Wednesday, July 22, 2009

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.

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At 7:47 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you want to be a great scientist, then you have to be more creative than your peers. (And you can't get a faculty job without such creativity.)

It is true that this isn't everything, but it is certainly important. I have always been lucky, getting about one good idea a year. But if I don't get a good idea for two years in a row, my future is in trouble.

At 7:57 AM, Blogger BP said...

Pasteur nailed it with: "Chance favors the prepared mind."

At 8:49 AM, Anonymous Early Retirement Extreme said...

Science is all about coming up with new ways to fails, that is try and try again. Maybe Eureka moments are reserved for theorists? They are simply a mental experiment that [finally] works. And they do usually happen in the bathroom for some odd reason---one should think that the subconsciousness also works fine in other places, but the bathroom appears to have optimal conditions, for a theorist anyway.

At 10:10 AM, Blogger Cloud said...

Hmmm. I get a lot of my best ideas when I'm idly surfing the web. Really- that's why I'm here now. I'm working on a hard design problem, and I find that if I let part of my brain tool away on that sort of thing while distracting the other part with blogs, etc., answers come to me.

Anyway, I thought I'd give you one example of someone who left academia for a career that has ended up being pretty alternative and who didn't leave because I didn't think I'd have good ideas. (I now work at the interface of biology and IT- I do some work that is research, some work that involves trying to figure out how to better organize scientific information, and some plain old IT stuff).

I left academia because I didn't think I'd get funding to work on the problems that interested me, but there were companies willing to pay me (well!) to work on those sorts of problems.

My career has gone in directions I wouldn't have predicted when I took that first industry job, but I'm mostly happy with where I am. I did once toy with the idea of going back into academia, but the pay cut I would have had to take to do so was just too mind-blowingly large and the eventual pay off was too uncertain.

At 11:28 AM, Blogger yolio said...

Andrew Gelman is talking about something similar today, but from the point of view of someone more theoretical/less empirical:

At 11:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

all my eureka moments turned out to be dead ends. The things that did pan out and go on to get published and highly cited - those came about the 'boring' way - tedious, repetitous, gradual forming of insights. So I no longer believe in eureka moments.

to be honest, looking around me I don't see much creativity in science. Everyone does the same thing, just force-fitting it to different applications and proclaiming it as something new and revolutionary. Whatever. I guess that the system of relying so much on grant funding squelches creativity because grants don't get funded without preliminary data and other proof that this is 'low risk' (even though they claim to fund high risk research), and proof that the PI has done this before. Because of that I don't feel bad at not having any real eureka moments because I don't think anyone does anymore, on the grand scale.

Now small eureka moments - I get that all the time - such as troubleshooting an experiment realizing you were using the wrong parameter for something. I guess I wouldn't call those eureka moments though. I would call those "at least you're not as incompetent as the PI thought" moments.

At 12:45 PM, Blogger Disenchanted Postdoc said...

Ahhh...."Eureka". Don't we all want to be the one saying that? Stars in our eyes when we join grad school, just want be done with it towards the end. But still we go on and on and on!
Nice blog! I just started my postdoc and stumbled upon your blog coz I have this new desire to blog and vent!

At 1:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Huh. My ideas come after I do the experiment, while I'm either
a) taking a long walk to figure out what the hell it means


b) In the shower the next morning trying to figure out what the hell to do next.

Either way, I take your point. Nice post. =) Thanks.

At 10:26 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Great comments, all!

Thanks for reminding me why blogging can be really rewarding!

At 2:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I guess that the system of relying so much on grant funding squelches creativity because grants don't get funded without preliminary data..."

This is the party line among scientists because it throws the blame elsewhere, but the truth is more that most people, including most scientists, just are not that creative. If the grants tried to encourage more creativity, there would just be more bad science, and not more creativity.

I agree with a previous poster that Eureka moments are often mistaken jumps. For me a Eureka "moment" is more like a Eureka week. After stumbling around forever without getting anywhere, I finally bump into a domino and then they all start falling.

At 4:29 PM, Blogger Aurora said...

Good post and good comments. I saved it for future reference

At 11:31 PM, Blogger Drugmonkey said...

' that's funny...'

At 12:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with the Anon who said there's no creativity in science anymore. That's very true. Everyone does "me too" science but proclaims to the high heavens that what they are doing is so unique and awe inspiring. There is certainly a place for "me too" science because that is where really important results often come from (just going through all the permutations of everything, tweaking everything you can tweak and writing a new paper about it, because you can't otherwise tell what works and doesn't). I'm not saying it's unimportant. But let's not pretend it's something it's not either.

At 8:21 PM, Blogger biochem belle said...

A little late to the party, it seems, but...

My grad advisor said that to have GOOD ideas, you had to have a lot of ideas. In less elegant words, throw shit at the wall until something sticks.

At 7:32 AM, Blogger femme de science(s) said...

I generally get my best ideas when I stop thinking too hard about my problem. The little walk to fill the kettle, going to the bathroom - yes, truth must be told, it's where I had the greatest ideas, or a good night of sleep.

At 1:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a male soon-to-be grad student in a physical science, I can say I have been through the same self-doubts about my creativity (I got over that...) So it would be interesting to see if this problem affects one sex more than the other, or both almost equally.

Reflecting upon this, I think that another aspect to the problem is the expectation we have for good ideas, or for ideas that can culminate in papers. I even had one of my REU advisers tell me that I thought too little of everything I had accomplished in a summer. I think it doesn't hurt for professors advising undergraduates to give their students frequent reminders of how what they do fits in the big picture so that, for someone with not much prior exposure to research, it does not just feel like rote work. This way, when one comes up with one idea of their own, one does not feel like the idea is worthless unless it is just earth-shattering (because one's previous work did have value, and it wasn't earth-shattering either).

At 8:36 AM, Anonymous neurowoman said...

You are bang on with the 'do the experiments!' advice. The experimental results frequently surprise me, and that's the fun of doing science. I too seem to come to an understanding about the results in the shower, or during runs.

Also, worked in a lab where one student thought he was the 'big novel idea' guy, couldn't do experiments worth a damn, and was baffled as to why he couldn't come up with a novel idea...


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