Originally posted Friday December 3, 2010 at LabSpaces (here).
The other day as I was walking to work, as is my want I was listening to a podcast. This particular one was from Science magazine. In this particular episode one part was about some recent work in quantum physics. In quantum physics there's this strange phenomenon called nonlocalilty. My very limited understanding of this is that you can have two separated objects that are somehow linked such that changing the quantum state of one instantaneously causes a change in the other. Einstein famously referred to this as "spooky action at a distance." Well, apparently some physicists have managed to come up with an explanation for this using Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. If you want to read about it, the article can be found here (you'll probably need a subscription...).
The point of this post however is not to make my head explode trying to understand such things, but rather is more to do with how these physicists supposedly came to link nonlocality with the uncertainty principle. In the podcast they were interviewing one of the authors of the Science paper who commented that they made this connection not by thinking like quantum physicists, but rather by trying to think like information scientists. This resonated with me. Not that I try to think like an information scientist (although I did once solve a research problem by thinking in terms of information rather than molecules). Rather, it resonated because my most creative periods as a scientist have come when I have either been surrounded by people from different disciplines who brought different ways of thinking about a problem, or I have tackled a research problem that is outside my area of expertise.
My first real experience of this was as a postdoc. At one point I was one of four postdocs in the lab. We had been trained in physical chemistry, organic chemistry, biochemistry and molecular biology respectively. At first glance you might think these are rather closely related disciplines. In some ways they are, but in my experience practitioners of each of these disciplines think somewhat differently. This was certainly the case here. These colleagues each approached the problems we were working on in different ways. I have come to believe it was my interactions with them and attempts to understand how they thought about problems that led to a particularly productive period in my tenure as a postdoc.
This has happened in other ways. While on tenure track through necessity I changed research directions, and more drastically approaches, to encompass areas I had zero training or background in. Again, this led to a spike in productivity. I was forced to think differently.
More recently I have, this time more through choice, changed research directions in a somewhat drastic manner. Once again productivity is on its way up. Not that I wasn't being productive before. Apparently thinking differently works for me.