Scientific Anthology: How Hobbies Affect Scientific Exploration

Introduction

As the saying goes, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” What they don’t tell you is that it also makes Jack less likely to succeed at work. In the next fifteen examples, you will see the value of play–hobbies–in addition to work, specifically scientific exploration. In his book, Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson reports how hobbies have benefited the scientific community through many generations.

 

“Legendary innovators like Franklin, Snow, and Darwin all possess some common intellectual qualities—a certain quickness of mind, unbounded curiosity—but they also share one other defining attribute. They have a lot of hobbies” (Johnson, 172).

The innovative power that comes from balancing work and play–career and hobbies–has always been present in scientific exploration. This anthology will describe how that power is still at work today.

Continue reading “Scientific Anthology: How Hobbies Affect Scientific Exploration”

Scientific Anthology: How Hobbies Affect Scientific Exploration

Genentech: A Visionary Company

Sally Smith Hughes lays out the history of one of biotechnologies most important and influential companies, Genentech. From the founders early days through their most important discoveries the self explaining title Genentech, the Beginnings of Biotech, tells of how Genentech was founded in South San Francisco. According to Hughes “Genentech: The Beginnings of Biotech is the story of a pioneering genetic-engineering company that inspired a new industrial sector, transforming the biomedical and commercial landscapes ever after”(VIII). By becoming the first in the industry to synthesize insulin and Human Growth Hormone, Genentech placed themselves in history. Hughes writing tells of a new creation,  “the entrepreneurial biologist” and the “intimate and people centered history traces the seminal early years of a company that devised new models for biomedical research”(xi). The importance of Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen in the field of biotechnology is repeatedly emphasized in Hughes’s words. This non-fiction history of Genentech is laid out for you by a leading historian of science and the University of California at Berkeley. Often, the existence of insulin for diabetics, or HGH for those who suffer from other disabilities, is taken for granted. Genentech tells the story of the struggle to recreate such complicated bio-medications. Continue reading “Genentech: A Visionary Company”

Genentech: A Visionary Company

Looking Back to Johnson

“Boyer and Swanson, holding 925,000 shares apiece, became instant multimillionaires, each reaping a one-day profit of nearly $70 million… The founders’ initial $500 investments in Genentech had vaulted the sons of a railroad man and an airplane mechanic to an inconceivable peak of fame and fortune.” -Hughes, pg 158

This quote reminded me of one of the subjects discussed in Where Good Ideas Come From, the concept of being able to take a single idea (in this case, Swanson’s idea to use recombinant DNA to start a biotech company) and make an enormous profit off of it. It’s a very American idea–intelligence combined with hard work can earn you a great deal of money. The example Johnson used was that of the invention of air conditioning. But looking back in Johnson’s book, I realized there’s a difference between the gold mine that Willis Carrier (inventor of air conditioning) found, and that of Genentech.
Looking back at Johnson’s book, I was reminded of his idea of the four quadrants, combinations of market and non-market innovations, and those created by individuals and those created by networks. The creation of air conditioning was an individual effort.
But the creation of Genentech was far from individual. Even at the company’s very beginning it was a network of business and science; both were needed in order to turn Genentech into a success. Johnson would certainly put Genentech’s manufacturing of insulin and all their other biological products in the second quadrant–market, networked innovations. It was Swanson’s intention from the start to make a profit off of what Boyer and the other scientists could accomplish, so Genentech’s achievements were market innovations. And given the numerous contributions from all kinds of scientific and business-oriented fields, it’s impossible to deny that Genentech’s success was the result of a vast network.

Looking Back to Johnson

Science and Industry

“The heart of [Boyer’s] problem, as they saw it, was that as a full-time, tenured professor he was simultaneously and inappropriately cofounder, vice president, board member, advisor, and major stockholder of a private company–Boyer’s company… As his severest critics put it, he was ‘selling out to industry.'” -Hughes, pg 71

I thought it was interesting that so many people were adamantly against the idea of Boyer working with Genentech. The idea that he was “selling out to industry” makes me wonder if many researchers at the time wanted science and industry to remain separate; maybe they thought scientific research should be motivated by curiosity and a need to understand how things work rather than attempting to turn a discovery into a product.
If that is the case, then I would certainly disagree with those types of researchers. Commercializing the product of an experiment can bring in money for the laboratory or university, providing funds that would allow them to do even more research. I’m not sure I see the logic behind these criticisms of Herb Boyer–an ideological disagreement, that I can see. Maybe these critics aren’t fond of the idea of a scientist being so involved in business. But calling it in appropriate?
The only concern I might have had regarding Boyer’s work with Genentech is simply the question of whether or not he has enough time to devote to both, and if not, then which would be his first priority? Teaching or business?

Science and Industry

DNA: The Smallest Clue

Samantha Weinberg, a writer, reporter, and politician, wrote Pointing from the Grave: A True Story of Murder and DNA. This book tells the story of Paul Frediani, a sex offender, and murderer. In a thrilling manner, Weinberg explains how DNA was discovered, and eventually used to convict Frediani of the murder of Helena Greenwood, a prominent research scientist. Helena was a visionary who “knew the power of this twisted molecule: she could see its potential” (xiii). In the prologue Weinberg writes “this is a story about a murder and a molecule. It is both the history of a science, overlaid with human drama, and a human tragedy inextricably entwined with science” (xi). This book lays the perfect amount of foundation, scientific knowledge, along with an engaging story of a man who got away with murder for 15 years until technology finally caught up with his crime. Without being a dry summary of DNA, Weinberg explains everything from Mendel’s study of peas to Mullis’ discovery of PCR. Without the knowledge of these scientists, each discovery was a step towards the conviction of Paul Frediani. The two stories, one about the discovery of DNA analysis, and another about Helena’s sufferings at the hands of Frediani, are perfectly intertwined, almost like the double helix of DNA. Weinberg has certainly done her research. The entire history of DNA is laid out within this book with expert input from the scientists who participated in the research. This book is perfect for any reader who isn’t afraid of light academic writing, but also keeps it interesting with engaging drama. Continue reading “DNA: The Smallest Clue”

DNA: The Smallest Clue

Sociopath

“I spoke to someone who had been involved in the case on the defense side, a psychologist. She said that, in her view, Frediani has the personality of a sociopath: charismatic, impulsive, hedonistic, smart, manipulative, faithless in sexual relationships, and ultimately remorseless.” -Weinberg, pg 339

I thought it was interesting that, following a discussion in class regarding possible personality disorders Frediani may have had, the book closes by addressing this idea.
But I’m also intrigued by the fact that a psychologist had been involved in Frediani’s case and had never testified. It seems she was able to create a relatively strong profile of Frediani as a sociopath–her description fits Frediani very well. Although the jury isn’t supposed to let themselves be swayed by emotion, building on the suspect’s character seems to be a key part of both the prosecution’s and the defense’s arguments. If the prosecution could suggest to the jury that the suspect is a sociopath, I’m sure they’d think it much more likely that such a person could commit murder.
Of course, it looks like this psychologist was working with the defense, and Bartick certainly would not have wanted the jury thinking his client was a sociopath. We don’t even know if the psychologist in question shared her view with anyone apart from Weinberg.
It certainly makes me wonder about the role of psychology in the courts.

Sociopath

Pathos in the Courtroom

“It gave Valerie an opportunity to put the photograph of Helena, crumpled behind the gate, back on the easel. For the rest of day two, the jury was confronted with this constant reminder of the pathos of violent death.” Weinberg, pg 280

Reading this chapter, the word ‘pathos’ jumped out at me. I’m currently taking a class in rhetoric, or the art of persuasion. And we learned about the three main types of arguments a person can make: logical arguments, based in the issue itself (logos), ethical arguments, based in the speaker’s reputation (ethos), and pathetic arguments, based in emotion (pathos). Based on this quote, it appears obvious that the prosecuting attorney is trying to get an emotional reaction out of the jury by leaving the picture of Helena’s body on display. She wants the jury to feel pity for the victim, which would lead to the jury feeling anger towards Frediani, which would in turn lead to his conviction. Pathos can be used to create very compelling arguments, especially in a case such as this one, a case so focused on people.
But the above quote isn’t the only mention of emotional appeals in this chapter.

“Solemn-faced, the twelve file into their seats on the first morning of their duties and listen as the judge instructs them of their powers, that they must apply the law without being influenced by pity or passion, and based on the facts and the evidence presented to them.” -Weinberg, pg 270

This explanation of the jury’s responsibilities makes it clear that they’re expected to ignore any emotional appeals made throughout the trial. Frediani should be convicted or exonerated based on evidence alone.
And yet the prosecution and defense will inevitably use pathos in their arguments, trying to stir up pity for the victim or the suspect, passion against the accused or the prosecution. Because they know that facts can be ignored and witnesses can be discredited. But it’s very hard to forget how something or someone made you feel.

Pathos in the Courtroom

Using DNA

“DNA evidence must always be looked at in the context of the evidence that has to be analyzed. It is an aid, not a substitute for police work.” -Weinberg, pg. 221

I think this quote from the British forensic scientist answers a lot of questions we’ve discussed in class, most importantly whether or not it was just to convict someone on DNA evidence alone. Even though it can point to a single person out of thousands or millions, DNA is still just a type of evidence. It can certainly help build a strong case against a suspect, but it’s important that those working in the justice system acknowledge that DNA is only a piece.
Say DNA is found at the scene of a crime, and it’s a perfect match for a prime suspect. A DNA match shouldn’t automatically call for a conviction; if the suspect has a solid alibi, they shouldn’t be convicted for that crime, despite what the DNA says.

Using DNA

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

“Eileen remembers his ugly temper, and also his emotional, romantic side. ‘He has two personalities,’ she said, ‘just like a Jekyll and Hyde. He even looked different when he was in a rage, his nostrils flaring, these wild eyes, this rage…'” -Weinberg, pg 185

I was very struck by Eileen’s comparison of Frediani and Jekyll and Hyde. The story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is one I’m pretty familiar with–an incredibly kind and well-meaning scientist who attempted to create a formula that would separate the evil and good inside men, only to have it turn him into a murderous (and in some adaptations of the story, lust-filled) monster. And it’s frightening how easy it is for readers to see the connection between Frediani and the Jekyll and Hyde, especially Hyde.
But there’s a major difference between Frediani’s fits of rage and Dr. Jekyll’s transformations in Mr. Hyde–Henry Jekyll has no control over the change, and as evidenced by the new name he assumes after the transformation, he becomes an entirely different person. No longer Dr. Jekyll. Only Edward Hyde. But Paul Frediani is always Paul Frediani, and as far as we know, he has nothing to excuse his temper and his violent outbursts. We know from the book that during the first assault trial, he was seeing a psychologist regularly; it’s unlikely he suffers from any kind of mental disorder, especially any kind that might encourage violence, or else the court psychologist would have made it known during the trial. And Frediani certainly can’t put the blame on a science experiment gone wrong. It seems the most likely explanation for his violence and short temper is that it’s simply a part of the man’s personality. Tell that to a jury, and it just might increase the likelihood they’ll see Frediani as the sort of person who’d commit a sexual assault, or a murder.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Sympathy from the Jury

“The court adjourned for its morning break, and when it reconvened, Andrea Goodhart was called to the stand. She should have been a sympathetic figure: intelligent, twenty-three years old and pregnant with twins to a man who was facing a prison sentence.” -Weinberg pg 96

Oddly enough, parts of this chapter reminded me of when I read The Apology, Plato’s account of Socrates’s trial, which ended with the famous philosopher being sentenced to death. Near the end of the trial, Socrates made it clear that he didn’t want to play by the court’s rules. Unlike many defendants, Socrates said that he wasn’t going to bring his family to court, showing off his children in the hope of winning some sympathy from the jury. He believed that the speech he gave in his defense should have been enough to convince the jury on its own.
This brings us to Frediani’s trial. Andrea Goodhart was a witness because she could help paint a clearer picture of Frediani as a person, as well as supporting his alibi for the day Helena was assaulted. But you can’t deny that her being a witness could serve another purpose. It tells the jury that Frediani has a pregnant girlfriend waiting for him, enough to maybe make some jurors hesitant to declare him guilty.
Comparing Frediani’s trial to that of Socrates has started me thinking about the ethics involved in these sorts of cases. Socrates wanted to win his case on evidence alone, but Frediani’s defense attorney clearly has no issue with trying to win some sympathy from the jury if it means his client goes free.

Sympathy from the Jury

The Body After Death

“When the first officers arrived, Roger was sitting beside Helena, crying, gently brushing flies from her eyes.” -Weinberg, pg 70

As morbid as it sounds, this quote reminded me of when we learned about the stages of decomposition of a human body, and different ways to tell how long a person had been dead. One of those methods involved maggots, as flies would lay eggs on corpses, and you could estimate how long a person had been dead by looking at which stage of life the maggots were in. However, in this case, it’s much easier to estimate how long Helena had been dead, as we know she was on the phone just before nine, and she was found in the early afternoon; besides, I don’t know if forensic entomology was well-known or well-used in 1985, so this technique might not have been available anyway.
But we also learned about the different stages the body goes through, and about how long it takes to get to each stage. I didn’t remember exactly what those stages were or how long each took, so I looked it up.
Immediately following death, the skin becomes “tight and grey in color,” the muscles relax, and the body’s temperature starts dropping (approximately 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit per hour, depending on environmental factors). We know that Helena wasn’t found immediately following her death. So onto the next stage.
After thirty minutes, “the skin gets purple and waxy” and lips, fingernails and toenails become pale as the blood is drained from them. The blood begins to pool in the lower parts of the body, depending on the position the body is in; those parts of the body become dark purple or blue, and is called lividity. We see this in the book, describing the change in color of Helena’s back and shoulders, except the parts where there was pressure. So Helena was dead for at least half an hour. Let’s look at the next stage.
By the time four hours have passed, rigor mortis sets in. Rigor mortis is when the muscles in the body stiffen, making it difficult or impossible to change the position of the body. It isn’t clear if Helena’s body has reached this stage yet; if not, then it’s likely she had been dead less than four hours when she was found.

Website used: http://www.anomalies-unlimited.com/Death/Stages.html

The Body After Death

Where Good Books Come From

Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From will walk you through how the greatest thinkers form their ideas. In fact, his book explains in depth to you exactly what the subtitle says, “The Natural History of Innovation.” Johnson’s extensive experience of technological progress shows itself inside his chapters as he fully explains his main idea of the “slow hunch” by examining hunches like “a plot involving multiple radical Islamic fundamentalists” and how different ideas about how to identify these men are more successful than others (74). By using several other microcosms like that throughout his book Johnson incorporates his knowledge about how science has progressed in a way that is engaging and fast paced. Johnson’s goal is to show us how great ideas form, and where, like how “a metropolis with a population of five million people was almost three times more creative than the average resident of a town of a hundred thousand (11). His writing is full of interesting facts such as this. As a nonfiction book, Johnson presents historical evidence in support of his analysis of how the many great ideas in science have formed. His writing is both informative and entertaining, chock full of behind the scenes looks about great scientists like Charles Darwin and how they came to the realization of their great ideas. Our society is pushed forward by great inventions like the printing press and by revolutionary ideas like the punnett square. Johnson breaks down the process of these discoveries and finds a system that identifies the keys to forming a great hunch. This system proves in fact, where good ideas come from. Continue reading “Where Good Books Come From”

Where Good Books Come From

The Purpose of Backstory

“Paul felt truly happy; at last he was becoming the person he wanted to be.
A decade later, and he was contemplating how to approach his parents to ask for money to pay an attorney to represent him in a sexual assault case.” -Weinberg, pg 66

In each chapter, it seems Weinberg deviates a little from the main narrative, either providing backstory on the main characters, or background information on the different scientific methods used in the case.
However, I’m not sure how I feel about this extensive backstory provided for Frediani. On the one hand, we don’t know yet if he’s innocent or guilty, and I understand that it’s important to view him as a complex human being, rather than just the main suspect in a sexual assault case. However, when Ms. Weinberg was writing this book, she likely already knew the outcome of the trial–she already knew if Frediani was guilty of assaulting Helena.
If he is guilty, then this backstory seems to take on a different meaning, one I’m not too sure I like. We hear all about Frediani’s strict parents and his medical problems growing up, and how happy he was to finally get to be himself at college. All this suggests that Frediani, at this point in the narrative a likely rapist, is someone we should feel sympathy for.
He had such a rough childhood, the poor man. Let’s not judge him too harshly, right?
On top of all this oh so tragic backstory, Weinberg ends the chapter with the bombshell Andrea drops on Frediani–she’s pregnant with twins.

The Purpose of Backstory

Forensic Science

“The techniques employed to reveal–and identify–fingerprints have become increasingly sophisticated. Chemicals like ninhydrin can stain absorbed fingerprint sweat patterns on paper, making them visible, while superglue fumes can lift prints off human skin.” -Weinberg, pg 49

Reading this book makes me really glad that I took a course on forensic science in high school. Two of the main topics in this chapter, added in to help us understand the science behind Helena’s case, are subjects that we discussed in my forensics class: fingerprinting and blood typing. We learned about the different ways to reveal fingerprints, including the techniques that use ninhydrin and superglue. But when we spent a week practicing such techniques, we focused on the different kinds of fingerprinting powder–typical black powder, white or silver powder for dark surfaces, even magnetic powder for delicate surfaces that you don’t want to mar with a brush in order to remove the excess powder.
We also learned about blood typing, and practiced using anti-serums on synthetic blood to figure out which blood type we were working with. Something else we learned regarding blood types that wasn’t mentioned in the book is the Rh factor. In addition to being type A, B, AB, or O, your blood type can also be positive or negative. This refers to whether or not your blood contains a particular protein, and is also necessary information to have in order to have safe blood transfusions. Blood types that contain the protein can safely mix with blood that has the protein or doesn’t have the protein; negative blood types can only mix with other negative blood types.
I’m finding this book particularly interesting because I already possess so much background knowledge that’s helping me understand all the scientific techniques being discussed.

Forensic Science

A True Eureka Moment

“Miraculously, everything then fell into shape. Crick saw it and no matter how hard he tried, could not come up with a reason why it should not be the solution.
‘From the start we hoped for some chemical revelation that would lead to the correct structure,’ Waston wrote. ‘But we never anticipated that the answer would come so suddenly in one swoop and with such finality.
It was a true Eureka moment.” -Weinberg, pg 38-39

This section grabbed my attention immediately. After reading Johnson’s book, we learned that true ‘Eureka moments’ are much rarer than they’re made out to be. Watson and Crick are portrayed as almost overconfident in their intelligence and their abilities; it’s understandable that Watson wanted it to seem as though the answer to their DNA problem came to them so quickly.
But if we look at the rest of the chapter, we can see that their discovery wasn’t really a Eureka moment after all. Like many good ideas, it was a matter of finding and combining all the right pieces, such as the work of their colleagues before them. It was in part because of a hunch that Watson and Crick had, the idea that DNA was likely a helix structure.
The revelation that DNA is a double helix did not come to Watson and Crick all at once; it was a problem that both of them thought about for a long time, gathering bits and pieces of information that would eventually come together and lead them to the answer.

A True Eureka Moment

Criminal Investigation and Liquid Networks

“All the attempted assaults occurred in the same complex: there was a good chance the man was local, and if so, it was only a matter of time before he struck again.
Chaput, however, was unaware of this series of attacks.” -Weinberg, pg 21

When I saw this, I was immediately reminded of the chapter of Johnson’s book that discussed hunches, specifically the narrative regarding the 9/11 hunches, how if those two ideas could have managed to connect before September 11th, maybe the attacks could have been prevented.
We don’t yet know if the assaults in the book are related, but if they are, surely the various cases could be solved much sooner if the police departments could work together, searching for a single suspect. It just goes to show how valuable liquid networks and the free exchange of ideas really are.

Criminal Investigation and Liquid Networks

Parallels in Narrative

I thought it was interesting that both the prologue and the first chapter begin in a courtroom, the first appearing to be a trial regarding Helena’s murder, and the latter being the trial for her assault. Although this is a true story, Weinberg can still choose how she wants to organize it, and I like her choice to open with a piece of the story that I’m sure comes at the very end to draw her readers in before flashing back to the very beginning. It makes me wonder if the rest of the case will be presented in strict chronological order, or if there’ll be more jumps to and from the present.

Parallels in Narrative

Now It’s Your Turn

The patterns are simple, but followed together, they make for a whole that is wiser than the sum of its parts. Go for a walk; cultivate hunches; write everything down, but keep your folders messy; embrace serendipity; make generative mistakes; take on multiple hobbies; frequent coffeehouses and other liquid networks; follow the links; let others build on your ideas; borrow, recycle, invent. Build a tangled bank.” -Johnson, pg. 246

I think this is a really effective way to end the book. By offering all of these simple suggestions, Johnson goes through a quick summary of all the ideas he discussed: hunches, serendipity, errors, liquid networks, the strength of weak ties. But he’s also encouraging his readers to cultivate good ideas of their own. And maybe we won’t pioneer new platforms that spark a change in the lives of millions of people, or create an invention that changes the world. But as we’ve seen throughout the book, good ideas can come from and can be found anywhere; they’re not limited to any particular field. We can use this advice to help us come up with the topic for our next essay in our writing class, or maybe we can use it to become better problem-solvers, putting pieces together to see the big picture. Maybe we can apply this knowledge in our chemistry or biology labs, and it comes time to make a hypothesis regarding the experiment we’re about to do. In the end, it doesn’t really matter what we do with what we’ve learned from Johnson’s book, because he’s shown us a wide enough variety of innovations from all over the world and from throughout history for us to know that this knowledge can be applicable anywhere.

Now It’s Your Turn

Recycling

All the talk of recycling in this chapter (corals and zooxanthellae exchanging waste products, Constantz using carbon dioxide to grow carbonate cement) reminded me of another kind of recycling I learned about in psychology last semester: the reuptake process that our neurons use. Neurons send signals using a variety of chemicals called neurotransmitters; they’re released by terminals in the neuron’s axon, and are received by dendrites at the opposite end of the cell. And after a neuron receives those signals, it starts transferring the neurotransmitters down the axon to the opposite end of the cell. That way, the neuron can reuse the neurotransmitters the next time it needs to send a signal, and the neurotransmitters stay within the vast network of neurons rather than becoming waste.

Recycling

The Strength of Weak Ties

“Chance favors the connected mind.” -Johnson, pg 174

In this chapter, Johnson talks about how people like Darwin had a lot of hobbies and were interested in a wide range of fields, which helped lead them to have more good ideas since they had more information from broad subjects to draw on. And this stood out to me, because I feel that I also have a broad range of interests: chemistry and physics and music and writing and theater. And I really love finding connections between my varied interests, or even between classes that I’m taking. When I took physics in high school, I realized I could use skills I’d learned in calculus the year before in order to solve problems about velocity and acceleration. It’s things like that which remind me of one of the reasons I love learning, because I can find connections like that and see how everything I’ve learned so far can fit together.

The Strength of Weak Ties

Benefits of Error

“Being right keeps you in place. Being wrong forces you to explore.” -Johnson, pg 137

This quote gives an excellent explanation for why making mistakes or getting something wrong shouldn’t discourage you. If you know exactly what you’re doing from the start and things turn out exactly like you planned, you won’t get to learn anything new. You won’t get to take advantage of serendipity, stumbling across something you had no intention of discovering but helps you along anyway.
I think being wrong also forces you to keep an open mindset. Johnson also mentions an experiment in which groups of students were making word associations based on colors, and their answers often became more original when actors in their groups purposefully introduced doubt to the situation. When the students weren’t a hundred percent positive that the picture they were shown was primarily blue, they were forced to stop and think, considering more possibilities.

Benefits of Error

Dreams and Connections

“In a sense, dreams are the mind’s primordial soup: the medium that facilitates the serendipitous collisions of creative insight. And hunches are like those early carbon atoms, seeking out new connections to help them build new chains and rings of innovation.” -Johnson, pg 102

I thought this passage was really cool, because it connects a lot of previous ideas discussed in the book: the liquid network and hunches and carbon atoms. And I think what’s interesting about dreams is that they can sort of provide a spark for all these eureka moments we’ve talked about. We’ve talked about how these eureka moments don’t just come out of nowhere; there has to be a background, a collection of unconnected ideas that maybe you’ve been thinking about for a while, and the eureka moment is when you figure out which pieces fit together. And dreams sort of play around with our memories (the pieces we have on the table), putting them together in ways our conscious minds just wouldn’t think to do. The pieces have to be there to begin with, and sometimes it takes serendipity and the random connections of dreams to figure out new ways to put the pieces together.

Dreams and Connections

Write It Down

“Most slow hunches never last long enough to turn into something useful, because they pass in and out of our memory too quickly, precisely because they possess a certain murkiness. You get a feeling that there’s an interesting avenue to explore, a problem that might someday lead you to a solution, but then you get distracted by more pressing matters and the hunch disappears. So part of the secret of hunch cultivation is simple: write everything down.” -Johnson, page 83

This quote stood out to me because it reminded me of a previous post I made regarding Where Good Ideas Come From, when Johnson was talking about how the key to having good ideas is to get more parts on the table. And I connected that to how I usually go about solving writer’s block, by simply writing as much as I can. Because the more material I get onto the page, the more I have to work with and the more likely it is I’ll stumble across something or a few things that I can put together and use for a story. I definitely agree that writing everything down is incredibly important; it’s hard for a fragment of an idea to become anything more if it stays inside your head. Regarding writing, maybe a line or phrase will pop into my head, and I don’t know where it might fit into what I’m writing, if at all. But if I write it down, I can look back at it later. Maybe I’ll have written something else by that point that can work with the fragment I wrote down before. And it’s not very smart to assume that you’ll remember all the pieces of good ideas you’ve had; it’s better to write something down and have it go unused than forget it.

Write It Down

Dissolving Gold

“Water is also a fiendishly talented dissolver of things. (Even the famously inert gold is soluble in seawater if you give it enough time.)” -Johnson, pg 51

I thought this entire chapter was really interesting, especially with all the talk of chemistry and the structure of the brain at the beginning. But this is what I found most surprising. I had no idea that gold was even remotely soluble. Hearing the words ‘gold’ and ‘seawater’ together makes me think of divers finding gold from hundreds of years ago on sunken ships, completely withstanding the tests of time.

I already knew a little about what makes water such a good solvent without having to do any research. The polarity of water molecules makes it good at pulling apart molecules (which is to say, separating molecules from each other, not breaking the bonds of individual molecules, which would be creating a chemical change rather than dissolving a material). In addition, Johnson makes it clear that it’s sea water that’s capable of dissolving gold, and seawater has all sorts of ions in it that can help break intramolecular bonds.

I tried to do some research to figure out exactly what it is about seawater that makes it able to dissolve gold, or how long the process could take, but most articles I found were talking about gold that has already been dissolved in the ocean, wondering how to reclaim it. The presence of gold molecules in seawater does provide compelling evidence, but I still can’t help but wonder where those gold molecules came from and if it was because of seawater alone that they were able to dissolve.

Dissolving Gold

Spare Parts and Big Ideas

“Part of coming up with a good idea is discovering what those spare parts are, and ensuring that you’re not just recycling the same old ingredients… The trick to having good ideas is not to sit around in glorious isolation and try to think big thoughts. The trick is to get more parts on the table.” -Johnson, pg 42

I was really struck by this passage at the end of chapter one. I really love how inclusive Johnson always is with his discussion of innovation and good ideas; although this is a biotechnology course, so much of what we can learn from this book is applicable to other fields. This part in particular reminds me of how I’ve learned to get over writer’s block. When I get stuck writing a story, it’s tempting to sit and stare off into space, hoping a good idea will come to me, some sort of magical revelation of how to continue the story. But like Johnson says, “[sitting] in glorious isolation and [trying] to think big thoughts” usually won’t get you anywhere. After all that thinking and thinking and thinking, I’m often left with what I started with: a blank page. I’ve found, and Johnson seems to agree, that the solution to writer’s block is simply to write. Maybe I won’t solve my plot problem right away, but I’m giving myself more material to work with. I’m getting “more parts on the table.” Some of those parts may end up going unused, but if I give myself enough parts to work with, eventually I’ll find enough bits that I can piece together, maybe in a way I didn’t expect.
This passage offers wonderful advice for problem-solving, whether you’re a scientist, a writer, or something else entirely.

Spare Parts and Big Ideas

All Kinds of Innovation

“The academic literature on innovation and creativity is rich with subtle distinctions between innovations and inventions, between different modes of creativity: artistic, scientific, technological… The good ideas in this survey range from software platforms to musical genres to scientific paradigms to new models for government. my premise is that there is as much value to be fond in seeking the common properties across all these varied forms of innovation and creativity as there is value to be found in documenting the differences between them.” -Johnson, pg 22

I really liked this section here, where the author is acknowledging that the development of good ideas isn’t unique to one discipline. I think this is an especially important idea given that this is a biotechnology class, all about combining science and technology. But Johnson also acknowledges the arts, giving credit to the innovations of musicians and writers. Scientists can learn something from artists, looking at how their ideas are developed. I think it’s important for everyone to know that something can be learned by looking at the work of someone in a different field than yourself. Good ideas and innovation don’t need to be strictly categorized into art or science or technology. Sharing ideas and collaborating with others will bring success much faster than keeping ideas to yourself.

All Kinds of Innovation

Prometheus

“Prometheus was the Greek demigod who stole a spark of fire and was punished by Zeus for his presumption. To many people, the enterprise of biotechnology is a Promethean risk, another example of humanity’s self-destructive aspirations to play God… Powerful though our species has become, it is a mark of hubris to believe that we can play God.” -page 215

I thought it was interesting that the section on ethics ended with a reference to Greek mythology. Myths and storytelling have always been used to teach, warning audiences not to make the same mistakes that the characters in the story did. And by comparing genetic modification to Prometheus stealing fire, an act that was punished with being sentenced to have his liver torn out daily, Grace drives home the point that scientists need to be careful with what they use their discoveries to accomplish.
But I’d like to disagree with Grace. I don’t think it’s a sign of hubris at all, nor do I think scientists intend to play God. Hubris means great arrogance. But accomplishments made through biotechnology are hundreds of years in the making. It’s taken scientists centuries to get to where we are now, a great deal of time and effort, trial and error. And using that knowledge to make better food or cure disease doesn’t seem at all arrogant to me.

I’d also like to point out that Prometheus was not a demigod, but a Titan. According to Greek mythology, he was tasked with helping to create mankind, which is why he stole fire in the first place, as he felt responsible for helping them. A demigod is the offspring of a god and a mortal, and as mortals had not yet come into being, Prometheus couldn’t possibly have been a demigod.

Prometheus