Tag Archives: eccentricity

Science is Creative!

In the US, science is regarded as valuable, but dry and a bit stiff. As a student, it’s easy to get this impression, studying rigid facts first explored centuries ago. The math, chemistry, physics, and biology we learn in high school and college are about recreating long-known answers by well-established methods. But the process of making new science and math is inherently creative, and new ideas require letting the mind run wild a little. In this post, I’ll talk about how I develop my ideas.

I work with populations of oscillators. The idea of this research is that the complexity of the whole (the population) exceeds the complexity of each element (the oscillator). The human brain is a good example of such a system–each neuron is fairly simple and well-understood, but overall brain behavior arising from the interactions of many neurons is not understood. My research tends to work by observation–I notice something I find interesting and I explore that further. Other researchers work on what they suspect they will find, based upon other work. All research works within the context of its field. There are many interesting behaviors I have noted in my experiments, but I explore the ones I might explain. Really random observations are cool, but hard to frame in a way which is meaningful to the community.

The above may not sound particularly creative. But the key to experiments like I do is imagining what might happen when one explores slightly beyond what is known. It requires extrapolating from the areas we know, in the context of the rules we know, to the areas we don’t know. Some of the rules we know are pretty absolute, like thermodynamics, but others may be flexible. (As a note on this point, the stable chemical oscillations I study were once considered thermodynamically impossible. Someone had to bend the established understanding of thermodynamics to explain these oscillations. Einstein had to bend Newton’s Laws for relativity, and he arrived at that conclusion by logic rather than by observation.) In an experimental apparatus like mine, thousands of experiments are possible. It is up to the experimentalist to pick from the possibilities, in the context of what might work in his imagination, to demonstrate something hitherto unknown.

In some ways, the process is similar to writing. There are rules that must be obeyed, and the process of finding something new or interesting is very indirect. With science and writing, I develop some of my best ideas drinking a beer or taking a walk. Sitting at a desk focusing is required at times, but so too is active contemplation. The rules of science are broader and more rigid and take longer to learn, but there are similarities.

A lot of historical scientists were fascinating people, akin to historical artists. Van Gogh got his ear cut off in a fight. Astronomer Tycho Brahe lost his nose in a duel. Salvador Dali shellacked his hair. Electrical engineer Nikola Tesla fell in love with a pigeon. Mathematician Paul Erdos lived itinerantly for decades. In one visit to a colleague, he couldn’t figure out how to open a carton of juice, so he instead stabbed it open (among many, many other oddities). Physicist Richard Feynman used to work on his physics at strip clubs. Artists may share their eccentricities more in their works, but I would argue that scientists have every bit as much oddness.

I hope this post illustrates a little what it is like to be a research scientist, and how science at the cutting edge works. For more science posts, check out my fun science list.

Book Review: The Invention of Everything Else (Samantha Hunt 2008)

There are no spoilers in this review beyond what you’d find in the first few chapters or the cover blurb.

Rating: 5/5

I absolutely adored “The Invention of Everything Else”. I’ve always meant to read more histories and biographies than I do, but sometimes they can be dry. This book, in many ways, is a fictional biography of Tesla, a famously eccentric inventor who first pioneered AC electricity and radio. To learn more about Tesla, check out this awesome Oatmeal cartoon, which has a lot more detail than I’ll include here. The book also has rich and lovely descriptions about historic New York City. And most of all, this book is a romance of eccentric people, whom I feel get far less respect than they deserve. The characters are pigeon-enthusiasts and hoarders and dreamers and inventors.

The book opens with Tesla as a very old man, broke and largely forgotten. He was a brilliant inventor, but not a businessman like Edison. He lives in a dreamlike state, remembering past glories and failures, and seeking his beloved white pigeon (see the Oatmeal cartoon). The other main character of the story is Louisa, a young vibrant woman who works at Tesla’s hotel. She likes to listen to radio dramas and to study people, so she is naturally fascinated by Tesla. Over the book, we learn a lot about Tesla and Louisa as they orbit one another.

The language of this book is wonderful. The descriptive passages evoked touchable images in my head although the descriptions were fairly brief. I could imagine being in bygone New York, and the distractions and wonders of the characters in that setting. The dirtiness of it, and the perpetual motion of it. Here is a quote from the first chapter that captures some of the loveliness of the language:

“Drawer #42. It sticks and creaks with the weather. This is the drawer where I once thought I’d keep all my best ideas. It contains only some cracked peanut shells. It is too dangerous to write my best ideas down. ‘Whoops. Wrong drawer. Whoops.’ I repeat the word. It’s one of my favorites. If it were possible I’d store ‘Whoops’ in the safe by my bed, along with ‘OK’ and ‘Sure thing’ and the documents that prove that I am officially an American citizen.”

If you are a lover of hard science fiction, this one might not be for you. The genre of this book is subtle, with the fantasy element of dreaming maybe most prominent. It seemed like every character in this book took a jump off of something, imagining they could fly. But if you love characters and setting and eccentricity, then you should like it. I loved it, and I really recommend it.