Greater Minds: How Isaac Asimov designed a brainstorm

  • Isaac Asimov described a process for generating original ideas for his friend, Arthur Obermayer.
  • An idea generator must understand their field, make connections and be resistant to criticism.
  • He suggested ideas would come from small groups in which some foolishness was encouraged.
  • People likely to generate ideas are likely to be eccentric but not ‘crackpot’.

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Isaac Asimov in 1965 (United States Library of Congress [Wikimedia Commons])

Allied Research Associates Inc had a problem. The US government had contracted them to develop a ballistic missile defence system to protect America, but they had to start from scratch. In 1959, the continent-crossing ballistic missile was a new weapon and the question of how to defend against them had not been considered before.

Faced with the problem of coming up with an idea that was both practical and entirely new, ARA turned to someone who solved that problem for a living: a science fiction author. Proposing and resolving problems is inherent to the craft of storytelling and for a science fiction author, some of those problems may be routed in science and technology.

Enter Asimov

One of ARA’s scientists, Arthur Obermayer, knew someone who could help: a man who was both a science fiction author and a scientist. A man who knew a great deal about technology, was versed in the scientific method and was known for his ability to combine both with his imagination. That man was Isaac Asimov.

Asimov had published his first short story, Marooned off Vesta, twenty years earlier. He had begun the two series that he remains best known for, the Foundation saga detailing the future history of the collapse and resurgence of an interstellar civilisation, and the robot stories that described humanity’s expansion through the solar system and the beginnings of interstellar colonisation through the relationships between people and the machines that made it possible. His three rules of robotics, first stated in his 1942 short story Runaround, remain iconic. He’d written more than many successful authors write in their whole career, but Asimov had fitted it around a PhD in biochemistry and his wartime work at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, and he was still well short of halfway through his writing career.

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(AGUILA_JONATHAN [CC / Flickr])

Asimov’s involvement in the missile defence project only lasted for a few meetings. He pulled out before he learned anything classified, fearing it would limit his freedom of expression. His main contribution was to write a short essay, titled On Creativity, on the process of conjuring ideas, which was never published until Obermayer found it while clearing out his files in 2014.

How does a generator generate?

Asimov opens by framing the problem of how to generate new ideas when nobody understands the process, including the generators themselves:

One way of investigating the problem is to consider the great ideas of the past and see just how they were generated. Unfortunately, the method of generation is never clear even to the “generators” themselves.

There is an air of tentativeness throughout the whole essay. Asimov was a serial generator

photo3

(Pimthida [CC / Flickr])

of ideas, but he didn’t understand how he did it. He did, however, come up with some qualifications for generating that can be summarised in three parts:

1/ ‘A good background in a particular field’.

2/ ‘Capable of making a connection between item 1 and item 2 which might not ordinarily seem connected’.

3/ ‘A person willing to fly in the face of reason, authority, and common sense must be a person of considerable self-assurance’.

First, measure the box

Asimov believed that original ideas come from combining elements drawn from a solid base of knowledge. If we want to think out of the box, we must start by understanding the box. My own anecdotal experience leads me to agree with him: people may come up with ideas in areas that they don’t know very well, but to continue the theme of geometric metaphors, they invariably end up re-inventing the wheel.

The third requirement veers away from how Asimov’s generator must think toward who they must be to do anything with the idea. Novel ideas tend to be met with scepticism and criticism. That is not in itself a bad thing. The most original thinkers among us generate

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An ode to original thinking: I, Robot collected Asimov’s early robot stories (Matt & Megan [CC / Flickr])

ideas that are at best incomplete and at worst, plain wrong. Subjecting them to scrutiny enables us to refine ideas that need improving and discard the ones that can’t be improved. As a writer, I’ve found this is where a critique group comes in. In my former life as a scientist, discussions with my colleagues were an essential part of turning an idea into a workable experiment.

Geoffrey Pyke, a spectacularly original thinker whose biography I pontificated about earlier this year, internalised the process. He developed an ‘auto-Socratic’ method of discussion with himself, in which he combined an enthusiastic free-flow of ideas from one persona with a second persona who sat back saying ‘yes but…’.

Then brainstorm your way out

Asimov preferred to leave the Socratic questions out of the process of idea generation, and save them for later in the process. Even so, he recognised that it takes a degree of fortitude to continue with an idea in the face of scepticism:

The world in general disapproves of creativity, and to be creative in public is particularly bad. Even to speculate in public is rather worrisome.

His solution was to suggest that ideas should initially be developed in groups of less than five, in which it was recognised that not everything suggested would make any sort of sense. The temperament of the meetings, and the people in them, but be to support and encourage each other:

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The largest workable brainstorming group? (Kevin Dooley [CC / Fllickr])

If a single individual present is unsympathetic to the foolishness that would be bound to go on at such a session, the others would freeze. The unsympathetic individual may be a gold mine of information, but the harm he does will more than compensate for that. It seems necessary to me, then, that all people at a session be willing to sound foolish and listen to others sound foolish.

He was describing what we would now call a ‘brainstorm’.

Asimov didn’t dismiss the need for ideas to be scrutinised, but he recognised that there was a time and a place for it. Many good ideas are strangled at birth by well-meaning criticism. Any writer who has submitted a first draft for critique would understand that, as would any scientist who has suggested an initial idea to a research group with Asimov’s unsympathetic individual in it.

Asimov intended his brainstorming sessions to nurse an idea at least into its infancy before the criticism began.

My own experience suggests a further problem with brainstorming that Asimov does not mention: there is a tendency for a session to collectively fall in love with one idea, and to stop looking for alternatives. A fixation on a single idea shuts out other ideas as effectively as too much criticism, so perhaps the meeting must be ready to draw a line once a discussion becomes repetitive and to start again from a different angle.

Embrace the eccentric

Asimov recognised that the person who generates original ideas in a society ill-disposed to welcome them may not be a person who fits easily into that society:

A person willing to fly in the face of reason, authority, and common sense must be a person of considerable self-assurance. Since he occurs only rarely, he must seem eccentric (in at least that respect) to the rest of us. A person eccentric in one respect is often eccentric in others.

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Taking eccentricity too far? (Scott Schiller [CC / Flickr])

The association of eccentricity with original thought tends to be taken a little too far by the film industry, where it is apparently believed that anyone capable of thinking for themselves must be crackers. I’ve pontificated before about research debunking the myth that creativity is linked to mental illness; Asimov’s eccentric, like Asimov himself, may be singular but is not insane. He is clear that while eccentricity is a likely consequence of original thought, it is not a qualification for it:

To be a crackpot is not…enough in itself.

Creativity the Asimov way

While few of us are trying to develop missile defence systems and even fewer of us will ever match Asimov for original thought, we all need to come up with an idea from time to time. Whether we’re writers, scientists or just get backed into a corner by life, we’ve all found ourselves stuck in a box that we need to think our way out of.

So what does Asimov tell us about how to do it?

The first step is to make sure we know the problem we need an idea to solve. That may involve being educated, or educating ourselves, to a high level in a particular subject. It may simply involve making sure we thoroughly understand the situation we’re struggling to resolve. Asimov’s view is that original ideas come from connecting concepts and facts, so we need to know what it is we’re trying to find connections between.

Then we need to let the ideas flow, however crazy they may seem. Most of them probably will be crazy, but now is not the time to be deterred by that. We need to have the ideas before we can choose between them.

Ideally, we should get together with a few like-minded people for a brainstorm session,

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Asimov enthroned with symbols of his life’s work by Rowena A. Morrill , 2005 (Xiong [Wikimedia Commons])

but they must be the right people. They must have a solid background of knowledge to draw from, preferably different to our own. The greater the sum of knowledge in the brainstorm, the more connections there are to be made within it. Above all, they must be aware that discussion must revolve around ‘how about this’, not ‘we’ll have to take account of that’.

The time for selecting and refining comes when there are a few ideas to choose from and work with.

ARA never developed their missile defence system, and indeed no such system has ever been developed nearly 60 years later. Perhaps they weren’t doing it right.

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Posted in Greater minds, Wednesday Pontification

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