I had an idea at work yesterday. This is worthy of comment because few of my ideas survive beyond five minutes of my examining them in daylight; next to none survive my explaining them to colleagues.
Philosophers, historians, and sociologists of science often, but not always, subscribe to one of a limited range of theories about how science progresses. Scientists themselves usually don't. They do, however, encourage the sorts of tweedy boys I listed to get the wrong idea about the way science works because scientists like to tidy up or glamorize their thought processes retrospectively. In a microscopic attempt to put the record straight, and without going into specifics, I'm going to explain honestly how my poxy little idea was born.
The Campus librarian circulates a list of scientific papers and, occasionally, newspaper/magazine articles that she thinks the locals will be interested in or that locals have written. Yesterday it included a paper with an author whose name I recognized. The authors of the paper had done a big computer analysis of lots of biological data. It immediately struck me that the analysis was relevant to a question that an experimental (non-computer) biologist had been wrestling with—in fact he had asked me in the past to look out for publications of a related, but different, type and let him know if I found one.
So I phoned the experimentalist, who is a full professor at one of the top three scientific universities. We didn't piss about with all that “how are you?” bollocks. Within about ten minutes he had run me through the results and implications of about two years worth of painstaking laboratory work and I'd directed him to a tool to analyse another side-experiment of his. We also talked about my idea.
The paper I had found wasn't what the experimentalist had been looking for, but I pointed out that there was a technique in existence which could be used to investigate another related phenomenon. “Was it a question worth asking?” I asked.
“Yes,” he answered, and (to paraphrase) “bugger me if that technique wouldn't be useful for another problem I'm interested in.” (At the end of the conversation he did ask me if I'd found myself another job yet, but that was the extent of the smalltalk)
I am pretty sure, that, if I can find the time to pursue it, this idea will lead, in turn, to another interesting paper. It should answer a simple, but subtle question. Even if the answer is ambiguous, it might still be worthy of some public discussion. Will it cure cancer? No. Will lead to a vaccine against HIV? No. Will it get me another publication? I hope so. 1.7 people will read that publication.
Tweedy types, note: I wasn't thinking about something else; I wasn't lying in the bath; I wasn't inspired by a suggestive visual representation or analogy. Of course, if my idea hadn't been a poxy little one, but something of world-changing significance, by the time I was ready to collect my Nobel Prize I'd have invented a pleasing little domestic myth involving my burning my hand on a stove and watching a bubble of skin form, and it reminding me of the opening of a particular protein structure, and my immediately beginning to wonder if there was some way such a “blister” could be “lanced” using molecular tweezers… You suckers would have believed it and anyone who knew my field would be muttering “bullshit” under their breath during my prize-winning lecture.