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The Aha! Moment

A Scientist's Take on Creativity

David Jones

Publication Year: 2011

This book is about having ideas and—a much longer haul—making them work. David Jones, best known for his Daedalus column, tells many stories about creators and their creations, including his own fantastical-seeming contributions to mainstream science—such as unrideable bicycles and chemical gardens in space. His theory of creativity endows each of us with a Random-Ideas Generator, a Censor, and an Observer-Reasoner. Jones applies the theory to a wide range of weird scientific experiments that he has conducted for serious scientific papers, for challenging printed expositions, and for presentations to a TV audience. He even suggests new ones, not yet tried! Creativity is as essential to science as curiosity, physical intuition, and shrewd deduction from well-planned experiments. But, says Jones, ingenuity is very uncertain—even for the greatest inventors, about 80 percent of ideas fail. Jokiness can help, and so can lots of random data. Jones has copious clever advice that will help you have that madly brilliant private thought in the first place—and will encourage you to take it further! Neither dense nor demanding, The Aha! Moment is engrossing, edifying, and scientifically serious; yet it is lightly written, has many jokes, and asks lots of silly questions. As Jones shows, it can often pay to take an absurd idea seriously.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

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Preface: Creativity in My Career

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pp. ix-xii

Having ideas! This book is a report from the front. I am a scientist, and I tell many scientific stories; but my notions of creativity include practitioners of the art--writers, poets, composers, and other celebrated creators. I was also the crazy scientist Daedalus in New Scientist , and then in Nature and in the Guardian newspaper. An ideal Daedalus ...

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1 A Theory of Creativity

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pp. 1-24

There are two ways of solving a problem. If a rational solution exists, you apply it. This just takes whatever willpower is needed to bash out the right long multiplication or to construct and solve the correct equation or whatever. But suppose there is no rational solution? Then to solve ...

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2 The Creative Environment

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pp. 25-47

If we accept the theory of chapter 1, how should we increase our creativity? Creative insight may come suddenly, a wild aha! moment when you have an idea or see how a puzzle can be solved. Or it may come more gradually, a set of individual recognitions of a way forward. ...

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3 Thoughts on the Random Ideas Generator

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pp. 48-69

Creativity of any kind is rare. To be reading this book at all, you will probably have more of it than usual. But we can all hope to improve. So here are some thoughts on how a variety of factors interact with the Random-Ideas Generator, or RIG. I reckon we all have an RIG, and I at least depend on it for ideas. I am not a psychologist, so my guesses about ...

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4 Intuition and Odd Notions

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pp. 70-80

I mentioned intuition in chapter 3. I reckon that either sex can develop it, and it matters in creativity. In particular, I admire the "physical intuition" of the good experimenter or engineer. As I see it, intuition is not just inspired guesswork but derives from observation. It may be a subtle sort of "pattern recognition," the trick by which you identify a face or an ...

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5 Creativity in Scientific Papers

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pp. 81-99

Probably every scientific achievement has a troubled human story behind it. The researcher is in it to achieve some RIG ambition, or one of his or her boss, or perhaps to sort out some puzzle. The final results, presented in a clear and believable publication, come much later. Most of the time, the worker is puzzled. Thus the great physicist John Wheeler ...

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6 Heat and Gravity

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pp. 100-108

The mind of a creative person is never idle. Consider James Prescott Joule on his Swiss honeymoon in 1847. His young bride did not distract him from scientific thought. Indeed, he took a sensitive thermometer with them. And whenever the couple came across a river waterfall, he measured the temperature of the water at the top and at the bottom. The ...

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7 Astronomical Musings

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pp. 109-126

Pulsars are tiny dense stars about 15 kilometers across. They are not quite the black holes that Subramanyan Chandrasekhar wondered about (see chapter 1), for they emit a radio signal. They rotate about once a second, and their signal repeats at that frequency. Such a signal was first observed in 1967 by Jocelyn Bell Burnell, a student of Tony ...

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8 Rotating Things

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pp. 127-135

One of the purest examples of an idea suddenly coming from the subconscious realm of the Random-Ideas Generator to the conscious mind was that of James Watt (see chapter 1). His idea for improving the steam engine came to him suddenly during a stroll on Glasgow Green in 1765; but it took him years of hard engineering effort to make it work. ...

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9 Explosions and Fuses

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pp. 136-150

Like many a future chemist, I played with pyrotechnics in my boyhood. One such chemist has even put the experience into verse.1 Much later, some of my hard-won insight came in handy for lectures and TV. In retrospect, my experience contrasts strongly with other parts of this book. I learned pyrotechnics over years, but used it as an adult in ...

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10 Tricks with Optics

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pp. 151-165

A ll modern visual technology depends on a simple optical illusion--that a rapid succession of visual “stills” gives the impression of a moving image. Many youngsters, including me, have explored this effect rather informally by drawing pictures on the corner of a book and then flicking through the book corner to see the moving image. Indeed, at the ...

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11 Properties of Materials

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pp. 166-174

Most of us just take the properties of materials for granted. Glass is fragile, while plastics are flexible. And yet every substance somehow reflects the structure of its molecules. As a chemist, I have worked all my life with glass; at ICI I learned a lot about plastics. I and the company tried to do a lot with those products, mostly foolish extensions or changes ...

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12 Physical Phenomena I Have Noticed

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pp. 175-184

I have spent a lot of time just playing with physical effects. I recommend this random play. It may be part of curiosity, which I salute in chapter 1 or it may help to develop physical intuition (see chapter 4). Thus, for no good scientific or technical reason, I have been distracted by the noises of steam and by the way certain objects can be levitated on an airstream. I ...

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13 Odd Notions I Have Played With

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pp. 185-200

My creative life has constantly had me chasing ideas to see where they go. Often I have developed some notion without a feasible commercial market or indeed any outlet at all. Should I just make a note and pass on? The scheme might come in handy later. But sometimes an idea is too appealing just to leave. Thus when I thought of my hypochondria ...

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14 Literary Information

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pp. 201-211

I have been writing all my life; indeed, my nineteen hundred Daedalus columns are a major oeuvre in themselves. I have written lots of bigger articles too. So I have a deep feeling for the language. I am especially sensitive to writing style. The bare text may reveal the author’s Observer- Reasoner, but the style says something about the unconscious mind behind ...

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15 Inventions We Need but Don't Have

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pp. 212-225

We modern humans have endless wonderful skills that would seem magical to earlier societies. Yet to my mind, we are far from constructing a stable, sustainable, technically advanced civilization, accepted by all its citizens and not threatening to the global environment. To do that, and yet to stay within the limits revealed by science, we need real ...

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16 A List of Silly Questions

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pp. 226-244

This chapter is a tiny subset of the many things I don’t know. No textbook has satisfied my curiosity. Each question may, of course, have a perfectly good answer that I happen not to know. Even so, I sense that each topic hides something to be found out and is a promising browsing region for the creative mind. Everyone should keep such a list: partly to remind you of all the thing you don’t know and partly as a steady ...

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17 A Short Guide to Being Creative

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pp. 245-248

Most of the human mind is outside our awareness. The bit we are conscious of, the Observer-Reasoner, is at the top; below it is the Censor, of which we are largely unconscious and that guards us from the totally unconscious structure below. (Figure 1.1 shows my model of this arrangement.) The stuff at the bottom includes ...


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pp. 249-254


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pp. 255-264

E-ISBN-13: 9781421404066
E-ISBN-10: 1421404060
Print-ISBN-13: 9781421403311
Print-ISBN-10: 1421403315

Page Count: 272
Illustrations: 7 halftones, 39 line drawings
Publication Year: 2011