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Where do new ideas come from?




Where do new ideas come fromAs part of our series of posts exploring a “question-centered” teaching approach, we asked Andrew Robinson, author of Sudden Genius? The Gradual Path to Sudden Breakthroughs, to give us his thoughts on the above question, featured in the new course Q Skills for Success.

As an author and biographer, academic, journalist, and magazine literary editor, my personal contact with artistic and scientific ‘geniuses’ has made me curious about creative breakthroughs.

A highly admired scientist, Linus Pauling, winner of two Nobel prizes, for chemistry and for peace, was once asked by a student: “Dr Pauling, how do you have so many good ideas?”

Pauling thought for a moment and replied: “Well, I have a lot of ideas and throw away the bad ones.”

But where do ideas come from? Why do some people have many more of them than others? How do you distinguish the good ideas from the bad?

Most intriguing of all, perhaps, why do the best ideas often strike the mind with suddenness, apparently in a flash?

There are no simple answers, only clues. Some of the world’s great creative breakthroughs are said to have begun with a ‘eureka experience’ of sudden insight, as with Newton’s discovery of gravity whilst watching an apple fall.

And yet research shows that before each breakthrough the discoverer has been immersed in the problem — usually for ten years or more.

Alexander Fleming worked in the bacteriology department of a London hospital for about two decades before he stumbled upon the first antibiotic drug penicillin.

His discovery was a classic example of Louis Pasteur’s famous dictum: “Where observation is concerned, chance favours only the prepared mind.”

Find out how you can use questions like “Where do new ideas come from?” in class.


Andrew Robinson is a Visiting Fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge, UK. As an author and journalist he has written extensively on the subject of genius. His latest book Sudden Genius? The Gradual Path to Sudden Breakthroughs (OUP) is available in September 2010.

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