Something I find deeply fascinating is the intersection between different idea spaces. When I get a new, interesting idea, my initial reaction to it is very much like the one below.
When studying my degree in physics, I started learning about design because I wanted to improve my presentation skills. Design is now a major intellectual influence. When I think about creating presentations, visual displays and websites, I always think how can I make this easy to understand and beautiful.
When doing a PhD in physics, I was a prolific tango dancer. There, I learned what it means to be a leader. I remember my tango teacher telling us in one of the first lessons: it’s always the leader’s fault. This idea was popularised by Jocko Wilkins recently as extreme ownership: the leader takes responsibility for all that happens in their crew. Tango also taught me the importance of clear communication of your intention. As leader, my body movements have to precisely communicate many things: direction, texture, contrast. But I also need to listen to how my follower responds and adapt my communication to her.
During my PhD, I also worked with artists. A project that was transformational had me team up with a fine artist and a product designer to discuss about our practices. In the process, we created a sculpture representing my work.
I take a lot of inspiration from the connections in my scientific work. Mathematica used to be one of my favourite tools due to this power of connecting different ideas. With Mathematica, I could reproduce a paper in hours and tweak the equations to find out what they were missing. Now I work in Jupyter notebooks. There, I can pull in data, run calculations and train machine learning models and connect all these ideas together.
Another space that I think a lot about is impact. I co-founded Global Shapers Manchester to connect young people together who want to have impact. We started the Hub during the pandemic, and I’ve seen the power of connection in the digital world. I have deepened my knowledge of responsible leadership through being part of this community.
In one inspiring project, a Shaper form Mexico connected with emergency responders from Beirut to provide satellite images of the damaged buildings and build maps of potential emergency hospitals.
Innovation comes from intersections between ideas, supercharged by tools.
In Clockwork Science, Freeman Dyson synthesises the story of how Einstein and Poincaré arrived at the conclusions of special relativity at the same time in 1905. One deep idea at the time was Maxwell’s laws of electromagnetism. These laws caused a dilemma. Since the speed of light was a combination of fundamental constants, you had to either keep the speed of light constant relative or all observers or abandon the principle that the laws of physics were the same for everyone in the universe. You either had to take Maxwell’s electromagnetism as being fundamental and tweak Newton’s laws of motion or the other way around.
Another problem of the time was synchronising clocks. The industrial revolution was moving forward full steam. Trains connected places that were never connected before and the world was still exploring the consequences. Before trains, clocks were synchronised with the sun. This meant that over long distances, the clocks would not match. That was not a problem until trains needed timetable. The problem of how to synchronise clocks was in the air.
One way to synchronise was using light signals. The consequences of taking Maxwell as fundamental (rather than Newton) and applying it to fast moving trains were profound, and led to the 1905 papers and the revolution in physics.
Before being a hedgehog, burying deep in one idea, Einstein was a fox, exploring the space of possible ideas and connecting things that were in the air together.
I find this generative theory of innovation compelling. Through connection, Einstein discovered a new intellectual space. Then, we worked deep into that space for the rest of his career.
Others now have done the same. Bret Victor’s Chapters Two and Three were this kind of playful exploration of the space of possibilities when you combine technology with a deep unfulfilled yearning for designing better representations of thought. They led to him burying deep in Dynamicland, but also creating many rabbit holes for others to go deep into such as environments for live coding.
Joe Edelman writings 2014-2020 were another exploration into the role of emotions and values in designing social systems. This led to Human Systems and their School of Social Design, which looks at how to design meaningful systems made of people - from dinner conversations to global governance structures.
These are bright examples of discovery of new and interesting intellectual spaces through exploration and connection of ideas.
Right now, there is so much inefficiency in research. People tend to fight over limited intellectual spaces. The discovery of new intellectual spaces is rare, and most of the dialogue is rebranding of the same ideas.
Here I want to explore two things. First, I want to understand how do we generate new intellectual spaces. Then, I will use this understanding to refine my own intellectual space.
This is a newsletter. But it’s also an intellectual community where we can explore questions such as these. Just hit reply to the email or comment below, and let’s share puzzle pieces that might connect.
My hypothesis is this: to generate new intellectual spaces we need to explore the intersection between deep domains.
There is no a-priori understanding of what domains are best to combine - if we had that understanding, it would no longer be research. Who would have thought that train signalling combined with fundamental constants are invariant would lead to a breakthrough in the foundations of physics.
Given this, the best we can do is to prototype at the intersection. And based on those prototypes, distil learnings, principles and patterns that create enriching new intellectual spaces.
This is what I mean by mapmaking for the intellectual nomads. Roaming between different idea spaces and in the process synthesising and describing what we have found.
What are the institutions for intellectual nomads? What are their practices? These are some of the questions - and many more - that I want to explore here.
Hope to have you along for the journey. Hit subscribe below or leave a comment.