Monday, April 18, 2005

Steven Chu's Korea University Lecture

I have an admission to make, but it perhaps illustrates the importance of maintaining flexibility in one's thinking.

Originally, yesterday's post was going to be about Chu's use of lateral thinking, i.e., "problem solving by approaching problems indirectly at diverse angles." I even intended to title the post "Lateral Cogitating and Laser Cooling," which I considered a pretty cool and alliterative phrase. In my first reading of Chu's record of his own achievements, I had inferred that what he gained from his reading in and investigations of other fields was an ability to think laterally in his own field of expertise, for I assumed that these gave him the means of approaching problems in his own field from diverse angles.

But he doesn't describe himself as doing that. Instead, he speaks of how his expertise in his own field led him to see possible solutions in other fields. He also emphasizes the role of analogical thinking in the creative process of his thinking. Thus, I began to see that my original aim of writing about Chu's ability to think laterally was heading for a dead end. At first, I reacted by mentally trying to force the model of lateral thinking onto what Chu described himself as doing, but it just didn't fit. So, I finally gave in and changed yesterday's post to one on analogical thinking.

I suspect that Chu also uses lateral thinking, but I'd have to know more about his conceptual methods to show this. He didn't discuss this point in his lecture today, but I noticed that his lecture had three slightly different titles:

1. On the banner above the lecture stage: "Biotechnology as a Solution to Engineering Problems"

2. On the booklet for audience members: "Biology as Solutions to Engineering Problems"

3. On the powerpoint display screen: "Biology as a Solution to Engineering Problems"

It seems that Chu approached his title from "diverse angles" -- perhaps a sort of lateral thinking!

But to be more serious . . . his lecture focused on three areas: 1. how the human ear works, 2. how cells make proteins, and 3. how to solve the energy crises in a pollution-free way. All three of these show a pattern characteristic of Chu, moving from his own field to deal with complex issues in other fields of science. In the handout, he notes:

"An increasing number of physical scientists and engineers are beginning to study biological systems. As more physical/mechanistic understandings of biological systems emerge, we are beginning to develop a deeper, quantitative understanding of how these systems work."

I would therefore guess that he is applying his expertise to problems that he sees as analogical to those that he has encountered before.

During the question and answer session, I did, in fact, manage to ask him about his approach to creative thinking. I had feared that I wouldn't get this opportunity, for there were very many hands raised, but Professor Jae Chun Hyun, Dean of the Graduate School, allowed me to pose the last question. I introduced myself and noted that Korea University, as part of its globalization drive, is trying to develop creative thinking in its students, then asked:

"In your writings, you emphasize 'field jumping,' and you seem to use analogical and perhaps even lateral thinking, so could you give us any advice about how to develop creative thinking in students?"

Chu replied that it is important to develop expertise in a few areas but also to keep a broad vision by investigating other fields:

"Talk to people outside your own speciality. Don't be afraid to ask questions. One problem that we have in Asian culture is that we are afraid to ask questions for fear of looking stupid. Well, don't be afraid to be stupid. I encourage my students to ask questions and to propose solutions. Nine times out of ten, the answers will be silly, but that one time out of ten, the answer might be useful."

This is precisely what my students need to hear, so I hope that they were listening -- or that they listen when all of this appears repeatedly on Korea University's closed circuit television.

Chu added that as for specific techniques of creative thinking, he had no special advice to give, but he then remarked, with a somewhat mischievous smile, that his being stupid had always helped him to ask the necessary stupid questions.

I think that I'm stupid enough to do that, too.


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