Where do good ideas come from?

By Grant Jacobs 27/09/2010

One of my favourite quotes is:

The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not Eureka! (I found it!) but rather, ’hmm…. that’s funny….’

(Isaac Asimov)

Good ideas are often not from sudden understanding but from staring at something, scratching your head, thinking ’something’s not quite right here’ or seeing a pattern you weren’t really expecting. This thought also comes up in passing in the lecture I’m going to offer you below.

Steven Johnson presents his exploration of the source of good ideas in two different videos, one a stage presentation for a TED lecture (first video below), the other I can best describe as a whiteboard narrative.

He is interested in the environments that promote creativity. What are the settings, the places that encourage new ideas to arise.

Listening to his lecture reminded me of things I’ve read or thought about earlier. I’ve elaborated some of these after the video, as so not to get in the way of those that want to rush in.

I am currently reading The Age of Wonder. In it’s opening pages is an account of how Newton’s inspirational falling apple is likely a later addition that is part of a larger trend of description that created a ’romantic’, even heroic, imagery of discovery. In the earlier portion of Johnson’s talk he talks about choices of metaphors and I can’t help but relate this to Holmes’ observations. (Johnson also makes a passing reference to Newton’s famous apple.)

My fantasy institute featured eateries. Not just for the food, for the science. The thinking behind this is very much what Johnson brings up in his lecture (especially at about 8 minutes in with the picture of the coffee shop). I get this from that a key feature of the laboratory in which I studied my Ph.D. was that the top floor was a cafeteria, with the idea that all the staff would mix and talk every day. We didn’t disperse to local cafés – at that time there was only a hospital slop lunch service as an unappetising alternative! You wandered up the stairs to the top floor and joined everyone else.

Johnson’s reference to When ideas have sex early in the presentation is to an earlier TED lecture by Matt Ridley that you can also watch on my blog.

The video below is a whiteboard animated narration. In the middle of it you’ll see the phrase ’slower, deeper’ on a book cover. Although a passing remark, I think it’s worth picking up on.

Astute readers won’t miss that the title of these talks is the same as his recent book.

Other articles on Code for life:

When ideas have sex

Describe your fantasy institute

Monkey business, or is my uncle also my Dad?

World’s largest bacteria

GMOs and the plants we eat: neither are “natural”