a youngster, I was obsessed with lists. Grocery lists, taxonomic lists—it
didn’t matter; nor did it matter if I fully understood the words on
the list, let alone comprehended the significance of the list. As long as
the universe could be distilled into orderly columns, ranked by size, preference,
or date of origin, then all was right with the world.
My most valued possession during this time of hyper-organization (which
has since given way to its exact opposite, I might add) was a tome called
The Book of Lists. It was, as its title suggests, a book of lists:
palindromes, exotic deaths, largest and smallest humans (in both height
and girth), and so on.
It was a relatively short list.
Most memorable was the famous Archimedes anecdote, in which the Greek mathematician and physicist, settling into the bath, discovers the principle that objects of equal weight will displace different volumes of water when immersed unless their densities are equal, thus finding a solution for how to help Hiero, King of Syracuse, determine whether he was being cheated by an artisan accused of substituting cheap alloys for pure gold in a recently commissioned crown. Archimedes famously screams “Eureka!” (I have found it!), and leaps from the bath, sans clothing, to whoop it up in the streets of Syracuse (that’s Sicily, not New York). A naked, soggy scientist cavorting through the burg offended my peculiar pre-pubescent, neo-Victorian sensibilities. In the name of all things holy, I thought, couldn’t he simply jot down his revelation—in list form—and leave the streaking to the less civilized, such as the politicians?
What I did not understand was that Archimedes had been pondering his
problem for some time, and his drafty foray from bath to boulevard may
be excused, because drumming up good ideas is real work—laudable
The Brain Institute’s Erik M. Jorgensen nicely outlines the key ingredients for creative thinking in his “And Finally” column. For professors John Kircher and Doug Hacker, hours of conversation over thousands of miles of highway led to the development of their eye-tracking device. Archaeologist Jack Broughton was able to challenge accepted notions of environmental harmony only after he identified and catalogued thousands of bird bones. Ann Bardsley explores the creative outlets for some of the U’s brilliant academics, finding that in order to wrap one’s mind around complex problems, it doesn’t hurt to pick up a pair of knitting needles.
All of these tales illustrate that good ideas don’t come at the end of a cattle prod. A university’s particular strength is its ability to pool all the right resources—talented individuals, powerful gadgets—in a kind of academic alchemy. Then everyone is supposed to get out of the way and watch what happens.
And it’s not all about faculty, either. The same is true for the students. Not long ago I was speaking with Martha Bradley, director of the U’s Honors Program, about the Honors Think Tanks. Established just last year, the Think Tanks challenge Honors students to put their intellect and youthful energy to work in wrestling with community issues. Last year, students came up with recommendations to revitalize Salt Lake City’s downtown. They consulted experts, pressed the flesh with city bigwigs, soaked up guidance from lecturers in the sciences and humanities, and presented their research to the Salt Lake City Council and the Utah Transit Authority, among others. Bradley knows as well as most that these students are powerful, creative thinkers, eager to do something dynamic if given the time and resources. “I think most are dying to do innovative things,” she says. Bradley said it best when referring to the Think Tank students, but the comment applies from one end of the U to the other: “It’s like setting this whole army of smart people off on timely issues.”
Amen. Or should I say, Eureka?
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