Creativity’s Recipe

January 21, 2013



Oliver Burkman has a lovely short essay on the best practices for fostering innovation. It just rings true to me. The crux:

The key to a solution lies in how you state the problem. You need to strip it of context and colour; more technically, McCaffrey argues, you need to reduce it to a specific form: “verb, noun-phrase, prepositional-phrases”. What the ski firm really needed to do was to “reduce vibrations over 1,800 hertz”. From there, it’s an easier leap from one domain to another: similar vibrations, it turns out, play havoc with violins, causing sound distortion. Violin designers address this by using a metal grid; the ski designers, finding the analogy, adapted it: problem solved.

So the recipe for doing something creative is as simple as 


1) State the problem in its most basic, explicit terms.

2) Stare at that statement and looking for analogies to problems in other fields. Apply the solution logic in those other fields to your problem.

Rinse, repeat. 

Note that 1 and 2 call on different skill sets. The first is that of the logician who also knows her system well enough to grok its essential parts. It’s *really* essential parts.  Barbara McClintock captured this in the dictum “Know your organism.” The second is that of the broadly read, intensely curious, generalist. Focus on one to the exclusion of the other, and you risk becoming the 1) drudge who only publishes in specialty journals (where you are a *star* of your niche group), or 2) the flighty person with a thousand ideas but no publications. 

It’s hard, often frustrating work trying to balance the intense understanding of one system while keeping up with issues of Science and Nature. But when you discover that the template of one field of inquiry overlays your problem in an eerily satisfying way, you can almost feel ole’ Leonardo looking over your shoulder and smiling. 

Good writing is considerate

January 13, 2013


Utilize     A noxious puff-word. Since it does nothing that good old use doesn’t do, its extra letters and syllables don’t make a writer seem smarter; rather, using utilize makes you seem either like a pompous twit or like someone so insecure that she’ll use pointlessly big words in an attempt to look sophisticated. The same is true for the noun utilization, for vehicle as used for car, for residence as used for house, for presently, at present, at this time, and at the present time as used for now, and so on. What’s worth remembering about puff-words is something that good writing teachers spend a lot of time drumming into undergrads: “formal writing” does not mean gratuitously fancy writing; it means clean, clear, maximally considerate writing.

From Both Flesh and Not: Essays, by David Foster Wallace

Your academic elevator speech

August 20, 2012

As a new grad student–or an older grad student in a new venue like a national meeting–you need to meet people. Science, after all, is a social enterprise in which you exchange ideas, review other peoples work, collaborate on experiments, and work together on often tedious but necessary committees. Getting to know the folks in your field, and getting them to know you, is an under-appreciated part of the process.

A second under-appreciated part of the sci-biz is the importance of the first impression. It is a truism that first impressions matter, that the first experience with another person sticks in your brain and colors your opinion and expectations. ResearchImage by Bertran Gawronski at U. Western Ontario suggests that subsequent impressions that conflict with the first one tend to be explained away as one-off phenomena, exceptions to what that person is really like, good or bad.

So if a basic part of science is building networks of colleagues, and first impressions matter, it is key to be prepared for the inevitable encounter with folks you want to get to know. As silly as it sounds, it is important to craft, memorize, and practice, your academic elevator speech (named for the amount of time you have between recognizing someone who is a captive audience and the time before the elevator doors open again).

Here’s what you should look for in an elevator speech.

Read the rest of this entry »

Teaching: the perfect two minute lesson

December 7, 2011

1Veritasium pulls it off in this little video,  asking “how far apart are the moon and the earth?”. Along the way he sends a message about some pretty complicated subjects–the concept of scale, the size of the universe, and why it is difficult to use images alone to capture the reality of distance.

The recipe starts with “man on the street” interviews. These set up the misconception and in the process send the viewer the empathic message, “hey, you’re not the only one.”  This is followed by a simple demonstration, using the long focus of the camera as an ally. Then simple graphics expand the idea and its implications. Finally, a 10 s summary: “The universe is truly bigger than we can imagine, and certainly bigger than we can draw to scale”.

Imagine a similar suite of videos on any difficult subject: enzymes, global warming, evolution. Imagine producing a suite of five or so on a science topic that interests you, posting them on your own Youtube channel. With your smiling face introducing each one. That’s one way to get noticed and to do a real service.  As a debunker of myths. As teacher of science.

Any great, short, science videos out there you want to bring to a wider audience?


Ernst Haeckel: high on biodiversity

December 3, 2011

Ernst Haeckel was a seminal biologist and one of the first theoreticians in evolutionary biology. He was also a crazy good artist, and his 100 plates highlighting invertebrate diversity are available for download. The files are big enough to turn into small posters. Three of my favorites below the fold.  Read the rest of this entry »

Presentations: Steve Jobs vs Bill Gates

December 3, 2011

A cold and rainy Saturday here in the heartland, and I’m plowing through my notes, compiling websites I think are particularly useful for the beginning academic, broken down by category (e.g., GTD techniques, technology, writing…).

If you have any such sites that you find indispensable, by all means leave a comment.

In the process, I stumbled upon this oldie but goodie from Garr Reynolds at Presentation Zen. Reynolds advocates the Zen approach to presentations:

The Zen aesthetic values include (but are not limited to):

  • Simplicity
  • Subtlety
  • Elegance
  • Suggestive rather than the descriptive or obvious
  • Naturalness (i.e., nothing artificial or forced),
  • Empty space (or negative space)
  • Stillness, Tranquility
  • Eliminating the non-essential

But, in an inspired bit of teaching, he advances his thesis by comparing the style of Bill Gates

with the late Steve Jobs.

Now, I am not advocating that you present your work backed up a dark screen (though I suspect you’d learn a lot by trying). However, anyone interested in communicating science can learn from  Steve Jobs and Garr Reynolds.

Know your brain: how to debunk a myth

December 1, 2011

Nowadays, scientists increasingly recognize the need to step up as teachers in the public sphere. However, many scientists labor under the delusion that if we make a good argument–airtight, logical, full of verified facts–then our job is done. If the recipient of our spiel doesn’t get it, then it’s on them (poor ignorant fool) we’ve done our part.

But convincing someone, especially when it means dissuading them of what they think they know, is far more complicated. The folks at Skeptical Science have a great resource–a downloadable PDF called the Debunking Handbook–that lays out the science and sociology of debunking myths. A bit of summary below the fold. Read the rest of this entry »


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