Wednesday, July 19, 2017


Many years ago I began to notice parallels in the vocabulary of different engineering disciplines. For example, both electronics and hydrology use the word current. In one case it is a measure of the flow of molecules of water and in the other, refers to the flow of electrons.

The problem with using seemingly common words to explain things is that it can lead to confusion, or disagreements, as illustrated by this example from Kaiser Aluminum's booklet, Communications;

Another opportunity for confusion comes when we don't see the whole situation, as told in the fable of the Blind Men and the Elephant;

It was six men of Indostan to learning much inclined,
Who went to see the elephant (Though all of them were blind),
that each by observation might satisfy his mind.

The First approached the elephant, And happening to fall
against his broad and sturdy side, at once began to bawl:
"God bless me! but the elephant is very like a WALL!"

The Second, feeling of the tusk, cried, "Ho, what have we here,
so very round and smooth and sharp? To me 'tis mighty clear
this wonder of an Elephant Is very like a SPEAR!"

The Third approached the animal and happening to take
the squirming trunk within his hands, thus boldly up and spake:
"I see," quoth he, "the elephant Is very like a SNAKE!"

The Fourth reached out an eager hand, and felt about the knee
"What most this wondrous beast is like is mighty plain," quoth he:
"'Tis clear enough the Elephant is very like a TREE!"

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear said: "E'en the blindest man
can tell what this resembles most; deny the fact who can,
this marvel of an elephant is very like a FAN!"

The Sixth no sooner had begun about the beast to grope,
than seizing on the swinging tail that fell within his scope,
"I see," quoth he, "the Elephant is very like a ROPE!"

And so these men of Indostan disputed loud and long,
each in his own opinion exceeding stiff and strong,
though each was partly in the right and all were in the wrong!

There is another way, which I think of as the Walks Like a Duck principle, illustrated by a story about ideas which come in the night;

Kowloon at Night

On June 24, 1995, the Chief Executive Officer of a worldwide organization spoke at a meeting for regional leaders and their wives, giving them directions to guide their next few years of service in the company. He advised them;

Listen for the ideas which wake you up at night, and respond to them. I don’t know why they happen. I only know that they do. They can come in the day as well, of course. But listen to those night-time ideas. In the middle of the night, ideas have come to me which have been very creative. 

For example, in July 1992 I was responsible for finding space for a new facility in a large and crowded city where land was very expensive. The company had been searching for a new place to build there for a long time. I went to bed one night, feeling unsettled about the decision I had to make. I woke up very early the next morning.

Something very interesting came to my mind; I thought; We already own a piece of property; a district office with small conference room. It is in the heart of the city, in a prime location with the best transportation. Why don’t we build up rather than out or on another parcel? We can remodel the first two floors of existing offices and build more on the top, adding two or three additional floors. Having had that inspiration I relaxed and went back to sleep.

Today in Kowloon, a densely populated section of Hong Kong, a taller building stands where the small office once stood, providing a temporary residence, offices, a library and conference rooms. It is a testament to the power of ideas which wake us up in the middle of the night.

This type of experience is well enough known to have a name; The Eureka Effect. It refers to the moment of insight when a puzzling problem is suddenly solved. It is named after a story about the Greek polymath Archimedes.

The Eureka Effect has another name; Insight, a psychological (scientific) term to describe the event in problem solving when a previously unsolvable puzzle becomes suddenly clear and obvious. Often this transition is accompanied by an exclamation of joy or satisfaction, an Aha! moment. MRI scans showed more connections in the brain —a key element to the creative process.

These two stories are describing the same type of event - call it inspiration or an Ah Ha! moment. What is particularly interesting is that one comes from a scientific perspective, the other deeply religious.

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