Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Creativity and research: Ideas don't follow timetables.

Liz's recent entry on work-life balance touched on the difficulties of fitting creative activities into the regular pattern of a working week.  It was a theme picked up in Angharad's comment.  Her observation that "casual conversations can also often provide key insights into particular research problems" is one of the reasons why the researchers' discussion group was started, and the freewheeling discussions (especially in the pub) can prove quite liberating.  Topics range from the obscure (eg, the offside rule in Subbuteo) to the surreal (in one discussion on the relative merits of search engines, it was suggested that the only way in which Bing is better than Google is that its name sounds better when read backwards).  Often though, chats in the pub, or in the informal brunches organized by Mark Hall, are the source of ideas for future discussion meetings.
Relaxed conversation is, of course, only one factor that leads to the generation of ideas.   A day dream is said to have played a part in August KekulĂ©'s comprehension of the structure of benzene: he claimed to have been inspired by the image of a snake eating its own tail.  
Most famous though, is the story of the original Eureka moment.  King Hieron (or Hiero) II of Syracuse commissioned a crown and provided the gold for it.  When it was delivered, he suspected the goldsmith of retaining some of the gold and replacing it with silver.  He had no idea how to confirm his suspicion, so he asked the resident court genius (Archimedes).  Archimedes also had no idea how to confirm the king's suspicion and took a bath to help de-stress.  As he climbed in, he noticed the water that spilled over the top of his over-full bath.  He realized that the volume of water displaced was equivalent to his own volume.  Appropriately used, a full tub of water could help to measure the volume of the suspect crown.  That, together with a measurement of the crown's weight, was sufficient to determine its density and thus its purity.

Archimedes was so excited by his realization that he leapt out of the bath and ran down the street yelling "Eureka" (or "I've found it").  Perhaps, therefore, if universities intstalled spas and hot tubs in their common rooms, they would have a similar effect and encourage creative streaks amongst the staff.


  1. I was just re-reading this post and thought you might be interested to see a recent article about "Imagination in LIS research" by Paul Sturges. The author uses examples of the role of imagination and creativity in his own research - and the compromises sometimes made because of timetables, dealines and funding requirements. I found it rather inspiring.