Hanging out with strangers in the name of science

Gepubliceerd op
6 mei 2014

Scientists have a systematic rational way of thinking, and academic teaching and institutions are designed to promote that in the best ways. However, the greatest scientific minds thrive on combining such rationality with rich intuitive association of ideas. Academic institutions should explicitly foster both elements of the dual-thinking process, asserts Professor Marten Scheffer from Wageningen University in an opinion piece published in PNAS earlier this week.

Thinking is the core business of scientists, yet they rarely ponder how it thrives best. Rationality, methods and procedures allow scientists to sort out between correct and incorrect, plausible and implausible. But that is only part of the story according to Professor Marten Scheffer – who was previously awarded the prestigious Dutch Spinoza Prize for his work. Scheffer stresses that creativity has to do with the capacity to make remote connections between seemingly unrelated things. This capacity differs between individuals but also depends on their state of mind. “During a walk, while falling asleep or peeling potatoes you allow your mind to wander,” Scheffer explains.  

Scientific awards

So how do you feed this ‘associative machine’ of our mind with interesting elements to connect through novel links? Winners of international scientific awards invariably internalized a lot of scientific diversity. Mere curiosity may typically drive such successful scientists to sniff out a diverse collection of ‘elements’ for the associative machine. Scheffer quotes Nobel Prize winner Kenneth Arrow, one of many scientists with whom he discussed the issue, to illustrate such unbridled curiosity. Arrow explained his own successful attitude with the paradoxical statement: “It is so far from anything I do, I must be interested.”

So why do the monetary incentives designed to encourage scientists to pursue multidisciplinary collaboration often not lead to the anticipated novelty? “I think we should rather foster the unexpected, unplanned encounters” says Scheffer. Small-scale, interdisciplinary institutes, such as SARAS in South America and the Santa Fé institute in the US are famous for that. However, more traditional campuses can do a lot by simply creating attractive informal places with irresistible food, good coffee and whiteboards that encourage unplanned cross-fertilization among the disciplines. “Hanging out with strangers, go for a walk, reading things that have nothing to do with your work – it may sound strange, but could spark your best ideas,” Scheffer explains. “So what are we waiting for? We know that unexpected associations are important and we know how to facilitate them!”