sponsored links
TEDGlobal 2013

Uri Alon: Why truly innovative science demands a leap into the unknown

June 13, 2013

While studying for his PhD in physics, Uri Alon thought he was a failure because all his research paths led to dead ends. But, with the help of improv theater, he came to realize that there could be joy in getting lost. A call for scientists to stop thinking of research as a direct line from question to answer, but as something more creative. It's a message that will resonate, no matter what your field.

Uri Alon - Systems biologist
Uri Alon studies how cells work, using an array of tools (including improv theater) to understand the biological circuits that perform the functions of life. Full bio

sponsored links
Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
In the middle of my Ph.D.,
00:12
I was hopelessly stuck.
00:14
Every research direction that I tried
00:17
led to a dead end.
00:19
It seemed like my basic assumptions
00:21
just stopped working.
00:22
I felt like a pilot flying through the mist,
00:24
and I lost all sense of direction.
00:27
I stopped shaving.
00:30
I couldn't get out of bed in the morning.
00:32
I felt unworthy
00:34
of stepping across the gates of the university,
00:36
because I wasn't like Einstein or Newton
00:39
or any other scientist whose results
00:41
I had learned about, because in science,
00:44
we just learn about the results, not the process.
00:45
And so obviously, I couldn't be a scientist.
00:49
But I had enough support
00:53
and I made it through
00:55
and discovered something new about nature.
00:56
This is an amazing feeling of calmness,
00:58
being the only person in the world
01:01
who knows a new law of nature.
01:03
And I started the second project in my Ph.D,
01:05
and it happened again.
01:08
I got stuck and I made it through.
01:09
And I started thinking,
01:11
maybe there's a pattern here.
01:13
I asked the other graduate students, and they said,
01:14
"Yeah, that's exactly what happened to us,
01:16
except nobody told us about it."
01:18
We'd all studied science as if it's a series
01:20
of logical steps between question and answer,
01:22
but doing research is nothing like that.
01:26
At the same time, I was also studying
01:29
to be an improvisation theater actor.
01:31
So physics by day,
01:33
and by night, laughing, jumping, singing,
01:34
playing my guitar.
01:36
Improvisation theater,
01:38
just like science, goes into the unknown,
01:39
because you have to make a scene onstage
01:42
without a director, without a script,
01:44
without having any idea what you'll portray
01:45
or what the other characters will do.
01:48
But unlike science,
01:50
in improvisation theater, they tell you from day one
01:52
what's going to happen to
you when you get onstage.
01:55
You're going to fail miserably.
01:57
You're going to get stuck.
02:00
And we would practice staying creative
02:01
inside that stuck place.
02:03
For example, we had an exercise
02:04
where we all stood in a circle,
02:06
and each person had to do
the world's worst tap dance,
02:07
and everybody else applauded
02:10
and cheered you on,
02:12
supporting you onstage.
02:13
When I became a professor
02:16
and had to guide my own students
02:18
through their research projects,
02:19
I realized again,
02:21
I don't know what to do.
02:23
I'd studied thousands of hours of physics,
02:24
biology, chemistry,
02:26
but not one hour, not one concept
02:28
on how to mentor, how to guide someone
02:30
to go together into the unknown,
02:33
about motivation.
02:35
So I turned to improvisation theater,
02:37
and I told my students from day one
02:38
what's going to happen when you start research,
02:41
and this has to do with our mental schema
02:44
of what research will be like.
02:45
Because you see, whenever people do anything,
02:47
for example if I want to touch this blackboard,
02:50
my brain first builds up a schema,
02:52
a prediction of exactly what my muscles will do
02:54
before I even start moving my hand,
02:56
and if I get blocked,
02:58
if my schema doesn't match reality,
03:00
that causes extra stress called cognitive dissonance.
03:02
That's why your schemas had better match reality.
03:04
But if you believe the way science is taught,
03:07
and if you believe textbooks, you're liable
03:10
to have the following schema of research.
03:12
If A is the question,
03:18
and B is the answer,
03:21
then research is a direct path.
03:25
The problem is that if an experiment doesn't work,
03:29
or a student gets depressed,
03:33
it's perceived as something utterly wrong
03:36
and causes tremendous stress.
03:38
And that's why I teach my students
03:41
a more realistic schema.
03:43
Here's an example
03:50
where things don't match your schema.
03:52
(Laughter)
03:58
(Applause)
04:01
So I teach my students a different schema.
04:13
If A is the question,
04:16
B is the answer,
04:19
stay creative in the cloud,
04:25
and you start going,
04:26
and experiments don't work, experiments don't work,
04:28
experiments don't work, experiments don't work,
04:31
until you reach a place linked
with negative emotions
04:33
where it seems like your basic assumptions
04:36
have stopped making sense,
04:38
like somebody yanked the carpet beneath your feet.
04:39
And I call this place the cloud.
04:42
Now you can be lost in the cloud
04:59
for a day, a week, a month, a year,
05:02
a whole career,
05:04
but sometimes, if you're lucky enough
05:06
and you have enough support,
05:08
you can see in the materials at hand,
05:10
or perhaps meditating on the shape of the cloud,
05:12
a new answer,
05:15
C, and you decide to go for it.
05:19
And experiments don't work, experiments don't work,
05:22
but you get there,
05:25
and then you tell everyone about it
05:26
by publishing a paper that reads A arrow C,
05:27
which is a great way to communicate,
05:31
but as long as you don't forget the path
05:33
that brought you there.
05:35
Now this cloud is an inherent part
05:37
of research, an inherent part of our craft,
05:39
because the cloud stands guard at the boundary.
05:42
It stands guard at the boundary
05:49
between the known
05:51
and the unknown,
05:57
because in order to discover something truly new,
06:04
at least one of your basic
assumptions has to change,
06:07
and that means that in science,
06:10
we do something quite heroic.
06:12
Every day, we try to bring ourselves
06:13
to the boundary between
the known and the unknown
06:15
and face the cloud.
06:17
Now notice that I put B
06:19
in the land of the known,
06:21
because we knew about it in the beginning,
06:21
but C is always more interesting
06:23
and more important than B.
06:27
So B is essential in order to get going,
06:30
but C is much more profound,
06:32
and that's the amazing thing about resesarch.
06:34
Now just knowing that word, the cloud,
06:38
has been transformational in my research group,
06:40
because students come to me and say,
06:43
"Uri, I'm in the cloud,"
06:45
and I say, "Great, you must be feeling miserable."
06:46
(Laughter)
06:49
But I'm kind of happy,
06:52
because we might be close to the boundary
06:54
between the known and the unknown,
06:55
and we stand a chance of discovering
06:57
something truly new,
06:59
since the way our mind works,
07:01
it's just knowing that the cloud
07:02
is normal, it's essential,
07:05
and in fact beautiful,
07:09
we can join the Cloud Appreciation Society,
07:11
and it detoxifies the feeling that something
07:14
is deeply wrong with me.
07:16
And as a mentor, I know what to do,
07:19
which is to step up my support for the student,
07:21
because research in psychology shows
07:23
that if you're feeling fear and despair,
07:25
your mind narrows down
07:28
to very safe and conservative ways of thinking.
07:29
If you'd like to explore the risky paths
07:32
needed to get out of the cloud,
07:34
you need other emotions --
07:35
solidarity, support, hope —
07:37
that come with your connection from somebody else,
07:39
so like in improvisation theater,
07:41
in science, it's best to walk into the unknown
07:42
together.
07:45
So knowing about the cloud,
07:47
you also learn from improvisation theater
07:49
a very effective way to have conversations
07:52
inside the cloud.
07:55
It's based on the central principle
07:57
of improvisation theater,
07:59
so here improvisation theater
08:01
came to my help again.
08:02
It's called saying "Yes, and"
08:03
to the offers made by other actors.
08:05
That means accepting the offers
08:16
and building on them, saying, "Yes, and."
08:19
For example, if one actor says,
08:21
"Here is a pool of water,"
08:22
and the other actor says,
08:23
"No, that's just a stage,"
08:24
the improvisation is over.
08:26
It's dead, and everybody feels frustrated.
08:28
That's called blocking.
08:32
If you're not mindful of communications,
08:33
scientific conversations can have a lot of blocking.
08:35
Saying "Yes, and" sounds like this.
08:38
"Here is a pool of water."
"Yeah, let's jump in."
08:40
"Look, there's a whale! Let's grab it by its tail.
08:42
It's pulling us to the moon!"
08:45
So saying "Yes, and" bypasses our inner critic.
08:48
We all have an inner critic
08:51
that kind of guards what we say,
08:52
so people don't think that we're obscene
08:54
or crazy or unoriginal,
08:55
and science is full of the fear
08:57
of appearing unoriginal.
08:58
Saying "Yes, and" bypasses the critic
08:59
and unlocks hidden voices of creativity
09:02
you didn't even know that you had,
09:04
and they often carry the answer
09:06
about the cloud.
09:08
So you see, knowing about the cloud
09:10
and about saying "Yes, and"
09:13
made my lab very creative.
09:14
Students started playing off of each others' ideas,
09:17
and we made surprising discoveries
09:20
in the interface between physics and biology.
09:22
For example, we were stuck for a year
09:25
trying to understand the intricate
09:27
biochemical networks inside our cells,
09:29
and we said, "We are deeply in the cloud,"
09:31
and we had a playful conversation
09:34
where my student Shai Shen Orr said,
09:36
"Let's just draw this on a
piece of paper, this network,"
09:38
and instead of saying,
09:40
"But we've done that so many times
09:42
and it doesn't work,"
09:44
I said, "Yes, and
09:45
let's use a very big piece of paper,"
09:48
and then Ron Milo said,
09:50
"Let's use a gigantic architect's
09:51
blueprint kind of paper, and I know where to print it,"
09:53
and we printed out the network and looked at it,
09:55
and that's where we made
our most important discovery,
09:58
that this complicated network is just made
10:00
of a handful of simple, repeating interaction patterns
10:02
like motifs in a stained glass window.
10:06
We call them network motifs,
10:09
and they're the elementary circuits
10:11
that help us understand
10:13
the logic of the way cells make decisions
10:15
in all organisms, including our body.
10:17
Soon enough, after this,
10:20
I started being invited to give talks
10:22
to thousands of scientists across the world,
10:24
but the knowledge about the cloud
10:27
and saying "Yes, and"
10:28
just stayed within my own lab,
10:30
because you see, in science,
we don't talk about the process,
10:31
anything subjective or emotional.
10:34
We talk about the results.
10:36
So there was no way to talk about it in conferences.
10:38
That was unthinkable.
10:40
And I saw scientists in other groups get stuck
10:42
without even having a word to describe
10:44
what they're seeing,
10:46
and their ways of thinking
10:47
narrowed down to very safe paths,
10:48
their science didn't reach its full potential,
10:50
and they were miserable.
10:52
I thought, that's the way it is.
10:53
I'll try to make my lab as creative as possible,
10:55
and if everybody else does the same,
10:57
science will eventually become
10:59
more and more better and better.
11:01
That way of thinking got turned on its head
11:03
when by chance I went to hear Evelyn Fox Keller
11:06
give a talk about her experiences
11:09
as a woman in science.
11:10
And she asked,
11:12
"Why is it that we don't talk about the subjective
11:13
and emotional aspects of doing science?
11:15
It's not by chance. It's a matter of values."
11:18
You see, science seeks knowledge
11:22
that's objective and rational.
11:24
That's the beautiful thing about science.
11:26
But we also have a cultural myth
11:28
that the doing of science,
11:30
what we do every day to get that knowledge,
11:31
is also only objective and rational,
11:33
like Mr. Spock.
11:36
And when you label something
11:38
as objective and rational,
11:40
automatically, the other side,
11:41
the subjective and emotional,
11:43
become labeled as non-science
11:44
or anti-science or threatening to science,
11:47
and we just don't talk about it.
11:49
And when I heard that,
11:50
that science has a culture,
11:52
everything clicked into place for me,
11:55
because if science has a culture,
11:56
culture can be changed,
11:58
and I can be a change agent
11:59
working to change the culture
of science wherever I could.
12:01
And so the very next lecture I gave in a conference,
12:03
I talked about my science,
12:06
and then I talked about the importance
12:08
of the subjective and emotional
aspects of doing science
12:09
and how we should talk about them,
12:12
and I looked at the audience,
12:13
and they were cold.
12:14
They couldn't hear what I was saying
12:16
in the context of a 10 back-to-back
12:20
PowerPoint presentation conference.
12:21
And I tried again and again,
conference after conference,
12:23
but I wasn't getting through.
12:25
I was in the cloud.
12:28
And eventually I managed to get out the cloud
12:31
using improvisation and music.
12:34
Since then, every conference I go to,
12:37
I give a science talk and a second, special talk
12:40
called "Love and fear in the lab,"
12:42
and I start it off by doing a song
12:44
about scientists' greatest fear,
12:47
which is that we work hard,
12:49
we discover something new,
12:52
and somebody else publishes it before we do.
12:54
We call it being scooped,
12:58
and being scooped feels horrible.
13:00
It makes us afraid to talk to each other,
13:04
which is no fun,
13:06
because we came to science to share our ideas
13:07
and to learn from each other,
13:09
and so I do a blues song,
13:11
which — (Applause) —
13:16
called "Scooped Again,"
13:22
and I ask the audience to be my backup singers,
13:25
and I tell them, "Your text is 'Scoop, Scoop.'"
13:28
It sounds like this: "Scoop, scoop!"
13:32
Sounds like this.
13:34
♪ I've been scooped again ♪
13:35
♪ Scoop! Scoop! ♪
13:38
And then we go for it.
13:39
♪ I've been scooped again ♪
13:41
♪ Scoop! Scoop! ♪
13:43
♪ I've been scooped again ♪
13:44
♪ Scoop! Scoop! ♪
13:46
♪ I've been scooped again ♪
13:47
♪ Scoop! Scoop! ♪
13:49
♪ I've been scooped again ♪
13:51
♪ Scoop! Scoop! ♪
13:52
♪ Oh mama, can't you feel my pain ♪
13:54
♪ Heavens help me, I've been scooped again ♪
13:57
(Applause)
14:02
Thank you.
14:09
Thank you for your backup singing.
14:10
So everybody starts laughing, starts breathing,
14:12
notices that there's other scientists around them
14:14
with shared issues,
14:16
and we start talking about the emotional
14:17
and subjective things that go on in research.
14:19
It feels like a huge taboo has been lifted.
14:21
Finally, we can talk about
this in a scientific conference.
14:23
And scientists have gone on to form peer groups
14:26
where they meet regularly
14:28
and create a space to talk about the emotional
14:30
and subjective things that
happen as they're mentoring,
14:31
as they're going into the unknown,
14:34
and even started courses
14:35
about the process of doing science,
14:36
about going into the unknown together,
14:38
and many other things.
14:40
So my vision is that,
14:41
just like every scientist knows the word "atom,"
14:43
that matter is made out of atoms,
14:46
every scientist would know the words
14:48
like "the cloud," saying "Yes, and,"
14:50
and science will become much more creative,
14:52
make many, many more unexpected discoveries
14:55
for the benefit of us all,
14:58
and would also be much more playful.
15:01
And what I might ask you to remember from this talk
15:03
is that next time you face
15:05
a problem you can't solve
15:08
in work or in life,
15:10
there's a word for what you're going to see:
15:13
the cloud.
15:14
And you can go through the cloud
15:16
not alone but together
15:17
with someone who is your source of support
15:18
to say "Yes, and" to your ideas,
15:21
to help you say "Yes, and" to your own ideas,
15:23
to increase the chance that,
15:25
through the wisps of the cloud,
15:27
you'll find that moment of calmness
15:29
where you get your first glimpse
15:30
of your unexpected discovery,
15:32
your C.
15:35
Thank you.
15:38
(Applause)
15:40

sponsored links

Uri Alon - Systems biologist
Uri Alon studies how cells work, using an array of tools (including improv theater) to understand the biological circuits that perform the functions of life.

Why you should listen
First trained as a physicist, Uri Alon found a passion for biological systems. At the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, he and his lab investigate the protein circuits within a cell (they focus on E. coli), looking for basic interaction patterns that recur throughout biological networks. It's a field full of cross-disciplinary thinking habits and interesting problems. And in fact, Alon is the author of a classic paper on lab behavior called "How to Choose a Good Scientific Problem," which takes a step back from the rush to get grants and publish papers to ask: How can a good lab foster growth and self-motivated research?
 
In Alon's lab, students use tools from physics, neurobiology and computer science -- and concepts from improv theatre -- to study basic principles of interactions. Using a theater practice called the "mirror game," they showed that two people can create complex novel motion together without a designated leader or follower. He also works on an addicting site called BioNumbers -- all the measurements you need to know about biology. The characteristic heart rate of a pond mussel? Why it's 4-6 beats per minute.
sponsored links

If you need translations, you can install "Google Translate" extension into your Chrome Browser.
Furthermore, you can change playback rate by installing "Video Speed Controller" extension.

Data provided by TED.

This website is owned and operated by Tokyo English Network.
The developer's blog is here.