Seriously, What Box?

Business people have a useful expression about thinking  outside the box. Ironically, academics rarely say this. I could follow with “Instead, academics say” but really, they don’t, as a rule. They say “that’s a novel finding.” Except for the rare few–Paul Dirac, Louis Debroglie, Brown and Goldstein, Pasteur, David Heeger. But the majority of scientists construct experiments with a strong suspicion of what they’ll find–something just barely new. Thus a paper, maybe a grant.

But it’s no less ironic to talk about thinking outside the box. Anyone who went to school and got good grades (meaning they took it seriously) is already deep inside the box. You can’t even get the idea of innovation across without referring to the box. But listen to Schrodinger, one of history’s great, innovative thinkers:

The task is, not so much to see what no one has yet seen; but to think what nobody has yet thought, about that which everybody sees.

If I may paraphrase, he’s saying that discovery is fine (seeing), but the great leaps are made by perceiving things in an entirely different way.

Einstein did not perceive gravity as a force acting at a distance. Instead he perceived the universe as a 4-dimensional space-time fabric. Since one of the dimensions is time, and because acceleration keeps making the space-time partials larger and larger (faster and faster speeds), the differentials dx, dy, dz get smaller and smaller. This is what a foam ball looks like if you push your fist into it: the cells of the foam are smallest just under your fist. So acceleration can be seen as a graded compression of space time; a warp in the fabric.

This being a mathematical formulation, it must follow that anything that creates the same warped pattern would have to be indistinguishable from acceleration–under the theory. So if we’ve just jumped out of an airplane, what happens? We accelerate towards the earth. Why are we accelerating? Because the earth warps the space-time fabric the same way an accelerating 911 turbo does. Only less.

I went through the details above to illustrate the astonishing power of Einstein to think like a newborn–uninfluenced by any conventional wisdom, furiously creative in his exploration of possibilities.

Everyone is capable of this atypical thinking. A good way to start is to change fields, and go into something entirely unfamiliar. Don’t read too much, just enough to understand the big problems. Then think. Don’t think about what the textbooks said, or the teachers said. Try to understand that textbooks and teachers are chock full of things that will be proven wrong in the future. And, especially, understand that the things you know aren’t necessarily useful. It’s knowing how to think that makes your career splendid.