Those 10 or 15 minutes a day

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.