Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Orphaned Ideas

In the Chronicle of Higher Education essay discussed yesterday, the author (R Hampel) is also concerned about what happens to our ideas when we die before acting on these ideas. He wrote:

I was also surprised that no one had made plans for what to do with their topics for future research if they suddenly died.

I must admit that I do not share his concerns.

Unless someone has figured out how to cure cancer and just hasn't gotten around to jotting it down, our basic research ideas, however important to us personally when we are alive, probably need not survive us.

I once described how I was given the task of sorting through a deceased professor's office, deciding what should be archived and what should be tossed. At the time, another professor suggested to me that I finish some of the work left undone by the deceased professor, and he showed me where the relevant notes and materials were. I spent some time looking everything over and thinking about it, but then decided that the project wasn't worth doing, at least not by me. It might have been very interesting and fulfilling for the person whose idea it was originally, as it represented an extension of some other things he'd worked on, but it wasn't interesting to me. I do not think the world of science has suffered as a result of my decision.

I do not have an organized system for writing down my ideas for future research. I probably should have one just for my own use because I am getting increasingly forgetful, but I think that posterity will not be harmed in any way if I do not keep an accessible archive of my research ideas.

Ideas can be very personal things that give us intellectual joy as we develop them, and that can lead to interesting results, discussions, and other effects in the academic and broader community, but for most of us involved in basic research, our ideas probably don't need to outlive us.

This doesn't need to sound as negative as it does. I am not saying that our ideas shouldn't outlive us because many of us have useless or transient ideas. Consider instead an analogy with great artists. Imagine if Dostoevsky hadn't quite gotten around to writing The Brothers Karamazov and instead just left some notes about his ideas for the book. If someone found his notes, however detailed (third son of landowner.. patricide.. brothers.. moral struggle.. free will.. doubt), would they be able to create the novel? Similarly, what if Picasso scribbled a few notes about a drawing or painting he wanted to do in his last year or so (my hand.. flowers? guitar? to a woman? to a cat?), but didn't quite get around to sketching it all out. Could someone just finish it off for him based on the idea he left?

Clearly our ideas are brilliant when we have them and execute them, but for most of us whose creative activities do not cure diseases, stop wars, or keep airplanes from falling out of the sky, I guess we'll just have to take our ideas with us when we go.

15 comments:

Rachella said...

I don't think your point are negative at all. Often a concept or idea is nothing without the spark - and execution- provided by the person who thought it up and followed through. When my mother (an artist) died, several family members suggested that they would like to complete some of the paintings she left unfinished. They couldn't - or wouldn't - understand why I found this idea completely appalling.

anna croft said...

Hi!

You noted that ideas can be very personal. I agree that the germ idea certainly fits in this category, but once it is leashed on a research group, it is also part of the joy (and sometimes horror) to see not only the interpretation, but the additional contributions by students and colleagues - in this way I think research can differ slightly from the concept of a great painting, since usually it is a team effort - there is not just one idea. And as a scientist (or even as an artist), we don't need to worry too much since our ideas should live on through others ...

After all - if it were that great an idea, we would have at least told _someone_, right?

Comrade PhysioProf said...

I think you are correct about this, but for the wrong reason. The notion that ideas "spring forth" de novo from the minds of "creative geniuses" is ridiculous. Ideas arise out of a socioculutural milieu comprising many individuals in an arena of human action.

The reason why it is silly to worry about whether someone's ideas are going to be directly picked up by someone else and brought to fruition doesn't hinge on whether the ideas are likely not important. It is because those ideas--if they are important--are nearly certain to be developed independently by someone else in the not-too-distant future anyway.

Do you think without Picasso, someone else wouldn't have invented cubism (or whatver he invented: I'm not an art historian) and been considered its master? The cancer cure thing proves my point even more, where you have large numbers of smart people all working towards a particular definable goal (well, "curing cancer" is not really a single definable goal, but whatever). Despite the totally false view of scientific progress encouraged by institutions like the Nobel Prize and MacArthur "genius awards", it is an absolute certainty that important advances--structure of DNA, identity of olfactory receptor genes, small non-coding RNAs, prions, etc, to use biomedical advances--would have occurred (and in short order) regardless of the existence of the particular individuals given credit for those advances. This is because each of the people given credit for those things was one of a number working in a field, using similar tools, thinking in similar ways, and aiming for related targets.

geomom said...

That is the beauty of collaboration! But honestly I don't worry much about how the scientific world will fare if I suffer a premature death and all my great ideas are "lost".

I have had the opportunity to go through various archives of material after colleagues of mine had retired, etc and I have found some relevant and interesting stuff that has given me insight on what I am working on but not necessarily "new" ideas. I do kind of enjoy looking through archives like that--like an archaeological dig :-)

Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde said...

I say, assuming one has some reasonable advance notice of one's demise, put them in your will. "To my graduate student, I leave the burning question of whether or not flibbertygib dissolves in oil, while to my postdoc the question of whether it is flammable. Also, the twenty bucks you're owed for buying bagels for lab meeting that one time." Or whatever you may have been thinking about.

Anonymous said...

I worked for an archivist when I was in grad school sorting and cataloguing the contents of a couple of our recently deceased faculty. Their papers are now available in the library archives including mss, correspondence, reprints, unintelligible notes, and the occasional scathing confidential memo. We made the really controversial stuff disappear (who knew they had lube in the 1940s?). It was fascinating for me to see how prominent biologists worked in the mid 20th century, though I wouldn't say I was exactly inspired by any of their ideas. I wonder if this practice of archiving a professor's "papers" is gone forever now that everything is electronic. I would not want my correspondence archived - in fact, the thought of a future grad student reading all my catty emails in the future may send me to an early grave!

plam said...

I mostly agree with Comrade Physioprof. However, I think that some discoveries (especially in the past, when there wasn't as much of a machine working on them, and also in areas that don't "matter" as much---not the Manhattan Project) came a couple of decades earlier than they would've otherwise.

Anonymous said...

One of the founders of my field died relatively young, unexpectedly. After his passing his recent postdocs and students suddenly felt free to explore, each in their own ways, ideas that had been generated and sometimes started as projects in the advisor's lab. They are now all established scientists, NAS members, etc. If the advisor had been alive, I don't think they would have stayed that close to the field, because of the old school mentality that one needs to do completely different things as an independent scientist. My advisor for example wen back to this only after his former boss' passing, and people who were postdocs a the time were able to carry with them their projects (not usually done in my field).
Sounds a bit cynic....

quasarpulse said...

Well...there's always the Fermat's Last Theorem situation. Although I do admit there was some advantage...leaving it unproved created some challenging entertainment for generations of mathematicians. But that's outside the world of science; the closest analogue might be if a theoretical physicist suddenly developed a G.U.T. in a flash of insight and then left some obscure Post-it-note on his desk about it right before he died. It seems unlikely that an experimentalist would find him/herself in that sort of position.

EliRabett said...

Picasso had Braque. Physioprof is right but needs to go visit some good museums during the break

Thomas Joseph said...

I guess it boils down to whether you're doing applied or basic research. In my profession, I deal primarily in applied research, and as such, having a list of pursuable (and potentially tested) ideas would be of considerable worth IMO.

Ms.PhD said...

I don't really agree. Lots of great composers died before finishing masterpiece works, but they left enough of a skeleton plan that their students could finish it for them.

And what happens to the people in your lab? Maybe if you left a plan, it would be easier for them?

Heather Etchevers said...

Generally there are grant applications lying around, with a vague 5-year plan underway. These are as good as any as structure when a group leader dies. We've been through this very situation, and the two PI's who picked up some of the pieces after the sudden death of a colleague have done the best they can to finish the minimal amount of administration of her most important grants (upon which a number of people's employment depended). Things are getting a little trickier with respect to publications. The ones in preparation were easy to finish and include this dead colleague as an author. What about the ones that are coming three or four years after her death? I think there has been a lot of divergence since then from her original vision. On the other hand, she won't exactly say that she does not agree with the paper(s) as written.

As part of your legacy, would you like to be a "ghost" author for some years after your death? I personally am reluctant - let the living take their responsibility, and thank me explicitly in the acknowledgements if the project started thanks to me. Actually, I think I will sign this with my real name just so people can refer to these wishes in the future. ;-)

daedalus2u said...

I disagree with CPP. There are a great many ideas that are based on incremental work, and with a great many people working on them, yes eventually progress will be made. That is what Thomas Kuhn called “ordinary science”.

There are other ideas, a minority of ideas to be sure, but ideas that are so important and so discontinuous with what has been done before that they do not follow from previous work and will not result from the incremental approach. These are the ideas that form a new paradigm. I think that the development of Cubism would fit into that category. Cubism wasn’t solely the development of Picasso, but few ideas are solely the development of one person. Absent Picasso, art would have taken a different trajectory. Of course the idea of Cubism can’t be fit into a text description of a Cubist painting as in “paint a picture using a bunch of cubic shapes”.

Cubism didn’t originate because there were a bunch of smart people working toward a common goal, the goal of painting a picture using a bunch of cubic shapes.

The history of science always looks incremental because the history is always revised after there is a new paradigm. The new paradigm is incommensurate with the old; the new paradigm can’t be described using the old paradigm. The old paradigm can be discussed using the new, which can be used to describe both. The history of science always has to be written from the perspective that allows all of it to be understood.

A bunch of smart scientists such as Millikan would never have originated the photoelectric effect. Why? Because Millikan “knew” that light was a wave. Millikan was one of the last physicists to accept the photoelectric effect, many years after Millikan’s own data had convinced everyone else. Why? Because Millikan “knew” that light was a wave. Any theory of light that Millikan would have come up with could not have treated light as a particle the way the photoelectric effect did.

Newton’s F=ma didn’t change with relativity. What changed were the definitions of force, mass and acceleration. Their relationship didn’t change, just what they mean and the way they are understood which is a much more fundamental change.

Becky T said...

I guess the one notable occasion when your artists' analogy doesn't fully pan out is Mozart's Requiem. The Requiem was completed after Mozart died by fellow composers based in part on sketches he had made. The work is one of the most beloved pieces of choral music, even though it is unclear how much of it is as Mozart (would have) intended. Of course, it's possible that what Mozart would have written would be even better, but it's hard to imagine a more glorious piece of music! If Mrs. Mozart hadn't been pressed for the cash, we would likely be without it. Perhaps music is more collaborative than painting or drawing, but certainly not more so than science.