Archive for the ‘Discovery’ Category

Joint Discoveries Are Common

November 19, 2007

Joint discoveries are quite common in science.

Discoveries are not in general made before they have been led up to by the previous trend of thought, and by that time many minds are in hot pursuit of the important idea.

Examples of joint discoveries:

  • Law of natural selection: Darwin and Wallace
  • Discovery of Neptune: Adams and Leverrier
  • Creation of differential calculus: Newton and Leibniz

An Introduction to Mathematics by Alfred North Whitehead

Learn how to learn from books

November 3, 2007

For those of us who are no longer in school, it is necessary, if we want to go on learning and discovering, to know how to make books teach us well.  In that situation, if we want to go on learning, then we must know how to learn from books, which are absent teachers.

How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles van Doren

The “not discovered here” approach to discovery

September 29, 2007

Five steps to making discoveries and inventions:

  1. Define: define the problem you want to solve and define a goal that you want to attain that would solve the problem. At this point you know “what” you would like to see attained, but don’t know “how” to attain it.
  2. Abstract: The problem and goal that you identified will be expressed in terms specific to the area that you are working in. Your next step is to raise it up, abstract it, so that it is expressed in terms independent of your particular area of endeavor. Get the fundamental concepts identified.
  3. Already Discovered: This may be the most important step: assume that someone has already solved the problem (made the discovery) [1], although it may be in a different area of endeavor.
  4. Search: search the internet and read voraciously, looking for people working on analogous problems. You will likely need to abstract their work, and then compare their abstract problem statement with your abstract problem statement to determine if they are the same.
  5. Apply: once you’ve found someone who has already discovered what you want to do, apply their ideas and techniques to solving your problem

So, the problem of making a discovery comes down to these factors:

  • How good are you at searching?
  • How widely read are you? Do you have varied interests?
  • How good are you at recognizing that your problem is (abstractly) the same as someone else’s problem?

With this approach you acknowledge that, with near certitude, someone else has already solved the problem (made the discovery). The only “discovery” you have to make is to find their discovery, recognize that it’s essentially the same thing that you’re working on, and then apply their ideas and techniques to your particular situation.

This is the “not discovered here” approach to discovery.

[1] “Most claims of originality are testimony to ignorance and most claims of magic are testimony to arrogance.” [James March, Stanford University]

Antidote for the “not invented here” syndrome

September 28, 2007

Want to discover something or invent something? Discovering or inventing something that is completely new, that no one has ever conceived, is very unlikely (virtually zero probability). You are much more likely to succeed by taking an existing idea and applying it in a novel way.

Below is a quote from the book Hard Facts by Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton. They are talking about the benefits to companies of using old ideas in new ways. However, I think this benefit applies to all of us, not just companies.

I have always (mistakenly) thought that research meant discovering/inventing something totally new. If I were Albert Einstein then perhaps I could do that. Since I’m not, I now realize that a better approach is to expand my learning to many different areas and then apply ideas from other areas to my area of research.

“Creativity is mostly sparked by old ideas. Both major creative leaps and incremental improvements come from fiddling with ideas from other places and blending them in new ways.”

“Better ideas result when people act like nothing is invented here and seek new uses for others’ ideas.”

“Unfortunately, too many companies are plagued by the not invented here syndrome, where people insist on using homegrown ideas, especially ideas that can be ballyhooed as new and different.”

The real voyage of discovery

September 1, 2007

“The real voyage of discovery consists, not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

— Marcel Proust