Night Science

Stuart Firestein on artful ignorance, failure, and neglect

January 02, 2023 Season 3 Episode 4
Stuart Firestein on artful ignorance, failure, and neglect
Night Science
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Night Science
Stuart Firestein on artful ignorance, failure, and neglect
Jan 02, 2023 Season 3 Episode 4

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Doing science reminds Stuart Firestein of an old saying: “It’s very difficult to find a black cat in a dark room. Especially when there is no cat.” Before studying biology and becoming a professor at Columbia University in New York, Stuart worked for many years in the theater. In this episode, he talks about how he doesn’t miss the creativity or the spirit of the theater, as he finds all of that in science. For Stuart, ignorance and creativity are two horses pulling the same wagon of science, and lab meetings are center stage for both. To make progress, Stuart finds pluralism of enormous value – and crucial to pluralism is the ability to fail. 

For more information on Night Science, visit https://www.biomedcentral.com/collections/night-science .


Show Notes Transcript

Send us a Text Message.

Doing science reminds Stuart Firestein of an old saying: “It’s very difficult to find a black cat in a dark room. Especially when there is no cat.” Before studying biology and becoming a professor at Columbia University in New York, Stuart worked for many years in the theater. In this episode, he talks about how he doesn’t miss the creativity or the spirit of the theater, as he finds all of that in science. For Stuart, ignorance and creativity are two horses pulling the same wagon of science, and lab meetings are center stage for both. To make progress, Stuart finds pluralism of enormous value – and crucial to pluralism is the ability to fail. 

For more information on Night Science, visit https://www.biomedcentral.com/collections/night-science .


Stuart Firestein

There's a lot more humor in science than people imagine; I guess they probably mostly think it's pretty dry and humorless from their science classes. But in point of fact, we laugh quite a bit at the lab. There's a lot of funny stuff that goes on in science. 

Itai Yanai

And if you think about it, a good idea is surprising, in the same way that a punchline of a joke is surprising, right? There's like a twist to it. You just didn't see it coming.

Stuart  

Yes. And it often elicits extensions of the joke. I mean, ‘oh, it could also be this, could also be that’. It builds very quickly on itself.

Martin Lercher  

Welcome to the Night Science Podcast,

Itai                                                                                                                                                    

Where we explore the untold story of the scientific creative process. We are your hosts, I am Itai Yanai,

Martin   

and I am Martin Lercher.

Itai  

Stuart Firestein is a professor of biology at Columbia University in New York, where his lab studies the sense of smell in animals. Stuart not only teaches neuroscience, but he also teaches ‘ignorance’. He came up with this idea when he realized that the way science is usually taught, students might get the impression that pretty much everything has already been discovered. For this course, he brings in researchers to talk about – not what they know and is already in the literature and in textbooks – but actually what they don't know.

Martin  

Stuart wrote a book called “Ignorance” about what he learned in this course, and he later wrote another one called “Failure”. Of course, these titles are meant to provoke. The subtitle says really how to think about these topics: “Ignorance – how it drives science”, and “Failure – why science is so successful”. The process of doing science reminds Stuart of an old saying: “It is very difficult to find a black cat in a dark room – especially when there is no cat”.

Itai  

Welcome, Stuart. 

Stuart  

Well, it's a pleasure to be here. Thank you for having me. 

Martin 

Welcome!

Itai  

Stuart, in your second book, you summarize the rules of academia as: 

·       that questions are more important that facts 

·       that answers are temporary, models are provisional,

·       that failure happens a lot

·       that patience is a requirement, 

·       that occasionally you get lucky – hopefully you realize it when it happens

·       and that things don't happen in a linear way, the way you read about it. That's just a science myth, 

·       and also, if there's free food, get there early. 

Can you tell us more about your view of the scientific process – ignorance and failure, all of that?

Stuart  

Well, yeah, I should say that that list of items that you just went through all are things that I actually learned as a graduate student. I decided one day to put together a list of things I thought I learned as a graduate student. And what was shocking to me was that those things are never taught to you, even as an undergraduate. Even if, as an undergraduate, you're a science major, you never learn any of that stuff until you get to graduate school, which is not what most people do. And then you might notice that that list doesn't require any sort of technical knowledge or any special PhD type training. I mean, almost anybody can have those ideas. So why don't we teach that at a much earlier stage? Why don't we teach science that way, instead of these, you know, dry textbooks full of facts that that are going to change anyway, or, I mean, they're going to be modified, they're going to be expanded upon. They're not the end of the story.

Martin   

So why is it that we don't teach it that way?

Stuart  

We are trapped in the curriculum we teach, because we're still using very old-style tools of evaluation and assessment. The evaluation and assessment we use now is all based on kind of right and wrong answers. I think that could be changed. But I think it would take a concerted effort to do it. And it would require a very – I hesitate to use this word because I don't really like the word – but a very interdisciplinary approach, involving computer scientists, gamers, I think gaming could be a very important clue as to how we should run education, I think art curators, art history curators, educators, of course, social scientists, and so forth. Statisticians.. I think there are a lot of people that could add to this conversation and could come up with new techniques and ideas for how we would evaluate and assess.

Itai  

I think the way you brought up the notion of sociology and gaming, and this pluralistic attitude of learning, I think what you're getting at is that their integration is a great fodder for new ideas, right? They're great for creativity. And also in your book ‘Failure’, you talk about the notion of dissociation, right? That you can take an idea, and sort of dissociate it from that discipline, when you can, in a sense, liberate it and now deploy it in another field, in another context, then that's a great way to generate new ideas.

Stuart  

Yeah, I think that's true. I mean, we always hear these ideas about creativity and novelty and innovation as being somehow putting together things that had not been previously associated. And that can be true, of course. That does happen now and again, and that's, I guess, what interdisciplinarity is supposedly aimed that. But I also believe that you can find creativity by dissociating things that have been too long associated, by sort of breaking up these solid ideas that seem to be written in stone. And then yes, I think the way you said it was perfect that you free up these ideas, to either reassociate with new ideas or to be redefined in new ways. 

Martin

Do you have an example of that?

Stuart

For example, I would say one of the ideas that we have in neurobiology in general right now is the notion of maps in the brain, that we map things onto the brain, we map our visual field, our visual impressions on to some place in the brain where there's a map of the outside world being recreated in the brain; or whether it's a map of our bodies, you know, or you may have seen in textbooks or pictures somewhere, this thing called the homunculus, the idea that, you can see certain regions of the brain that are more sensitive to, you know, the tips of your fingers, versus the bottoms of your feet, whatever it might be. And that there are these maps in the brain, and this is the way the brain is organized. But in point of fact, I'm beginning to recognize that this idea is a fairly bankrupt one, in my opinion, that there may look like there are maps here and there the brain because that's the way it's easiest to organize the tissue from a developmental point of view. But functionally, the brain doesn't really use maps. I think we have been imprisoned in many ways in neuroscience by this idea of a map. And that's largely because of experiments that were done in the 1950s and 60s by two Nobel laureate scientists, Hubel and Wiesel, in the visual system, where they found that the cat visual cortex can be organized in terms of a certain kind of mapping, if you will. That is there are certain cells that are sensitive to vertical lines and other cells sensitive to horizontal lines and other cells sensitive to a line drawn at different angles. And it looks like you could map that across the brain. And that's true in the cat. It's not true in every other animal around. And so it's not really clear that these maps are important. But it was such a big discovery at the time that it really overtook much of neuroscience for the last 50 years. And people are busy searching for maps, that I have a feeling aren't there, like black cats in rooms that aren’t there.

Itai  

When you say, “Are there maps in the brain?”, it makes me think of a story that you tell in your book ‘Ignorance’. You talk about a colleague that said that what makes a question interesting and should be worthy of study is if it leads somewhere, and if it's maybe connected to other questions.

Stuart  

Yeah, I guess maybe I've overstated the case, I don't think maps are the worst idea going. And there may be places in the brain where a map is actually the best way to describe what's going on. And I guess this is where my ideas about pluralism come in, that we ought not all be stuck on mapping. And that I fear is where the field has been for a long time, that we all want to discover a map. But that implies that there's somebody up there reading the map. And there isn't anybody up there reading a map, you know? I'm not saying we should dismiss maps. I think it should be one of a number of strategies that we look at for how the brain might be organized and how it might function. So this is this idea of pluralism, I suppose. There's an old Chinese proverb that says one dog barks at something, and 100 dogs bark at that dog barking, and somebody goes, “Wow, what's going on?” Well, nothing’s going on! But there's a tendency to jump on the wagon, as it were.

Itai  

I think in your notion of pluralism, there is a kind of invoking of the evolutionary process, where you can think of each idea as a new mutation. And instead of us just having one variant, we can have multiple variants, and there's a better chance for the best idea to gain fitness, so to speak.

Stuart  

Yeah, no, I think that's a great example, actually. I think evolution is one of the most pluralistic processes you can imagine. And it's been, on the one hand, very successful, right? I mean, you look at us, we're pretty successful. On the other hand, it's done nothing but fail most of the time, I mean, 99 plus percent of all the species that have ever roamed on the planet have gone extinct, which I guess you could call a failure. Crucial to pluralism is the ability to fail. I mean, failure and pluralism go hand in hand, it seems to me. Evolution is a perfect example of that. And look at the creativity of evolution, look at the remarkable kinds of things that have existed and continue to exist on the planet and the way of life. I mean, it's just insane, right?

Martin   

I think you're right. There's probably nothing more creative on the long term than evolution. But here in this podcast, we're particularly interested in the creative side of the scientific process, of course. Maybe you can just tell us a little bit from your own experience

Stuart  

I don’t have a perfect answer for that. I think different people operate in different ways. I like to give people in the laboratory at least a great deal of independence – if somebody has an interesting question, they should chase it down, and they should take it as far as they can go with it. I have a great tolerance for failure that not all of my colleagues do. For me, the notion of pluralism is extremely important, what I call “value pluralism”, which is a term I've taken from the philosopher Isaiah Berlin, who didn't really ever apply it to science, but did apply it to literature and the history of ideas. It's not relativism, it's not anything goes. But a selected number of things go, that we try and sort of include more than just one approach. That's very hard in science, in many ways. Now, it's gotten harder, I have to say, because a lot of what we do requires a lot of technology. First of all, it can be expensive. And so once you invest in it, you know, it’s the old, “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” problem, right? You don't want to get into that trap. But when you pay a lot of money for an expensive microscope you want to look through it. And also it takes a certain amount of time these days to master some of these technologies, and to be trained in them. And so once you put in that effort, once you make that commitment, then you have to be careful, because you tend to find questions that that technology can answer. And that's often a problem. I tell this to students in my neuroscience class all the time, we think of the brain is primarily an electrical or an electrochemical organ, that all the processes up there or – you know, neurons chattering away to each other with different little voltage sparks and things like that. But that's primarily because our technology happens to be extremely good at measuring electrical activity at very high resolution, both temporal and intensity resolution. So we can measure very tiny amounts of current, and we can measure them in millisecond or microsecond timescales. So naturally, we think the brain is an electrical organ because that's what our technology can record. I'm not so sure that it is, and we're not missing something by only recording that. 

We've gotten maybe a little bit off the track here, I would say the most creative thing we do in science are lab meetings in a way. And that's when you try and get people to talk about what's not working. Now, students always loath to do that, they want to tell you about their latest discovery or put some nice PowerPoint together. But I try and convince them that the only thing I want to hear about is the shit that's not working. And that's what everybody else wants to hear about as well. Because in a lab meeting, when one person is presenting all their data in their project, then everybody else's, you know, I don't know, looking at their email or doing this or that, or wandering off. But as soon as they say, “But I can't get this one experiment to work. I don't know what's wrong.”, everybody perks up and has, you know, a dozen ideas as to what they could try. That's when things get creative.

Itai  

Well, it's very relatable, right? Someone tells you that their project is not working, it's very easy to relate to that.

Stuart  

Yes, yes, exactly! And it’s now a puzzle, and you want to be helpful. I mean, people like to be helpful in general. So if everything's working, that's fine, go on, keep doing what you're doing. 

Itai  

Exactly. And Stuart, you mentioned Isaiah Berlin in the context of pluralism. But there's another context that may relate to pluralism, I don't know. He also wrote this very famous essay called ‘the hedgehog and the fox’, where it relates kind of in the same way that you cited the cat in the dark room, this one is about the fox, knowing many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing, with the subtext that at the end of the day, it's better to know one big thing than many small things. And that has been applicable to science in some contexts. Some people say that at the end, you should specialize in one field, you'll be able to get a job, the administrators might be able to deal with you better. And it could be argued that the whole system promotes us to specialize in one thing, and therefore go against pluralism. Would you advise a young researcher to play this game and focus on one discipline and then maybe branch out only later?

Stuart  

Well, yes, I mean, the simple answer is to some extent, yes. But I would say it's more nuanced or a little bit more complicated than that, if we want to complicate it. I mean, even Berlin, he wrote many, many things, and everybody remembers him for this one essay, which he says he sort of wrote almost as a little exercise. It was actually originally a critique of Tolstoy, and he was trying to decide whether Tolstoy was a fox or a hedgehog. And his conclusion was that he's a little bit of both, and that most people in the end are a little bit of both, and that's kind of the right way to go. But certainly the fox is the pluralist. But listen, we all appreciate expertise. We all want expertise, we all depend on expertise, especially in this complicated world we find ourselves in now. So you do need to be a bit of a hedgehog. And I think that's true in science. I think that's probably true in law and plumbing and electricity, and all the rest of that kind of thing. So whatever you do, you need to be a bit of a hedgehog, at least for part of it. But I would also say that – this may be a surprise to some listeners – that at least half of what a scientist does is not experiments, is not sitting at the lab bench doing an experiment, for which I do think you want to be a hedgehog, you want to be intensely focused and concentrated on an experiment or a set of experiments or a question would be a better way to say it. But then there's all the other things you do: you review papers, you review grant proposals, you hire students and postdocs, you mentor them, you hire faculty, you review tenure things, you do all of these other things, you write review articles, you write other kinds of articles. And in those areas, I think a healthy dose of pluralism is critical. And that's where we often don't find it. That's where we don't find it, you find that, you know, molecular biologists don't believe there's any other science but molecular biology, so why should we hire somebody, you know, who's studying bacteria or brains? And there are neuroscientists who believe that if you study anything less than a monkey, you know, it's just not worth it, why bother with it? And they'll run their departments that way. They make their decisions that way. And I think that's where pluralism can be maintained in science. But yes, I do think for the scientific question, the particular question that you have some passion about in science that you ought to be a hedgehog about. Although getting to that question, you could be very foxy. You can try lots of different things to get to the question. But once you find that question, be a hedgehog.

Itai  

Would you agree then that being a hedgehog is, in a sense, doing day science, and the fox-like aspect is night science, because you're going around and looking for new ideas? But then, like you say, once you have the idea, then you got to go in the lab and be a hedgehog to pursue them?

Stuart  

Yeah, I think that's a good example. I mean, I love the idea of day science and night science to begin with. You know, I think, though, that the people who are most successful at daytime science are also the most successful at nighttime science. I mean, I think if you daydream you won’t get as far, because you shouldn't be daydreaming in daytime science. I think if you have that ability to focus intensely on a question and daytime science and do the trivial, the miniscule, the minutia things that have to be done, and pay attention to detail at an intense level, then that kind of, I want to say that sort of frees the brain up at night to just kind of wander around because it's exhaustive doing daytime science. But it's not exhausted doing nighttime science, which refreshes it somehow. I don't know if that's true or not, but I like to think it is. I feel like it is.

Martin   

Yeah, I also think it's true, actually. It's clear to all of us, I think, how important creativity is, how important it is come up with new ideas. Is there a way in which you support the people in your lab in doing night science? Is there any special help that you can give them?

Stuart  

Well, there's not a lot you can do for that, I don't think. Again, if we knew what to do, we would do it. But I think you can neglect or ignore them a bit. I think, I think it's really useful sometimes to neglect people. I mean, mentoring is a very tricky business. And you want to pay attention to people and what they're doing and what's going on. But you can over-mentor as well. You can over-direct in many ways. And I think it's very valuable sometimes to neglect people a bit, and to let them feel a bit neglected, in a way. Because that's when they take matters into their own hands. 

Itai

Sounds like tough love.

Stuart

Well, a little bit of that. I mean, I don't mean, you know, I don’t mean really neglect them in the sense that you completely ignore them. I used to joke, I have a daughter who's about to give birth to my first grandchild, but we had her rather leave life. So during her teenage years, I was in my 50s. And, you know, I didn't see that. Well, I didn't hear that. Well. I was getting older. So the world was a somewhat fuzzy place to me. But she clearly knew that and she knew how to work under the radar. She's a very creative person today. And I think that's how she learned that, you know. I mean, I was there for her, I didn't neglect her or ignore her. It's just that she knew there were certain things I didn't see. And I am that way in the lab as well. I don't need to see everything you do. I leave people space. I think that's the thing you do. You try and create a space in which things can emerge and that's the best you can do. You can't get them to happen. But you can leave an opportunity.

Itai  

I think I know what you mean. You say neglect, I think, in the same way that you say Failure and Ignorance: to provoke. But the overall message is that you want to let them know that it's in their own hands, it's up to them, they need to own this.

Stuart  

Yes. And you know, if they fail, I'm not going to be all over them. And if they succeed, I'm not going to be all over them either. I'm going to be very happy, but I'm not going to be all over them about it either. Let's move where we can from this – now, what should we do?

Itai  

And Stuart, going back to what we were saying about day science and night science, what I want to ask you about is the notion of balance between them. Because you also said just now that if all you do is daydream, then you're probably not going to get very far. And the people that are successful are the ones that can do both. So maybe there is a kind of logic to doing day science during the day and night science during the night after all, because that at least leads us to have a balanced way of doing things.

Stuart  

It's certainly difficult, you have to work at it, you have to be somewhat aggressive about it. I think it's different for each person, what that balance point is and what works best for them. Several years ago, I became chair of the biology department for about a three or four year period. And I remember the chair of physics coming to me and saying, “Well, you know, be prepared, it will take up a lot of your time, as much as 50% of your time. But that's not the problem. The problem is that it's every other five minutes.” So you understand, that's the problem. And that's what you can't let happen. That's when it's not balanced. So that's the notion, I guess, of balance. And I do think in some ways, it's a good idea to do day science during the day and night science during the night only because, you know, when you're in the lab during the day there are a lot of other people in the lab, and people come to you and talk to you and you want to go talk to them and things are going on and all the rest of that. It is a little harder to sort of let your mind wander a bit and go to crazy things. Whereas, you know, night science, at night if you're in the lab, it's a totally different kind of time. I mean, I think that's why Jacob calls them night and day science, because there is a different feeling in the lab during the day and at night. I used to love to come in at night. But I also come in during the day, I always made sure that I was in the lab every day for at least a few hours during the day, to be sure I interacted with people and sort of had a connection. But then I would regularly stay until midnight, one, two in the morning, because that's sort of when I got the best work done, somehow.

Martin   

Yeah, no, I find that totally plausible. But then on the other hand, you know, we all have lives outside of science, right? A lot of people would say, Yeah, but you know, during the night, I have to be with the family, and, you know, I can't do science at night. So what would you say to those people?

Stuart  

Well, you have to balance your life with your work, like you're doing with almost everything, I suppose. I used to do it by going into the lab during the day, around, I don't know, 11 or 12. And then I would come home and have dinner with my family. And I'd stick around until eight o'clock or so. And then I would go back to the lab. And you know, by 10 or 11 they were in bed anyway, so it didn't make much difference what time I got home. And I would be home a little bit in the morning. I mean, I think everybody works it out the way they need to work it out. And you know, it doesn't have to be a regular schedule.

Itai  

Stuart, you’ve written strong words on the topic of hypotheses in your books. You don't have many nice things to say about hypotheses, which is very much music to our ears, because we agree with you that they can be very biasing. But it is a fact I think we can agree on that we live in a country where hypothesis-driven research – so-called hypothesis-driven research – is what wins the grants. And any fishing expedition immediately gets you thrown out of the discussion for getting a grant. So how did we get here, to this situation? And is there a way out of it?

Stuart  

How we got here is probably tricky. Would it be best left to a historian of science or some sociologists of science, because it isn't clear to me. I think a part of it is that this country was, especially post-World War 2, a leader in funding science as a social good. We did it through the government, the government couldn't really run science unless you had government grants. And so we got into that habit of doing that, which I don't think it's a bad idea necessarily. But of course, that automatically connects it to politics. And so now you have agencies that should really be far more independent in their ability to operate, nonetheless having to go to Congress and beg for money. And then Congress people because they're not scientists, for the most part, unfortunately, typically ask you, “what have you done lately? Why are we giving you money?” 

Itai  

Can you cure cancer? 

Stuart  

Right. And, you know, you say “no, we can't cure cancer, even though we've had a war on cancer for seventy years, but we've learned a tremendous amount in the meantime. We've cured other diseases, we've made people healthier. We have made inroads in cancer, and we're likely to get there, but, you know, I can't tell you when or how or why.” And so then it's a little harder to get a grant. And so if you frame things in terms of hypotheses and outcomes and milestones, and all of these things that politicians and policymakers are used to for everything else they do …

Itai

Deliverables. 

Stuart

Yes. I mean, I'm not being sympathetic to them, honestly. But I am being understanding in some ways, because almost everything else they judge, they judge in exactly that way. 

Itai

Right: metrics. 

Stuart

And so, you know, should science be an exception to that? Does it deserve to be an exception to that? Well, I think the historical record shows that, yes, it should be an exception, because it's a different kind of a process than, I don't know, building a bridge or something like that. So yes, in that sense, it requires a kind of exceptionalism. But I think it's going to be hard to get that out of your standard politician, or policymaker.

Martin   

I mean, in a way, I would say that the exact opposite of a hypothesis might be ignorance, which you know a lot about, and you have argued in your beautiful book about ignorance that the creation of high-quality ignorance is the main goal of science. What I'm a bit confused about is, at least on the surface, it sounds like ignorance should just appear, do you need creativity to build ignorance?

Stuart  

If we think about ignorance as an ability to identify a good question, a sophisticated question, an important question, I don’t know, a question that's of value, then I think that there's a certain kind of creativity in doing that. I think I quote it in the book, and I certainly like to quote, the poet John Keats and his coining of the word “negative capability”, which sounds a bit like an oxymoron. But it's this ability to remain in doubts, mysteries, and uncertainties, without being irritable about it, that is learning the patience to remain in ignorance and to understand there’s value in that and that that's where creativity comes from. I mean, it's the stuff we don't know that's creative, the stuff we know is not going to be a source of creativity, it seems to me in general – it's the stuff we don't know. And even the stuff we don't know that we don't know, and the stuff that fails, that's where all the creativity sort of comes around. That's where people have to work the hardest and think the furthest out of the box, if you will.

Martin   

But do you have to be creative to remove the ignorance, to find the answers to the questions? Or do you have to be already creative to shape the ignorance?

Stuart  

Well, I guess you need a little bit of both. I mean, I'm never sure what it means to be creative, it’s like being funny, you know. I mean, I think I'm a relatively funny person. But if somebody says to me “be funny”, I just wouldn't really know what to do next. So I don't know how to be creative in that sense. I mean, it'd be nice if I could just flip the switch and be creative. They're like two horses pulling the same wagon, if you will, ignorance and creativity. I don't know which one follows which, they just work together. When they work together, they work together, and those are the best moments. And they don't always. You have to sort of create a space, an opportunity for it and hope it visits. And be smart enough to know when it does. The problem for many people is that they don't recognize when creativity has visited them, where they've gotten, if you will, even lucky. I don't think it's just lucky. I believe that, you know, with Louis Pasteur, that chance favors the prepared mind. So it's not really serendipity in the real sense of the word. It's serendipitous in the fact that you were smart enough to happen upon a mistake of failure or something unexpected and recognized it as something new and interesting.

Itai  

And do you think that the reason why some people, when they get lucky to observe something new and they do recognize it, is it something about their preparation only, or also some kind of aesthetic inclination to like certain ideas, and maybe get bored with other ideas?

Stuart

I think it's the second of those, or at least I hope it is. I think people who are creative in science are creative elsewhere, too. I don't think you're just creative in one place, as it were. I mean, I think they have a lifestyle or an outlook, a kind of inventiveness about them, a way of looking at things and seeing them differently than other people see them. And so it bleeds into the sciences as well. I think that's to some extent going to be true of artists or business people or lawyers. I mean, I think there are creative lawyers, and there are adult pedestrian lawyers. I worked in the theater for many years before I got into science. And there were many, many creative people in the theater, many creative actors and directors and designers and all of that. But there were also many, many very pedestrian ones. People who felt acting was a job. They came in, they did their shtick and then they left and went home. And, you know, they were very dependable, if that's what you wanted in a show, but they weren't going to bring anything new to anything. They were just going to do what was dependable, and you knew what they would do. Sometimes you hired them for just that reason. You knew what they’d do, they get it done, good – I don't have to worry about this. But so I think it's true in every field, you have people who take a kind of a pedestrian approach, and people who take a creative approach and find creativity in anything they do, or much of what they do.

Martin   

In your book, you also talk a little bit about that career you had in the theater before you started in science, which is really, really interesting. When you compare the creativity that you observed, or maybe you had yourself, in the context of the theater with the creativity in science, what do you think is comparable? And what do you think might be differences in the kind of creativity in these fields? 

Stuart  

For me, they're completely comparable, I almost just don't see any difference in them at all. I mean, in the theater, I worked with actors, and there was a lot of interesting stuff that went on, there were a lot of failures. And we found interesting things in those failures. And we explored a script, we explored all sorts of things in a way of having ignorance to begin with. And I find the same thing in science. I mean, I'm not one of the scientists who likes to work alone in a room and just think, you know. I need other people around. And so for me, the process is sort of similar. I need interaction, I need people talking. I’m one of these people who, you know, I don't know what I think until I say it kind of thing. So it's important for me to be able to talk to people and hear what they have to say. So I don't find much difference. I mean, I don't miss the theater, in the sense of I don't miss the creativity of the theater, or any of that kind of thing. And I don't miss the camaraderie of the theater. And I don't miss the spirit of it, because I find it all in science as well.

Itai  

You know, Stuart, Martin and I have drawn a link between improvisational theatre and the scientific process, and also to jazz: the notion that you can get a lot from the interactions when both participants, let's say it’s just two, are using the “yes, and” rule instead of the “No, but”. So I'm wondering if you have also noticed, if that's been of service to you in your creativity?

Stuart  

Yeah, I think what you learn from improvisation is generosity, that improvisation only works when the people doing it are extremely generous. And so it's very valuable to me to develop that sort of thing, because generosity generally seems to work better than selfishness in almost everything that I can think of. At least it makes life preferable and better things come out of it. So the extent that improvisation depends on and teaches you a kind of generosity towards others and towards a shared goal, that of course I think is very valuable. And I would say it works that way in science. I'm very careful about that in my lab, and when I collaborate with other labs, that we don't keep secrets. There's no value in keeping secrets, it seems to me. I know that that's not the way everybody in science works. But I couldn't work any other way, it would be of no interest to me to keep a secret. It's only fun when you tell people about it, and they say “yes, and”, as you pointed out.

Martin   

And I think the “yes, and” was a perfect way to end this conversation.

Stuart  

Well, I've actually written a whole bunch of notes myself from this conversation, so it's little ideas that have come up during this conversation that I can see moving someplace or another, so that's been great. 

Martin

Cool – that’s the best of course. 

Stuart

I'm taking the rest of the day off. It's not gonna get better so you just take it off.

Martin   

Thank you so much.

Stuart  

Thank you guys. This is a great pleasure. I hope to do it again sometime.