive optics techniques that had originally been developed for astronomy and ophthalmology. Much of Betzig’s work over the last decade has consisted of taking cues from one field and joining them to another: “We combined the descan concept from the ophthalmologists with the laser guide stars of the astronomers, and came up with what amounts to a really good solution for aberrating but non-scattering transparent samples, like the zebrafish.”

Eric Betzig

These days, most scientific breakthroughs don’t arise in isolation, but through an intense collaborative process: the original paper cited above lists eight authors, headed by postdoctoral student Kai Wang and ending with Betzig himself. At times, as Asimov points out, stimulating connections can only emerge from an environment in which intelligent people have a chance to exchange ideas:

No two people exactly duplicate each other’s mental stores of items. One person may know A and not B, another may know B and not A, and either knowing A and B, both may get the idea—though not necessarily at once or even soon.

Furthermore, the information may not only be of individual items A and B, but even of combinations such as A-B, which in themselves are not significant. However, if one person mentions the unusual combination of A-B and another unusual combination A-C, it may well be that the combination A-B-C, which neither has thought of separately, may yield as answer.

The problem, of course, is that such ideas or connections don’t come on demand, and the pressure to show results, in academia and elsewhere, can inhibit the kind of relaxed, associative contemplation that inspiration requires. As Asimov notes: “To feel guilty because one has not earned one’s salary because one has not had a great idea is the surest way, it seems to me, of making it certain that no great idea will come in the next time, either.” He goes on to suggest that the thinkers be officially paid for “sinecure” tasks—reports, summaries, and other busywork—so that brainstorming sessions can occur without the additional distraction that arises when one’s livelihood is directly on the line. In other words, he proposes a model that allows for extended rendering time, those amorphous, sometimes unproductive, but always essential stretches of apparent inactivity that allow ideas to coalesce. (It’s the opposite, in fact, of the kind of intense focus on short-term results that drives so much of startup culture.) There’s no surefire recipe for innovation; insights, especially those that make connections between unrelated fields, don’t arrive on schedule. But it’s only by creating an environment in which such connections can emerge, and having the patience to wait, that we can come up with any insights at all.

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