Original thinker

September 2012

  • Paul Willis

When you think about it, there are only a few of us who will have an original thought during our lives. Most of our thoughts concern the mundane details and rituals of daily life.

We have to deal with the same challenges every day, not only situations that we’ve faced before, but occasions that confront many people. When we do explore new areas of thought, we are seldom the first to do so. Usually we follow in the footsteps of others or build incrementally on their work.

For me, this idea of original thought was the sexiest thing about doing research science. As I plodded away at my thesis on fossil crocodiles occasionally I would realise that I was dealing with a completely new species, even a new genus or subfamily of crocodiles that no one had ever known before. And I took a little egotistical delight in realising that no one in the whole history of humanity could have possibly had that thought before. It’s a truly unsullied moment, never to be repeated.

I’m the first to admit that most of the original thoughts I can lay claim to are somewhat trivial. So what if there’s a new species of extinct crocodile? It’s dead and buried (and subsequently disinterred!) and this piece of knowledge adds very little to the collective sum of human knowledge. As much as I might delight in this new idea, it won’t change anyone’s life, cure some horrible disease or rewrite our understanding of the universe.

I’ve often wondered what it would be like to have had one of those major ideas in the history of science. How did James Hutton feel when he realised that rocks form and break down in cycles that recur back in time seemingly without end? Or Charles Darwin when he devised Natural Selection as a mechanism by which life had evolved through time? Or Albert Einstein when he had the stroke of genius to see that time and space are inextricably linked? There are so few of the truly great and fundamentally original ideas from throughout history that most of them are widely known both inside and outside of science.

I’ve had the opportunity to ask some of the greatest thinkers of our time exactly this question: how does it feel to have a great, original thought? I once met James Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA and he thought it was a great way to meet women! Then last year I asked Brian Schmidt, Australia’s newest Nobel Laureate, what it was like. This occasion was a couple of months prior to him being awarded the Nobel Prize for his work on the accelerated expansion of the universe and the so called ‘dark energy’. His answer?  Humble. To look deep into the workings of the universe and realise, for the first time, an essential and enigmatic feature of its operations made Brian feel elated, warm, satisfied but, most of all, humble.

That’s really the mark of this man. When you meet him one on one what strikes you is that he is a really nice guy. And his commitment to science and science education was marked by him donating a sizeable chunk of the cash from the prize to the Australian Academy of Science to further their programs for child science education. A man who has stood on the frontiers of human knowledge and radically reorganised how we see the universe is keen to share that knowledge with the world and encourage the next generation to join him. Put simply, and in the vernacular, he’s a top bloke!

Well Adelaide, you don’t have to take my word for it, you can find out for yourselves! Brian Schmidt will be here in October to present a special lecture for RiAus at The Science Exchange. The Science Inspiration is our annual keynote address and it’s your chance to meet true Nobel nobility and engage with an inspiring, original and humble mind. Why not spend an evening on the edge of a rapidly expanding universe?

Dr Paul Willis is the Director of RiAus (Royal Institute of Australia)





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