All scientists value creativity: the ability to generate a long list of ideas combined with the ability recognize the best of those ideas. The list grows in proportion to the amount you read broadly and keep yourselves open to a diversity of experience (something it is hard to justify at times, when it seems its all you can do to master the discipline you are really passionate about). But what about the culling part? How do you sort through all this experience to find a new and profitable connection?
Variations on a theme is one creativity technique as old as the diversity of life. Its simple: find something that works and apply it in a different context.
My favorite example of VOT in EEB is optimal foraging theory–a set of models that predict which habitats, prey, and parts of a prey that a predator should eat. Robert MacArthur and Eric Pianka could have invented this theory from scratch, but instead they knew that similar work had been done by economists (ecology/economics … same root) and they borrowed it, changed the names of the variables, and voila a citation classic that raised helped invent Behavioral Ecology. Likewise, Eric Charnov saw something from Microeconomics 101 that asked how the value of an activity declined with the time you put into it– Marginal Value –and applied it to the question of how long a forager stays in a patch that is taught in every Intro Ecology course.
Variations on a theme–same tune, different lyrics–serving the arts and sciences since 954 B.C.
Illustration from BMClocks’s excellent Natural History Artworks