Northeastern University

Those 10 or 15 minutes a day

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I know it looks like I’ve been slacking off lately. And from the perspective of the blogosphere, I suppose that might be accurate. But it’s been a busy couple of weeks, what with the NSF engineering conference and President Aoun’s keynote address.

I did have one wonderful conversation yesterday afternoon with microbiologist Slava Epstein. My first encounter with Epstein was back in January at College of Science dean Murray Gibson’s talk, Physics of the Blues. He asked a wonderful question and I immediately knew I was going to like the way this guy’s brain worked:

Our ability to perceive music preexisted its invention….We were simply waiting for Bach to come around!…The question is: if that sophistication preexisted, did it evolve? If it evolved, what was the advantage for those apes who had that unused ability? Or else it didn’t evolve. If it it didn’t evolve, then it’s a random byproduct of the evolution of something else. Given the beauty of music, I can not believe it’s a random byproduct. But I can’t see the advantage of an ape that will produce Bach.

Gibson said we probably evolved a frequency sensor first and once it was in place, that allowed Bach and others to come along. One could argue that the ingredients were there. The other argument, he said, is that it is a learned response.

So, I bring this up because it reminds me of something Epstein said yesterday when I asked him what the day-to-day life of a microbiologist actually looks like. He said that, in his case, it’s a whole lot of wasted time, answering emails, going to meetings, writing grants, etc. “But every now and then you get those ten to fifteen minutes to sit down and think. What did people miss in the past? What two or three technologies could we modify to be fully compatible? Who knows, it may be on the train. This is what I think matters, the rest of the day is just to get those ten to fifteen minutes.”

We’ve been talking a lot about interdisciplinarity and collaboration around these parts. They are buzzwords on probably every university campus. But they’re big words. The very nature of the Physics of the Blues talk, which drew an extremely diverse crowd of researchers, students and staff members, was itself a petri dish (!) for cross-disciplinary thinking. And those moments seem to get the brain turning in such a way as to ignite those ten or fifteen minutes of fruitful thought.

The talks we attend, the questions we ask, the conversations we have, the emails we write, all the random interactions throughout our days, these inform those ten or fifteen minutes. Without the “wasted” time, you wouldn’t have the fruitful time. And without the fruitful time, we wouldn’t have the lectures, questions and conversations.

Epstein says he’s got a lot more to share in this department, and one of these days I’ll be picking his brain about it.


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