Monday, September 19, 2016

Inventive and Innovative Thought


By Stephen Portz 

 

“The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ but, ‘that’s funny”…

- Isaac Asimov           
            The case has already been made for changing the way we educate if we are to remain competitive in a brutally aggressive world economy.  The only way that we will be able to survive is to develop creativity and quadrant D thinking – this is where new technologies and the developmental exploitation of those technologies reside… but, how is this done?
            Where does creativity originate anyway?  If it is true that humans are a combination of genetics and learned response, then where do original thoughts come from?  Is the thought somehow held dormant in a gene, only to be released at a predetermined developmental time frame?  Or, are our thoughts simply a product of our experiences, kind of like a computer - info in, info out?  If that is the case, then how is it possible for us to think a purely original thought?  For if we have previous knowledge of thing, the thought is not original; and if we are being creative and coming up with original thoughts, then by definition, we have not had experience in the area and have never considered them before. In which case, we would have to dismiss the learned response theory as the source of original thoughts.
            The powerful aspect of this condition is that if we have an original thought, an idea that we had never considered before, there is a possibility that no one else has thought of it either, and there is hope that the idea may be exploited in the market.

Parallel Processing
            An interesting side note to being the first person to come up with an idea is that many times in the history of civilization, inventions were occurring in different places simultaneously, with no knowledge of each other.  It seems that when an invention’s time has arrived, it will be developed; If not by a person here, then by another person on the other side of the world.  It is almost as if the idea is being broadcast to the whole world and anyone who is tuned in to the correct frequency can discover it.  I believe the story of the development of television bears this out:

Who Invented Television?
            Probably no other invention in history has been as hotly disputed as the prestigious claim to the invention of 'Tele-vision or 'long-distance sight' by wireless.” Since Marconi’s invention of wireless telegraphy in 1897, the imagination of many inventors have been sparked with the notion of sending images as well as sound, wirelessly.
            The first documented notion of sending components of pictures over a series of multiple circuits is credited to George Carey. Another inventor, W. E. Sawyer, suggested the possibility of sending an image over a single wire by rapidly scanning parts of the picture in succession.
            On December 2, 1922, in Sorbonne, France, Edwin Belin, an Englishman, who held the patent for the transmission of photographs by wire as well as fiber optics and radar, demonstrated a mechanical scanning device that was an early precursor to modern television. Belin’s machine took flashes of light and directed them at a selenium element connected to an electronic device that produced sound waves. These sound waves could be received in another location and remodulated into flashes of light on a mirror.

Another player of the times was John Logie Baird, a Scottish engineer and entrepreneur who achieved his first transmissions of simple face shapes in 1924 using mechanical television. On March 25, 1925, Baird held his first public demonstration of 'television' at the London department store - Selfridges, on Oxford Street in London. In this demonstration, he had not yet obtained adequate half-tones in the moving pictures, and only silhouettes were visible.' - MZTV
            Up until this point, the concept behind television was established, but it wasn’t until electronic scanning of imagery (the breaking up of images into tiny points of light for transmission over radio waves), was invented, that modern television received its start. But here is where the controversy really heats up.
            The credit as to who was the inventor of modern television really comes down to two different people in two different places both working on the same problem at about the same time: Vladimir Kosma Zworykin, a Russian-born American inventor working for Westinghouse, and Philo Taylor Farnsworth, a privately backed farm boy from the state of Utah.

“Zworykin had a patent, but Farnsworth had a picture…”
            Zworykin is often credited in history books as being the father of modern television. This was because the patent for the heart of the TV, the electron scanning tube, was first applied for by Zworykin in 1923, under the name of an iconoscope. The iconoscope was an electronic image scanner - essentially a primitive television camera. Farnsworth was the first of the two inventors to successfully demonstrate the transmission of television signals, which he did on September 7, 1927, using a scanning tube of his own design. Farnsworth received a patent for his electron scanning tube in 1930. Zworykin was not able to duplicate Farnsworth’s achievements until 1934 and his patent for a scanning tube was not issued until 1938. The truth of the matter is this, that while Zworykin applied for the patent for his iconoscope in 1923, the invention was not functional until some years later and all earlier efforts were of such poor quality that Westinghouse officials ordered him to work on something “more useful.” It is also interesting to note that Zworykin visited Farnsworth in his lab during this time to check on his work.
            In the late thirties, when RCA and Zworykin, who was now working for RCA, tried to claim rights to the essence of television, it became evident that Farnsworth held
the priority patent in the technology. The president of RCA sought to control television the same way that they controlled radio and vowed that, “RCA earns royalties, it does not pay them,” and a 50 million dollar legal battle subsequently ensued. 

            In the height of the legal battle for patent priority, Farnsworth’s high school science teacher was subpoenaed and traveled to Washington to testify that as a 14 year old, Farnsworth had shared his ideas of his television scanning tube with his teacher. With patent priority status ruled in favor of Farnsworth, RCA for the first time in its history, began paying royalties for television in 1939. Philo Farnsworth was recently named one of TIME Magazine's 100 Greatest Scientists and Thinkers of the 20th Century.


Source:  http://www.physlink.com/Education/AskExperts/ae408.cfm Extracted from the web Sept 19, 2016.

            The development of television illustrates the point I am trying to make, when conditions are right, ideas are borne and inventions come into being - often times in many different places simultaneously; not that these ideas can be forced or evoked at will, but if their qualities and nature are better understood, there may be a way to better recognize them and seize on the opportunity that they present. Albert Einstein, arguably the greatest mind our civilization has known, intimated at where creativity and inspiration came from for him:

“The intellect has little to do on the road to discovery.  There comes a leap of consciousness, call it intuition or what you will, the solution comes to you and you don’t know how or why.”

And:

“There comes a time when the mind takes a higher plane of knowledge but can never prove how it got there.  All great discoveries have involved just such a leap.  The important thing is to not stop questioning.”


            There also appears to be a consistent pattern or habit that inventors exhibit that causes their mind to relax and allows inspiration to come to them after they have begun to consider a problem.  Einstein received the necessary inspiration to develop his ideas on particle theory while watching a game of billiards.  On another occasion, he developed his theory of relativity after having a dream about riding on a beam of light.  Farnsworth’s inspiration for an electron beam scanning tube for television came to him on his family farm in Idaho while considering a freshly plowed field.  He was only a young teenager at the time.  Archimedes supposedly solved the classic materials volume to density relationship while taking a bath.  

            What do each of these and many other inventor inspiration stories have in common?  It appears that the inventor starts by considering the problem, but instead of wrestling with the problem and exhausting the mind in hopes of forcing the ideas to come, it would appear that the best inventors consider a problem but then they go off and do other things.  In this way, the inventor allows their mind to relax, appreciate, wonder and wander in discovery; To find examples, parallels, and patterns; To allow thoughts to flow freely, naturally, and uncoerced, often times in activities that are far removed from the problem in question.

“Every now and then go away, even briefly, have a little relaxation, for when you come back to your work your judgment will be surer.”        

-DaVinci.
            I have previously mentioned the attitude of my father-in-law with regard to thinking and learning.  As a holder of some 30 U.S. patents, many of them classified, and having worked
intimately with many Department of Defense programs, has given him some interesting insights into inventive inspiration.  He speaks often of right and left brain functioning – the left hemisphere being used for languages and logic and the right hemisphere being used for feelings, form, and intuition. 
  
         The right side of the brain is the side that you need to tap into to get to inspiration and to go places where no one has gone before.  The problem is that the right side of the brain does not speak English, or any other known language for that matter, so it communicates through a feeling structure.  It is where we get impressions, hunches, and all original thought.  It is also where we come to begin to understand the metaphysical world – or the world that we can not now understand, see, or measure.  Dad maintains that he gets much of his insight in dream states where subconscious thoughts dominate. Having degrees in physics and math, dad has strong logic and reasoning quotients but he describes the process of being inspired during sleep in an almost irrational way: 

 “The right side whispers impressions of an idea to me; the left side of my brain jumps in and starts arguing how impractical the idea is; when the argument gets really heated, that is when I wake up and write everything down.  This usually occurs between three and four in the morning.”


            Dad often uses nature as a rich source of his inspiration.  “If there is a problem to solve the first thing that you should do is consider if nature has already solved it.”
 He relates and account of traveling with his grandfather to the Hopi village of Hotevilla, while just a child of ten and witnessing the sacred Hopi Snake Dance.  In the dance, Hopi priests dance with rattlesnakes in their mouths in an effort to petition the gods for rain. As one of the dancers passed near to him, so near in fact, that he was frightened by the snake’s appearance as he had never before seen one that close, he noticed some unusual marks below each eye on the snake’s head.  The marks, as he would come to learn, as the wondering child matured into the adult scientist, were the “pits” of a viper snake.

“If there is a problem to solve the first thing that you should do is consider if nature has already solved it.”

            “You see it is very interesting, when a rattlesnake hunts at night, it can’t see much better than you or I so it has perfected the ability of heat detection by using its pits.  The pits are actually heat sensors that have the ability to detect heat in certain frequencies.  The way the snake operates to home in on a prey is to wave its head back and forth to discern the three dimensional thermal image.  It has to be able to tell the difference between a rat paralyzed with fear and a rock that is still warm from the heat of the day.  To further discriminate, the snake may shake its rattles, this serves to scare the rat even more which greatly elevates the creature’s heart rate and heats him up for the snake to distinguish which object to strike.” This very same thermal recognition effect was used forty years ago as dad worked on the development team that created the redeye missile for the Air Force.

            Dr. Yoshiro Nakamats, Japan’s most prolific inventor with over 3000 patents to his credit, talks about inspiration in another way.  He calls it his five tier pagoda of invention theory:  The first tier of the pagoda is the spiritual side, “the spirit must be pure.”  The second tier deals with the mind and body in the things we eat and drink and the exercise that we get.  Dr. Nakamats takes great care in what he consumes, even taking pictures of his meals before eating so that if he feels strong or weak brain functioning he can attribute it to what he ate, and return to, or avoid those foods.  In his swimming exercise routine, he always brings something to write on, as some of his best inspiration comes during these times.  Nakamats associates swimming and the breath control needed to swim, with increased brain strength and his inventive prowess.  To regularly deprive the brain of oxygen by holding one’s breath causes the body to compensate by creating an overdeveloped carotid artery, thus supercharging the brain with an abundance of oxygen at times when you are not performing these “breath exercises.”

            The third tier of the pagoda is knowledge, both scientific and non-scientific.  Before inventive thoughts can take place, a foundation of understanding about the world and its workings needs to be laid.  Tier four is the experience level.  With our knowledge base, we go off into the world and try different things and these trials give us experience and are good, if we learn from them.  “If there are two paths, one easy and one hard, we must always choose the hard path, because it strengthens our life and gives us good experience.”  

            The fifth tier of the pagoda is the act of turning your thoughts into inventions.  When recounting the experience of how he came up with the idea for the floppy disc for IBM -Nakamats describes listening to classical music (Beethoven’s Fifth symphony), and as he did so, he saw a butterfly in his mind.  As he watched the butterfly his attention was drawn to its wings, and as he looked at its wings, the wings materialized into a floppy disc.

Cut From a Different Cloth
            If these concepts are beginning to sound a little strange to you and if at any moment you expect to hear Rod Stirling’s voice and doodoo, doodoo music, then you probably are having the common reaction to a discussion of this sort.  The fact is, that few people are inventors of any consequence, but those that are, definitely walk to the beat of a different drummer.  For those of us trying to be inventive, perhaps that is our first clue as to what it takes.
            Great inventors and innovators have a passion for changing the status quo, they are not content to keep things as they are but are constantly looking to find a better way. 

Thomas Edison described his passion in this way:

“…often I am correctly described as more of a sponge than an inventor…

I am always extremely interested in the novel ideas of others… I never pick up an item without thinking of how I might improve it.”


Einstein put it this way when referring to his problem solving abilities: 

“I have no particular talent.  I am merely inquisitive.”


And…with regard to the importance of developing creativity:

“Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

“When I examine myself and my methods of thought I have come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing positive knowledge.”


Into the Mind of an Inventor
            Anyone who has raised a preschooler knows how very imaginative and inquisitive these wonderful little minds are.  They are very creative and want to know how everything works.  Even kindergarten students are special in this way and come to school filled with wonder and desire to know why things are.  Their teachers work with them to answer their many questions, particularly about this new place – school, and teach them the structure needed to function in a school setting.  From that point on into the primary grades and beyond, it is pretty much down to business.  There is not time for personal inquisitiveness and after awhile, it begins to be extinguished. 
            Thomas Edison started school in much the same way, but perhaps was even more inquisitive than the normal youngster.  At some point in time, his teacher got so frustrated


with his constant questioning that she labeled the boy “addled,” which at the time meant that he would be unable to learn as normal students do.  His mother, a teacher herself, was so furious, that she removed him from public school and taught him at home; So Thomas Edison is actually one of the first home school success stories since the inception of institutionalized public schools.  Needless to say, his experiences with formal education left Edison with a not too favorable impression of that type of learning.  When orienting a college graduate to his new position in one of his labs the grad mistakenly asked Edison what the rules were for working for him.  Edison retorted, “Rules! There are no rules here; we are trying to accomplish something!”

            Einstein had a similar disdain for formal education, but probably not for the reasons that most people infer – especially when they perpetuate notions that he flunked 9th grade algebra or couldn’t talk until he was four or read until age seven. 
               Although some Einstein biographers have disputed the widely held belief that Einstein 
was a poor student, the papers at Princeton lay this to rest once and for all. According to Dr. Stachel,
 those who saw Einstein's academic records may have been misled by a reversal in the grading system 
of his school in Aargau, Switzerland.  Those records show that, for two successive terms, when Einstein
 was 16, his mark in arithmetic and algebra was 1 on a scale of 6, in which 1 was the highest grade. 
For the next term his mark was 6, which would have been the lowest grade, except that the grading 
scale had been reversed by school officials.”
Sullivan, Walter. The New York Times – Late City Final Edition, February 14, 1984

            In an unpublished biography written by his sister Maja, she confides that Albert was an unusual child from the start, spending great quantities of time in difficult and tedious tasks such as building card houses.  Contrary to popular reports, his sister notes that while his development was seemingly slower, he began speaking by the age of two and half years, not four, as many have said.  As a testament that her recounts were not just out of sentimental fondness to her brother and to refute earlier “facts,” she also notes that when her brother was born, "his mother was shocked at the sight of the back of his head, which was extremely large and angular."
Hayden, Thomas. The Inner Einstein US News and World Report. December 9, 2002. http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/news/800220/posts extracted from the web Sept. 19, 2016.

            Perhaps there is some truth to Einstein’s “late” development and the stories that have been perpetuated.  He himself, admits the reason behind all of his breakthrough work in physics, when the world had already been perfectly described by other great scientists was because, "…my intellectual development was retarded, as a result of which I began to wonder about space and time only when I had grown up" (Hayden, 2016).
            Sounds a little child-like in his attitude and appreciation of the wonders of nature doesn’t it?  Maybe even a little like those preschoolers that we were talking about earlier.  At any rate, it is impossible to know exactly what he meant, as Einstein’s genius for interacting with reporters and the people who loved to flock to him went far beyond the physics:  "A horde of reporters boarded our ship near Long Island," he complains. "[They] asked me extremely stupid questions which I answered with cheap retorts, which they accepted with enthusiasm."
            There are other experiences in his life that hint into his unique approach to intellectual growth, as evidenced in the following quote, “the only thing that interferes with my learning is my education.”  This attitude could have been confirmed by one of his first job placements after college as a patent clerk.  More prestigious academic positions were denied him because of poor recommendations from his college professors, this because of his disdain for authority and his casual attendance at their required lectures.  There are no reports that Einstein suffered any from the slight though, in fact, he wrote some of his best papers while serving as a patent clerk
            If we take any lessons from Edison and Einstein, it would appear that a possible pattern for fostering inventive thinking is to have a curious and child-like wonder about the world around us, and continually think upon how things might be improved.

How We UnTeach Creativity and Problem Solving
            In teaching an architecture unit to middle school students, I discovered that they have a difficult time drawing houses the way houses actually look. When drawing houses, these students typically will not draw what they see when they look at their home instead, they will often draw a symbol of a house:

            This was frustrating enough that I went to discuss the matter with our art teacher.  As the teacher of a very successful art program, I had witnessed how she had the ability to take just about any student and give them technical and artistic methods to make them a passable artist – some with amazing success.  So I asked her, “How do you get your students to draw what they see?”  And I described the problem that I was having.  She laughed and explained what was happening, as apparently this topic has also come up in art circles before:  “When children first go to kindergarten, the teacher frequently asks them to draw a picture of their home and family.  This activity can tell the teacher a great deal about the child’s development and their family and it puts the child at ease as a great icebreaker.  The problem is that many children have a hard time with stick figures, much less drawing a house, so the teacher draws the house icon on the board for them to copy.  Apparently the imprinting sticks because for many years thereafter, when you ask someone to draw a house this is what you get.”
            Many other topics of study have the tendency to also get “standardized,” in our instruction.  There is after all, only one way to look at a problem, there is only one correct
answer, if there wasn’t, the tests would take too long to grade.  A powerful example of how formal education may have the tendency to squelch creativity and problem solving ability was evidenced in a study by the Carnegie Foundation. 
            The study of the early 90’s sought to understand how certain populations dealt with emerging technologies and so they centered their research on the then popular videocassette recorder.  The Foundation asked groups of people to set up a VCR properly so that it would show the correct time and be able to record a program when they were out of the house.  The participants were each provided with an operator’s instruction manual and all associated equipment and cabling. The study revealed some surprising things about the performance of different age groups and their corresponding educational attainment. 
            Probably of no surprise, children age 8-12 were the best at setting up the machines.  The worst population at performing the task was not only the college educated, but those holding postgraduate degrees.  An argument could be made here that the population is older and less familiar with the technology, but wouldn’t it stand to reason that they should be the group most able to read the manual, extract the needed information and apply it?  Of particular note was the finding that the second best performing subgroup was the young adult population, but not the mainstream as one might expect – it was those individuals that had actually dropped out of high school.  This study is very telling about the relationship between the amount of formal education a person has and their corresponding problem solving ability.


Science Research?
          “In some ways science is all about prediction, because if a scientific theory is right, it predicts accurately the behavior of some process in nature.  The irony is that so much of what happens in the day to day events that lead to a scientific discovery is anything but predictable.  The process by which discoveries are made is almost always  turbulent with chance or accident, and only very rarely is a discovery the result of careful, rational planning.”                
-James Burke Author of the Connections Series and the Pinball Effect.
         
          A perfect example of pushing students into a conformance model and suppressing creativity and inquisitiveness has to deal with the science fairs projects of today.  Go to many elementary or middle school science fair and witness all the cookie cutter projects so neatly stamped out it is almost as if they were all scripted.  It is because many of them are.  Books are actually being written to give the students ideas for science projects and how to set them up and present them.
            “[The working scientist]…is that he is not following any prescribed course of action, but feels complete freedom to use any method or device…before him that seems likely to yield the correct answer…in short, science is what scientists do, and there are as many scientific methods as there are individual scientists.”
Dr. Terry Halwes
Bridman, Percy W. “On Scientific Method”.  http://dharma-haven.org/science/dispelling-myth-magical-science.htm.  Extracted from the web Sept 19, 2016.

            I will never forget how excited my third grade son was with his first opportunity to do science fair.  It was because there were so many things that he desired to know about; he loved the natural world and wanted to know what made it work.  When I asked him what he wanted to study, he said lightening. I told him I thought that that was a great idea. He came back from school the next day a little less excited so I asked him about his science fair project.  He said, “my teacher said that for my science fair project to be a science fair project I have to make my idea into a question.”  So I said to him, “that sounds fine, what question would you like to ask?”  He thinks a bit and replied, “What causes lightening?”
            I told him that I thought that that would be a really good question for science fair, and off he runs again, so excited.  The next day, he comes home and he is really low.  When I asked him what is wrong, he said, “My teacher told me that I can’t do a science fair project on lightening because I can’t do experiments with lightening.” My son ended up doing experiments with toothpaste on an egg to see which one cleaned the best; but it sure was a step down from working with lightening, and he never did regain his excitement about science. 
            I share this story because it is illustrative of some of the conditions in our educational system today; students are often directed away from the things that they are interested in or shoved through a process that takes the creativity, thinking and learning out of it to conform to a convenient structure for the teacher.  Science is supposed to be the discovery of why.  The question why, may not have a known answer, and it surely does not have to have a hypothesis before it is allowed to be asked.  In fact, if you already have a pretty good idea about the answer, enough to form a hypothesis, then doesn’t it seems a little silly to take the time to ask the question and do all the experimenting in the first place? 
            I know, I know, it doesn’t matter if the hypothesis isn’t proven correct, it is the experimental process that is the important thing.  That is always given as the science fair party line, but who gets excited studying something where they already have a good idea what the answer is; or by having their “educated guess” proven wrong, and, when is the last time you saw a project with an unproven hypothesis statement win anything at a science fair?  Isn’t it human nature that if you think a certain way that it only follows that you would want to be correct in your assumptions, and wouldn’t you only be looking for data that proves your point?  How do we get away with calling that science?  Science is supposed to be unbiased; it is supposed to be the discovery of truth, not just looking for the data that proves a point while neglecting the data that doesn’t. 
            A very famous anthropological study has been called into question over the last twenty years for some of these very arguments of research bias.  In the late 1920’s Margaret Mead studied the Samoan peoples of the Pacific.  She came back and published her findings in a book which she titled, "Coming of Age in Samoa."  In this very popular and highly acclaimed book, Mead suggested that Samoan youth undergo less stressful teenage years because of a culture which encouraged sexual promiscuity.  Mead’s study challenged the notion of absolutes of right and wrong in favor of cultural relativism.  That is, that people don’t have an innate disposition for good or bad because such things were determined by the norms of their culture. Other anthropologists have since questioned the findings of her study but only after half a century of acceptance and influence in the social sciences community:
“…Nolan said the "Coming of Age in Samoa" became so popular because at the time "there was a strong movement towards sexual freedom in this country and people wanted to believe what she had to say."
“…third, she arrived in Samoa with a false preconception from Edward Handy,
director of the Bishop Museum, that she would find premarital promiscuity as the
cultural pattern in Samoa. Fourth, she idolized Franz Boas and wanted to reach a
conclusion that he would find acceptable.”
Nolan, Patrick.(2000) Personal interview. 26 Jan. 2000.  Retrieved from the web Sept. 19, 2016, from http://margaretmead2008.tripod.com/mvf.htm

            Just as in Mead’s scientific study, problems with research bias and the “scientific method” could be resolved by instead of hypothesizing a possible answer which supposedly represents the “scientific method,” and going about trying to find data to support the claim, to simply ask, “why a condition exists or why something works?” and, “under what conditions something exists, works or works better, and why?”  In this way, all the data could be considered, not just the parts of it that prove a point.  A further example of the flaw in the “scientific method,” is the promulgation of studies to prove something is good for you, or bad for you.  These “studies” are almost always funded by organizations that stand to benefit from the research findings; essentially making a desired hypothesis and then going out to find data that only supports that assertion, while ignoring all others.  Sounds kind of familiar, huh?  Just like Science Fair.
            My father-in-law’s attitude in this respect is, “follow the data, theory be damned.”  Meaning essentially, don’t construct a theory and then go around looking for data to support the theory - which is what most people do; rather than do that, we should take in all the data and look for patterns to construct ideas.  Anomalies in data are not to be discarded, for they represent amazing opportunities for discovery as a person delves into why they exist and under what conditions they do exist.

Summary
            America holds a heritage rich in innovation.  It began with our pioneer forefathers making a living on difficult frontiers; It was continued in our agricultural era when many people lived on a farm and had to know how to fix what ever didn’t work; It carried over as people migrated to cities and suburbia where many had a shop in their backyard, or a garage to tinker in;  And it continues today, when breakthrough innovation may hold the key to great wealth in our free market system. 
            This chapter describes the essence of innovative thought and creativity.  Patterns of thought in the lives of great inventors were identified and discussed for their value in nurturing in the lives of our own students.  The nature of creativity is elaborated and ideas for encouraging it and just as importantly, not discouraging it, are discussed.  As it is pointed out, there is an unfortunate relationship between formal instruction and the creative problem solving process because standardizing thought can have the negative impact of stifling creativity and problem solving prowess.  The way we structure educational delivery must consider these relationships if creativity and innovation is to be effectively nurtured in the classroom.