Credit: Getty Images

Topics: Education, Philosophy, STEM, Research

Recently a Dutch TV crew came to my home for an interview about my latest research in astronomy. When I told them I get many of my new ideas in the shower, they decided to film a scene showing the shower still running and me rushing from the bathroom, dressed in a robe, to my computer.

But despite their best efforts, there was no way for them to get a visual of my ideas and where they actually come from. The same video could have been made with the previous occupant of the house who shared none of my scientific ideas. He and I happened to use the same shower, eat in the same kitchen and sleep in the same bedroom, altogether sharing the same spaces (at different times) but with very different outcomes. Where do ideas come from?

Ideas originate from pregnant minds, just as babies emerge from the bellies of their mothers. What makes a mind fertile? For one thing, it is the freedom to venture without the confines of traditional thinking or the burden of practical concerns. If a quantum system is probed too often, it tends to stay in the same state.

The same is true for the mind of an individual if it is interrupted too often by others. Immersing oneself in the trivia of common wisdom resembles reading yesterday’s news in the daily newspaper, with no prospect for making a difference. Senior researchers aim to establish echo chambers in which their voices are heard loud and clear through their group members. This is an antidote to pregnancies with new ideas. Early career scientists might not fulfill their discovery potential if they accept the limits established by their mentors. Innovation occurs when researchers deviate from group thinking or fashion.

By its nature, persistent conservatism is ultimately doomed to a culture shock. In December 2013 I gave a pedagogical lecture on the topic of “Gravitational Wave Astrophysics” to students at the 30th Jerusalem Winter School in Theoretical Physics on Early Galaxy Formation. Some 10 minutes into my lecture a young lecturer at the school who specializes in traditional astronomy raised his hand and asked: “Why are you wasting the time of these students? We all know that this field will not be of use to them in their careers.”

In September 2015, while many of the same students were still working on their PhDs, LIGO discovered gravitational waves from the black holes merger GW150914. The subsequent detection of electromagnetic counterparts to the neutron stars merger GW170817 ushered a new era of multi-messenger astronomy, and the lecturer’s prophecy was demonstrated to be officially wrong by the announcement of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics. In hindsight this blunder might not be surprising. Think about how riders of horse-drawn carriages viewed Ford's Model T car or how the executives of Encyclopedia Britannica viewed Wikipedia in its early days.

Where Do Ideas Come from? Abraham Loeb, Scientific American

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