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Just Play!

The Secret Life of Scientists and EngineersThe Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers

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Some colleagues and I (including an anthropologist, chemist, sociologist, economist, and a computer information theorist) recently decided to start having weekly get-togethers in my living room to talk about our craziest ideas. We even gave the event a name, the George Coleman Lecture Series.

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The point was to do exactly the opposite of what traditionally happens with academic talks—that is, spending countless hours and thought preparing for the talk. Rumor has it that the great trumpeter, Miles Davis, fired his tenor sax player, George Coleman, because he was caught practicing before the gig. It was in that spirit that speakers at our meetings were encouraged to be improvisational and to not spend more than 15 minutes planning their talks. The idea was for it to be a conversation amongst friends—you simply talk about what you’re thinking about. The catch, of course, is that you do open yourself up to showing your ignorance to your colleagues.

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We love you, George, BUT STOP PRACTICING!!

My colleague and mentor, social theorist

Mark Gould , had an interesting theory that sparked the Coleman Lectures (and pretty much all great theories are simple and elegant in hindsight). Mark’s idea was that academics should have space to play with their ideas with each other. This is EXACTLY what jazz musicians do, especially in group improvisation. Even if there is a well-defined structure (i.e. chord changes), each different instrumentalist holds a musical space while the soloist plays. There is no such thing as a wrong note. It is in this momentary state of play when we truly expose ourselves to the band and the audience that sparks of novelty arise. And it works. I used to record some of my gigs, and I was always surprised to hear how bland I sounded when I was playing the “right notes.” The sections when I had thought I was messing up turned out to be the very best parts of the recordings.

Now, of course, playing also means practice and sharpening your skillz. Sax great Joe Henderson once shared a lesson with me and it was simply this: “When you get to the point where blowing one note is pleasure, then you got it.” Still working on that one. But sometimes you do have to risk notions of “being respected” so you can play and come up with something new. And that’s true, whether you’re talking about jazz or science. I’m currently playing with an idea that connects two mysteries in cosmology, Dark Energy and Neutrino Oscillations . In response to my paper on this topic, one of my fellow physicists said to me, “This is absolutely crazy—chances are it’s wrong. But if its right….” And I smiled.

Miles would have loved it.

Original funding for "The Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers" was provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.