Jump in the water*
Yesterday I was talking to someone about the Eureka! myth of doing science, and how most people seem to misunderstand where great scientific ideas actually come from.
The person I was talking to was a scientist and hadn't heard of Archimedes. And I thought if he didn't know the little story about the bathtub, I must have sounded like I was making it up. So if you don't know what I'm talking about, go click on the link and read the wikipedia entry first.
I've realized this particular myth, the idea that someone is just struck by a lightning bolt of an idea out of nowhere, is a major reason why students don't want to study science. Perhaps more relevant to this blog: it's a major reason why a lot of postdocs freak out and quit.
I was astonished the other day to notice how many women in science "alternative" careers cite this as their biggest reason for going into other kinds of jobs. And how these women are often pointed to as role models. Why? Because it's so empowering that they found something they love, and they've been successful doing these other kinds of things.
But their explanation for why they left leaves me feeling flat. They all say it was the fear that they could not come up with their own ideas out of thin air.
How many people go into science because they got good grades in science classes? Presumably somebody encouraged them. And yet, we must be teaching science all wrong if people are going into it thinking that eventually, if they just get good grades long enough, they'll have a Eureka moment.
Well dear readers, some of you know that this is not how it works, but I bet some of the rest of you are terrified that when it comes your turn to devise projects and write grants, you won't be creative enough. I say that because I've been hearing this refrain a lot lately as an excuse for leaving academic research. I'm just not creative enough.
What? Tell me you're sick of the poor salary, of being treated like dirt, of all the politics and the ethical lapses. Don't tell me you're beating up on yourself. That's a terrible thing for a role model to be doing!
So I'm writing this little post today about another way to come up with ideas. It's a huge secret, but I'm going to write it here on the internet where everything is true and widely believed. Right?
Ready? Here it is. The big secret to having ideas in science:
Do some experiments.
Yep, that's it.
Personally, most of my best ideas come while I'm doing experiments. Even if they're stupid experiments that were poorly conceived or poorly executed, usually in the course of a pilot run or a few, I will see things that give me ideas about what can be improved. Or I will see some weird thing that had nothing to do with the experiment I was working on, that will give me ideas for much better experiments, or even whole projects.
So when I'm really stuck, I do an experiment. Even if I think it won't work in a million years. I'm of the mind that the crazier the experiment, the more ideas you'll get along the way, but I'm sure there are people who meditate while doing the same old thing they've done before. Sometimes that works too. Sometimes I have ideas while I'm doing the boring part of making samples, maybe because my hands are busy and I'm usually talking to myself while I'm doing it.
Anyway, that is my little plug for a different way of coming up with ideas. You don't have to read a book, or smoke a pipe, and say Aha! I think I've got it!
That's for old guys with beards and beer bellies and British accents (because it just sounds better with a British accent).
*obscure reference: In this case, the idea for the title comes from a lyric in a Peter Gabriel song, which coincidentally you might know (if you saw the new Harry Potter film) is based on a fable that is being made into a Disney cartoon movie (there was a trailer for it at Harry Potter, is where I was going with that). Pretty far from the more vulgar analogy, if you know what I mean.