laurence_c_smith's picture
Professor of Environmental Studies, Brown University; Author, Rivers of Power

As scientists, we're sympathetic to this question. We've asked it of ourselves before, many times, after fruitless days lost at the lab bench or computer seat. If only our brains could find a new way to process the delivered information faster, to interpret it better, to align the world's
noisy torrents of data in an crystalline moment of clarity. In a word, for our brains to forgo their familiar thought sequences, and innovate.

To be sure, the word "innovate" has become something of a badly overused cliche. Tenacious CEO's, clever engineers, and restless artists come to mind before the methodical, data-obsessed scientist. But how often do we consider the cognitive role of innovation in the supposedly bone-dry world of hypothesis-testing, mathematical constraints and data-dependent empiricism?

In the world of science, innovation stretches the mind to find an explanation when the universe wants to hold on to its secrets just a little longer. This can-do attitude is made all the more valuable, not less, in a world constrained by ultimate barriers like continuity of mass and energy, Absolute zero, or the Clausius-Clapeyron relation. Innovation is a critical enabler of discovery around and of these bounds. It is the occasional architect of that rare, wonderful breakthrough even when the tide of scientific opinion is against you.

A reexamination of this word from the scientific perspective reminds us of the extreme power of this cognitive tool, one that most people possess
already. Through innovation, we all can transcend social, professional, political, scientific, and most importantly, personal limits. Perhaps we might all put it to better and more frequent use.