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10 mins

Inventology Author Pagan Kennedy on How to Accidentally Find Genius

Learn about serendipity, penicillin, and new technologies that can change the way that we invent things.
by Ben Schuman-Stoler | Jul 18 2016

Today on the podcast, I spoke with Pagan Kennedy, author of the new book Inventology; How we Dream Up Things that Change the World. You probably already know Pagan from her time writing the “Who Made That” column in the New York Times Sunday Magazine.

She’s an expert on invention, and I especially wanted to ask her about one central tension in her book: the paradox of serendipitous inventing, like accidentally inventing penicillin, and new technologies that can focus research to look for inventions in certain areas, like bioinformatics.

Check it out:

Pagan Kennedy: Hello”Ben Schuman-Stoler: Hey, this is Ben from Berlin!

PK: Good to talk to you.

BSS: Where are you right now, you’re on the east coast somewhere”PK: I’m in Somerville MA, the Brooklyn of Boston.

BSS: I was just there this summer, actually. Alright, well we don’t have that much time, so let’s just do it. I have your book, I have some thoughts, I have some questions. One of the most obvious questions after reading Inventology this weekend was whether you think there’s a recent invention out there right now that is going to change our lives in the not-so-distant future”PK: That’s a great question. Of course, if I knew that I would be a bazillionaire. One thing you probably observed from reading the book is how many of the things that turned out to be really significant didn’t seem like much to anybody but the inventor at the time. I just heard a great quote, and I will probably mangle it, but somebody was saying that the great inventions are the ones that you have to convince people to adopt. Because they are so new – you see that with the Xerox machine, where Chester Carlson was more or less conceiving of this whole new way that the office would be organized.

But one thing that I’m thinking a lot about right now, particularly because I’m writing a piece about the history of the home pregnancy test, which is this technology I’m completely obsessed with, is the way that our lives are all going to be changed by diagnostic tests. I think.

BSS: What do you mean”PK: So there is a huge amount happening in the realm of diagnostics and we haven’t really caught up to it. I actually was just interviewing Eric Topol, who is this amazing cardiologist who’s an advocate for patient empowerment. And he encourages his patients to just download these echocardiograms on their iPhones and basically test themselves to see whether they are having a heart attack, you know, using their iPhones!

And obviously you’ll want to double check but for people who need really advanced warning, and who need to monitor themselves and are maybe at great risk, this gives them much more ability to see what is going on with their bodies. This is the frontier of healthcare, where we can have these windows into our bodies and know what they are doing. I am a total geek about testing my body in anyway I can, I’ve done my microbiome, I’ve had some of my genome done and there is a lot of stuff now where they can’t know what’s going on because there’s just not enough information yet. Everybody now is – there’s a gold rush now to look at our blood and see all kinds of biomarkers that are up or down, like different proteins that are elevated – if you can begin to map those on to someone suddenly going into diabetes or suddenly having something terrible happen to them, or having cancer or something, that could be amazing.

There are a lot of people now trying to use big data to do that. There is a lot of excitement about that and our phones are these incredible tools. I actually just started geeking out: I just ordered a glucose test, I don’t have diabetes or anything, but I’m really curious to see what my glucose is doing. A friend of mine has a kid who’s diabetic and she’s basically hot-wired her phone so she can see his glucose levels at all times.

So there are also these communities of patients. One thing I really try to document in the book is how where there is a need that’s really important to people – often it is not worthwhile or it’s too difficult or there’s some reason why it is just not going to be solved by capitalism and like one of those problems right now is really good glucose monitoring there’s a lot of nerdy, boring reasons about why it is really hard to do that well and make a profit – so there are all these people who are just hacking their own solutions and sharing them. I think that’s really exciting, especially in the realm of medicine, seeing the patient-led attempts to solve these big problems that maybe it’s just not profitable for corporations to solve. You definitely have skin in the game if you’re a patient! You’re really looking to find the best solution, not just a solution that will work in the market. So all kinds of interesting stuff happening there.

BSS: I was sure you were going to say something about Pokémon Go! But we don’t have it over here in Europe yet.

PK: It’s sort of taken over – I mean I’m old so I am not so much up in these internet things but it sort of like it took us by storm here it was like one minute you had never heard of it and the next – it’s amazing how fast these things can happen now – and then the next it’s like everywhere.

BSS: But before we get too deep into it we should back up a second. I have been reading the Who Made That column in the New York Times Magazine for a long time and – how long have you been doing that”PK: Oh wow, great! Yeah I did it for almost two years.

BSS: And that’s how I knew your name, outside of the book, and when I saw the book I was like OK that’s also great, but I’m curious about where the book came from. Clearly this is something you’ve been working on forever, but what’s the story there”PK: Yeah you know in my life as a writer one thing I’m learning is that sometimes I have ideas and they it’s sort of like the inventors, the idea just seems too weird when I first have them and it’s really hard to convince people. I began writing about humanitarian inventing and Amy Smith, the inventor in the book, and all those people at MIT, more than 10 years ago. And I really wanted to do a book on humanitarian invention and all this stuff that we now talk about but was very under the radar at the time and I couldn’t sell that book. It was just too weird. And I just sort of tabled that for a long time and I was doing a lot of different stories and then the Times had this column. I was writing for them doing different, random stories and they needed somebody to take over the Who Made That column and they actually auditioned a few writers and I got the job. So it was sort of like I stepped into this pre-existing column but it was great.

It was like I didn’t even really realize until maybe six or eight months in what a lucky spot I was in. But I think it was when I was interviewing Marty Cooper, the guy who invented the cell phone, my first thought was like, I’m going to keep this guy on the phone for as long as I can. I mean I only have 400 words in the column but I want to find out what his secret sauce is, just for my own curiosity. Like, a lot of these people, nobody really has taken the time to talk to them deeply about what they do and how they do it. And they all tend to be really thoughtful about the creative process and what works and stuff. So I had this amazing conversation with him and I was beginning to see these patterns: seeing how what he said connected to what other people had said. You know it’s not all the same pattern for everybody obviously, which is why I created different sections in the book, but definitely I was beginning to hear the same tricks and themes and techniques emerge from different people and that made me think, I haven’t seen this documented anywhere. And that’s when I starting thinking about a book. Because I couldn’t start to cover the 30,000-foot view in the column, you know? Just doing one story by one story so I wanted to connect the dots. And also that was my own personal curiosity, you know, what are these people doing to see something that nobody else is seeing”BSS: Yeah, I haven’t seen a book that covers as many different perspectives on invention – without going fully into innovation – as your book does. I really like that about it. I really like this tension between Super-Encounterers and bioinformatics in the second chapter.

PK: Oh, thank you!

BSS: I really want to break that down for the listeners or the people who don’t know it. It took me a day to let it settle into my brain as a paradox, as a challenge, and I don’t know if that’s how you see it also or only how I read it, but maybe we can just start and talk about what a Super-Encounterer is and this idea of serendipity, of open ended research, or those kind of things first”PK: Sure. Well I can start with how I got on to this pattern. So as I was saying before, I noticed that there were these specific patterns and different kinds of inventions. Like inventing a new baseball is really different from inventing a new artificial sweetener, you know? Some inventions involve knowing a lot about how someone will use something – like almost a lot of cultural knowledge – and then other inventions require you to know a lot about how, say, chemicals work.

Well, so my first clue that there was a pattern was when I talked to Lonnie Johnson who was the inventor of the Super Soaker. He started out as a NASA engineer, and he was home on the weekend and he was trying to make this nozzle, or he had made a nozzle, for a heat pump that was very very powerful. But when he tested it out, he noticed something really weird with the way the water, just because of the design of the nozzle, he was in the bathroom, and the water came out so powerful that curtains rippled and it splattered across the wall and there was something so cartoony and cool just about the movement of the water that he fell in love with it and became fascinated. And I began to hear this with some of the other inventors. For those kinds of inventors who have an accident or a chance observation, there was usually a moment when they notice something completely unexpected about the way the world works. And so after I talked to Johnson I was really on the lookout for more of this, and began to hear it.

So like the classic kind of serendipitous invention would be Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin where he had left out these lab dishes and then notices this weird pattern that really surprised him. So often it begins with somebody seeing something that they didn’t expect to see at all, so they are not trying to invent anything when they begin. They’re just observing something in a really creative, passionate way where they see something that is totally weird and they don’t understand it and they get excited about it and they’re trying to figure it out and then at a certain point they begin to think: this could be really useful for something! And often they don’t even really know what it could be useful for. They’re just really excited to try to use it in some way.

And so that pattern of you might call it the happy accident or serendipity or whatever, we tend to think of it as an unusual thing but in fact I went through this survey of thousands of inventors where they asked them how they first got the idea for the thing that they patented, and about half of those people weren’t trying to invent anything really. What they began with was an unexpected phenomenon. They might’ve been trying to do one thing and this other result popped up that they didn’t expect, or they were just doing their regular day job and they saw something really weird happen and they got excited about it. So that suggests that this serendipity or accidental invention is actually a hugely important phenomenon that we really should look at more.

BSS: Right so I don’t have anything huge to break it up but I guess the one thing to maybe expound upon is in the book what I really liked was this weird feeling. I think that Martian jetlag comes up at that point. This feeling that “this feels cool, this is weird” but I think that maybe in the Super-Encounterer leading into bioinformatics, what’s interesting is the fact that you are not looking for anything but you have to be already pre-wired to find these things.

PK: Exactly. So, anecdotally, I talked to a lot of people and also read a lot of stories about people who were, say, trying to discover an ulcer drug and then they get some on their fingers and then they taste their fingers and it’s sweet. And it turns out they found an artificial sweetener and you couldn’t have predicted an artificial sweetener because the components of it didn’t taste sweet at all so you really could only find it by accident.

So I was looking at that but then the really hard nut to crack is like, OK, so we’ve got a lot of stories of these people and one thing that is really clear is their passion – they get really very excited – but what are they really doing? And that is really hard because if you go looking for studies of serendipity, you don’t find a lot that is very helpful. It’s such a squishy term and really hard to study. And a lot of the research a lot of the times when people say serendipity they think of bumping into other people, they think of a social encounter. But every single one of these examples I had found did not involve another person. So it’s like, if I can do one thing, I would like to debunk the idea that serendipity is always bumping into a colleague and having a conversation over lunch. That can be great, that can be awesome, but it is not how any of these inventions happened. It was people, often alone, noticing something weird in a lab dish or in their pocket, or something like that, observing the world directly.
Anyway so I went looking for any kind of research that would shed light on this and the best research I found was by this Croatian-American named Sanda Erdelez. It’s funny that the people in the realm of library and information science are the most interested in serendipity of anybody because they’re really interested in,like, how do you design information so that it will be the most useful, and so that people will have these moments where they just land somewhere really useful: how can you design information so people find what they are not looking for”BSS: But which is still relevant.

PK: Exactly. That’s the big question in their field. So anyway, Sanda Erdelez did this simple study – this was in the 90s, back in the days when people used libraries – and she interviewed more than 100 people about their experience in libraries and how often they found things they weren’t looking for that turned out to be really important, and how they searched for information and so on. And she found that the stories, the way people worked, fell into three categories: So there were people who went into the library, knew what information they wanted, and they found it. They did not get distracted, they did not end up in some other section of the library looking at the history of Indian elephants, you know. They just didn’t do that. They were not people with ADD at all. But then there were people who in the middle they would go to the library and might occassionally find something that they hadn’t expected or occasionally browse and come up with something really interesting. But for the most part, their process was pretty straightforward. And then there were really interesting people that she called the Super-Encounterers. These were people who would have a project but they would go to the library not knowing, being completely open to whatever they were going to find. And having very few preconceived notions about what they needed to find. They would basically wander around in the stacks, feeling their way around to hopefully bump into the right information that would give them ideas or lead them to something interesting.

And so those people, part of being a Super-Encounterer is believing that you are one, you believe you have this kind of faith that you will, you know it’s not comfortable to just to be open to whatever comes your way and not know if anything will. So, these people had an unusual comfort with ambiguity and uncertainty and they were very creative observers. They would see something and get very excited about it. And often the Super-Encounterer didn’t just find stuff for themselves, they’d find something else and think, oh, that would be perfect for my friend’s project. And the other piece of it is just really enjoying foraging; being the kind of person who could be just happy wandering around for hours just finding random things.

Now, this can go too far, like anybody who’s been on Twitter for hours and hours, just snacking on the random information knows how serendipity can have a dark side for sure. But I do think that Sandra Erdelez put her finger on this attribute of many of the great inventors and scientists and I would also add journalists, because many of the great journalists I know are people who can go into a story knowing that whatever they think now is going to be proved wrong, and just kind of wander around talking to people or looking at things, waiting for the dots to fall into a pattern and I think that’s a pretty unusual skill.

BSS: We don’t have that much time left so I want to connect this to what I read as the anti-Super-Encounterers, which is bioinformation and this new field of rational design or targeted searches. You know, I read something the other day on the algorithms at Netflix, Facebook, or Twitter. It said, they know what you like, and so they give you what they know that you’ll like. And so that’s cool because you’ll have a good experience. But the problem is you’ll never find that you actually really do like Kung Fu movies. You’ll never be completely surprised by some brand that you forgot you followed that actually is making an alarm clock that you’re interested in. I really connected to the fact that we really need to use data, as you say in the book, this is an opportunity. We’re not just going to turn our backs on the ability to look though millions of genetic tests and experiments to find the next miracle drug. But on the other hand, it’s hard to be a Super-Encounterer and deal with targeted searches and rational design and bioinformation, right”PK: Well so I would say that there is a lot of debate about whether the internet and big data are actually enhancing serendipity or limiting it. But I would say that people who hope to use big data to do drug design are actually hoping to massively take advantage of these findings we might not see, that would be under the radar, in other words to get way more serendipity. I was talking before about the way that people are looking at blood now and all these proteins and so if you can, without having any preconceived notion, if you can just look and try to connect the dots, you see this protein is elevated right before people get this cancer, right? That would be an instance where these big data tools massively enhance our ability to see connections, and serendipitous connections because it might not be the kind of connection that would seem rational at all. We might not have an explanation for why that protein is connected with that cancer. We might not know at all. So we are looking at it agnostically, with no idea of why. Which is what’s really, really cool about algorithms is they can reveal these patterns that we’re totally not aware of and that are sort of invisible to us.

But as you said, there are also ways that we can program in things that are limiting us that we are not aware of in ways that are potentially really dangerous. Actually there is now a lot of talk about how racism is programmed into algorithms. There is an algorithm to find human faces and with African-American people it would mistake them for gorillas. And that mistake was probably an artifact of the people who were programming the algorithm. It was picking up the racism and baking it into the cake of this software, and that is exactly what we don’t want, creating and amplifying the pattern in the wrong way, that is wrong and even really dangerous. And in a way that’s really highly invisible to us, it’s really hard to find things that creep in. And like you said, you can sort of exist in your own data bubble more and more. There’s been so little written or studied about serendipity and the way that we put these patterns together because it is so hard to study, and so I would really like to throw more attention to this debate. I think it’s really hard to have the answers and I think the answer is probably a complicated one.

There are ways in which the data or bioinformatics can reveal really valuable things to us about, say, how disease works, that we could never see with the naked eye. And any time a new tool comes along, you know, think about the telescope, then we have waves of serendipity, because people are suddenly able to observe new things easily, so it’s like part of the darkness is illuminated now. But then, any tool also shapes the way that we see, and also warps our vision, too, and prevents us from seeing things. So I think it’s something to be aware of, but it’s so fascinating and I’m hoping that more people will get into this area and help to study it because I was really digging to find helpful research.

BSS: Well you did an excellent job in terms of collecting research. I had never heard of the whole story of [Genrich] Altshuller, and also Building 20, and I’m not even going to go into it, even though you’re not supposed to say stuff and not explain what you’re talking about on a podcast, because people can just go get the book or look it up because it’s really fun stuff and who knows maybe someone will be listening and have their own secret ideas on serendipity and get in touch.

PK:That would be awesome, I’d love to hear them!

BSS: Well this was really fun, I wish we had more time, but if you end up in Europe on the German language promo tour of Inventology we’ll grab a serendipitous coffee even though I know that serendipity doesn’t have to involve another person.

PK: Right! Just stare deeply into your coffee and you’ll find the answer.

BSS: Have a great rest of the day over there. Bye!

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