July 4th, 2012

Imagine that you’re Leo Szilard, a young Hungarian physicist, in the early 1930s. You’re shooting the breeze with some colleagues about the exciting discoveries about atomic nuclei. Recent experiments have clearly shown it to be composed of smaller particles called protons and neutrons. The protons are positively charged and thereby repulse each other, yet they are held together by some as-yet mysterious force. Obviously, this binding force must be extremely powerful to overpower the mutual repulsion of the protons. “There’s a lot of energy bound up in that nucleus” somebody remarks. “Yes, if that energy could ever be tapped, it would be enormous” another adds. Suddenly, in your mind, you can see exactly how that could be accomplished with a nuclear chain reaction. The mention of the possibility of tapping the energy suddenly triggered the idea in your head. In one sense, it’s your idea, but the trigger for the idea was another’s comment.

Leo Szilard did indeed invent the nuclear chain reaction; he went on to obtain the patent for a nuclear bomb, which he sold to the US government for $1 (physicists are such lousy businessmen). But this essay isn’t about Leo Szilard, it’s about how ideas are created. I recently had an experience similar to the imaginary scenario I concocted for Szilard.

At Phrontisterion 7, the group was talking about interactive storytelling, when one of the participants used a rather odd phrase to describe a form of interactive storytelling. I won’t repeat the phrase here because I don’t want to get into the technical details (and besides, unlike Szilard, I see some commercial potential here). I had never heard anybody use that combination of words, but when I heard the phrase I instantly saw a design for how it could be made real. It’s a great idea, one I intend to implement as soon as I can break free of my many other responsibilities.

What’s important here is the inspiration for the idea. I would not have had the idea without that other person using that oddball phrase. And that phrase did indeed represent a clever realization. I therefore consider my idea to be not entirely my own possession; if it ever becomes commercial, I’ll have an obligation to that person. But the relationship between our two ideas was nothing like Step 1 followed by Step 2. My Step 2 went off in a decidedly different direction from that suggested by Step 1. My brainstorm did not
follow the import of the inspiring comment; it was precipitated by that comment. My realization was serendipitous in that it was not the logical progeny of the original comment, even though it was inspired by that comment.

This comprises the main point of this essay: that sometimes great ideas come from the complex interplay of ideas inside your own head when those ideas are sufficiently stirred up by intense interaction with others.

Here’s an even better example, which I shall go into in full detail to demonstrate the process. The other day, in an online discussion of a scientific issue, our little group was intruded upon by some creationist nitwit spouting the usual nonsense. This one was better educated than most; instead of spewing the typical Biblical crap, he relied upon arguments based on science – a gross misunderstanding of science, to be sure, but at least not chapter and verse from the Bible.

He was pushing a line of thinking from a crackpot named Behe (pronounced “beh-heh”). This fellow wrote a book some years ago presenting his thesis. I bought the book out of a sense of intellectual duty. After all, if it was the best that the Intelligent Design people could come up with, it deserved some consideration. I quickly found it devoid of intellectual merit and tossed it aside. Nevertheless, Behe makes one point that requires a more subtle understanding of genetics to refute.

Behe attempts to refute the standard notion of evolution as a process of slow accretion of tiny steps. Yes, this is possible, he notes, but he also points to certain chemical reactions that cannot have developed by accretion. His prime example involves a chemical reaction crucial to blood clotting. This reaction requires three different molecules to react with each other. Now, there is only one way that three different molecules can react with each other (unless we’re talking about big proteins), but there are three different pairings of molecules A, B, and C. First there’s A+B, then B+C, then A+C. In the case of this particular reaction, not one of the three pairwise reactions has any biological value. If a mutation led to the ability to manufacture chemical A, that mutation would have no benefit to the cell and would eventually be lost – and the same thing applies to chemicals B and C. It gets worse: even if there were a mutation that somehow led to the ability to manufacture any of the three pairings, that mutation would still have no benefit to the cell and would also be lost eventually. Only a mutation that conferred the ability to make all three chemicals would have any benefit to such a cell – and the likelihood of such a mutation is vanishingly small, Behe claims.

I rejected Mr. Behe’s arguments because he failed to offer any actual calculations to back up his claims. Sure, something might look improbable, but if you have billions of red blood cells in each of billions of red-blooded animals, and give them millions of years to evolve, the probability could well be high. It was incumbent upon Mr. Behe, in my opinion to address that issue. Since he failed to do so, I rejected his hypothesis.

But there’s another realization that escaped me until the discussion with the creationist. We know that cells have much more DNA than they need to store all the information they need to function properly. For years, this was dismissed as “junk DNA”. Recently, some of that supposedly useless DNA has been shown to perform useful functions in turning other genes on and off in response to different environmental conditions. But there’s still lots of DNA that just hangs around doing nothing. Why hasn’t evolution gotten around to clearing out all this ribonucleic clutter?

I haven’t read this anywhere else, but I’m sure that geneticists have long since figured out the realization that struck me: that “junk DNA” is a spare parts kit. I dabble in hobby electronics, so I keep a lot of spare parts hanging around. I have a full stock of capacitors and resistors, plenty of transistors, all the basic ICs such as 741s, 555s, and the basic TTL gates and such. I’ve got diodes and flip-flops and LEDs and so forth. Some of these parts have sat unused in my parts bin for over 30 years; others I bought in the last few months. When I set out to build something, I’m never so organized as to figure out an optimal design, make a parts list, and then order the parts. No, I paw through the parts bins, looking for a usable this and a functional that to cobble the thing together. Often I’m lucky enough that I don’t need to order anything – I can build my doodad out of the parts in my parts kit.

Thus, I don’t need to wait for a special parts order (mutation) to get something working. I just rely on the excess “junk parts” that are lying around at hand. Cells do the same thing. All that “junk DNA” is really a big kit of molecular parts ready to be rummaged through should the need arise. Most of the time, those parts aren’t needed, but they come in really handy when the need arises.

Any cell that lacked such junk DNA would have to face each environmental challenge naked. It would have to rely on random mutations to produce all the molecular parts it needs to meet the challenge – a process that would take a long, long time, very likely too long for the organism to survive. Sure, it’s more organized and more efficient: no wasted DNA in this cell! But in the real world, it’s always a good idea to bring along some extra stuff. Prudent travelers bring along a needle and thread for repairing damaged clothing, some aspirin, and a variety of other extras they’re unlikely to use. Every homeowner has a collection of screws, nuts, nails, and other bits of hardware for dealing with petty problems. Have you cleared out all the junk on your disk drive that you haven’t used in the last few months? I’ll bet that there are applications on your drive that you haven’t used in years. What the hey, they might come in handy someday.

I didn’t learn this from my interlocutor; he’s an idiot. But he did provide the stimulation that triggered the realization inside my head. That’s what I get from discussions. I seldom learn anything directly from my interlocutors (except when I’m talking with an expert). Instead, my primary benefit often comes from the cogitations triggered by their misconceptions. In trying to zero in on the precise nature of their mistake, I often see the truth more clearly.

This is intensely frustrating to my interlocutors. They’re trying to convince me of one thing, and the result of their efforts is that I get an exciting new idea that utterly confutes their opinion. But in order to do this, one must delve deeply into their thinking, bringing to bear what I call “intellectual empathy”: a talent for comprehending the way that other people think. By putting yourself into other people’s mental shoes, you see the world in lots of fascinatingly stupid ways – and understanding the exact nature of falsehood is a useful path to the truth.