Creativity on the Cheap

“Better Wrong than Boring”

The secret is to trick yourself into ignoring what you know so well. Half closing your eyes, for example, blotting out the familiar to “see” something new. Turning an image upside down. Being playful or humorous.

Andre Geim and his colleague Konstantin Novoselov won the 2010 Nobel Prize in physics for their experiments involving the single-atom-thick material called grapheme. Slate interviewed him recently and found that those experiments came from what Geim calls the “Friday Night Experiments.”

“On these occasions, Geim’s lab works on the “crazy things that probably won’t pan out at all, but if they do, it would be really surprising.” From the start of Geim’s career, he has devoted 10 percent of his lab time to this kind of research.

“The biggest adventure is to move into an area in which you are not an expert,” Geim said. “Sometimes I joke that I am not interested in doing re-search, only search.” His overall career philosophy is to “graze shallow.”

The FNEs are, unsurprisingly, unfunded—due to their nature, they have to be. They are times when “we’re entering into someone else’s territory, to be frank, and questioning things people who work in that area never bother to ask,” Geim said. In other words, these are ways for Geim and his team to acquire the advantage of the nonexpert—the deliberate amateur. Part of that is his belief: “better to be wrong than be boring.”

According to Slate: the innovative choreographer Twyla Tharp once said “Experience is what gets you through the door. But experience also closes the door . . . . You tend to rely on that memory and stick with what has worked before. You don’t try anything anew.” (See Slate, “How outlandish experimentation and “grazing shallow” led to a Nobel Prize win.”)

That is consistent with what evolutionary biologists suspect was the origin of consciousness, to check out that there were no surprising dangers in the environment.
On the other hand, not pleasing your peers has its risks: according to Geim, one referee said his work did “not constitute a sufficient scientific advance.” He had the pleasure of reporting that remark in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech.