A fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal some time ago claimed that great scientists needn’t be good at math. E.O. Wilson argued that big ideas, not number crunching, are the source of major breakthroughs. In other words, it’s the art of science, not the science, that inspires the game-changers.
I think there’s something here that applies beyond the physical sciences. The social sciences, in particular economics, have been in a race of sorts to see who could mathematize fastest. While complex modelling and statistical analysis can illuminate, they cannot generate. Data is meaningless without a theoretical lens through which to interpret it. Path-breaking work comes not from those with the best “hard” skills, but from those with the best paradigmatic innovations. The best work seems to come from seeing the world differently, constructing theories from the new lens, then running some numbers to see how they look from the new vantage point.
This bit about seeing the world anew has never been more profoundly communicated to me than in a book by the novelist Arthur Koestler, The Act of Creation. Koestler sets out to reveal general rules of creation that apply across media – from the creation of a joke, to a work of art, to a technological invention. It is a stunningly informative and ponderous work.
Koestler describes worldviews as matrices of thought; well-worn knowledge and assumptions that we carry along with us and use as shortcuts for understanding our world. The eureka moment – the burst of laughter in a joke, the flow in the making of a sculpture, the sudden insight that unlocks the innovation – comes when two separate matrices intersect. Koestler calls this intersection “bisociation”, and sees it as a kind of relieving of tension as two paradigms moving in what appears to be unrelated directions suddenly converge.
A poignant example in the book is Archimedes’ discovery of how to measure the purity of gold in a crown. Archimedes knew the weight per volume of gold vs. other metals, but he could not melt the crown down to figure out its volume. The thought matrix relating to weights, volumes and metals was completely unrelated to Archimedes afternoon bathing. Yet as he slipped into the tub and noticed the water level rise, matrices collided and the bath solved the measurement problem of the crown. It was not new, fancy calculations that resulted in this breakthrough on determining purity in oddly shaped gold items. Instead, it was a bisociation of existing knowledge on water displacement with that on metallic weight.
Not only is creation about seeing familiar facts in new ways, it’s about allowing oneself the time and mental play to do so. Some of the greatest eureka moments have come upon waking from a dream, going on a long walk while the mind wanders, or taking an explicit break from the problem at hand. It is true, the great innovators have been versed in the science of their craft. But what separates creators from specialists is not better technical expertise, but new eyes that generate new ideas.
Think big. Explore. Don’t let a lack of mastery keep you from probing the mysteries that fascinate you.