Isaac Asimov Asks, “How Do People Get New Ideas?”

Today we talk about creativity and where it comes from.  I found this wonderful essay by Isaac Asimov who wrote it for the MIT Technology Review.  Since Isaac Asimov is one of my favorite authors, naturally I had to read his essay.  I am really glad I did.

He was asked to join a group of scientists and engineers who, at the government’s behest, were asked to “think outside the box” about the effects of nuclear weapons on aircraft structures. While at first he agreed to join this group, after a couple of sessions he declined to continue stating that having access to sensitive data would compromise his ability to write what he wanted to write.

He did, however, leave the group with this wonderful essay where he talks about not only how one becomes creative, but also why.  He determined that sharing thoughts in a relaxed, even fun, environment would be the perfect incubator for such creative thoughts.

Please read his essay in full and make up your own mind about the source of creativity in man.  I really think I will agree with Mr. Asimov’s opinion.


Isaac Asimov Asks, “How Do People Get New Ideas?”

How do people get new ideas?

Presumably, the process of creativity, whatever it is, is essentially the same in all its branches and varieties, so that the evolution of a new art form, a new gadget, a new scientific principle, all involve common factors. We are most interested in the “creation” of a new scientific principle or a new application of an old one, but we can be general here.

One way of investigating the problem is to consider the great ideas of the past and see just how they were generated. Unfortunately, the method of generation is never clear even to the “generators” themselves.

But what if the same earth-shaking idea occurred to two men, simultaneously and independently? Perhaps, the common factors involved would be illuminating. Consider the theory of evolution by natural selection, independently created by Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace.

There is a great deal in common there. Both traveled to far places, observing strange species of plants and animals and the manner in which they varied from place to place. Both were keenly interested in finding an explanation for this, and both failed until each happened to read Malthus’s “Essay on Population.”

Both then saw how the notion of overpopulation and weeding out (which Malthus had applied to human beings) would fit into the doctrine of evolution by natural selection (if applied to species generally).

Obviously, then, what is needed is not only people with a good background in a particular field, but also people capable of making a connection between item 1 and item 2 which might not ordinarily seem connected.

Undoubtedly in the first half of the 19th century, a great many naturalists had studied the manner in which species were differentiated among themselves. A great many people had read Malthus. Perhaps some both studied species and read Malthus. But what you needed was someone who studied species, read Malthus, and had the ability to make a cross-connection.  (Read the rest of the essay here)


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