The Speculative Contributions of A. Loeb

In yesterday's arXiv email there was a short essay that may have escaped some people's notice. Professor Avi Loeb, chair of Harvard's astronomy department, published "On the Benefits of Promoting Diversity of Ideas", which shares 10 examples of persistent/creative astronomers who ignored nay sayers and push forward to important discoveries. The article is one sentence too long.

I personally enjoy when senior members of the astronomy community take the time to analyze the state and future of our field, and their comments on what makes a "good" scientist. I don't agree with all of them, but there is potentially great wisdom to be had. Take for example the penultimate sentence in Avi's recent essay:

"...telescope-time allocation committees and funding agencies should dedicate a fixed fraction of their resources (say 10-20%) to risky explorations." 
That's a great idea... one whose time may never come, alas.

For the past 5 years, Avi has published on the arXiv at least 1 article per year on the subject of speculation and the state/future of astronomy. There is usually a focus on encouraging breadth and boldness in graduate students. Here are the submissions that stood out to me:

Taking "The Road Not Taken'': On the Benefits of Diversifying Your Academic Portfolio (2010)

Together these make a great series of short papers, and should be required reading for graduate students. The takeaways for budding scientists echo comments I've heard from people like Prof. Julianne Dalcanton: don't be afraid to fail. Be curious, be creative, be bold.

Be curious, be creative, be bold.

This is a process we don't really teach in graduate school. There's a focus on independence and productivity, as those are what "gets work done" and lead to grant funding. It seems rare that we incentivize truly speculative and creative ideas from students.

What a shame! If ever there was a time in your career you should be encouraged to play, grad school is it! Sort of like recess for 25 year olds, we need to teach people to play with science. Also this is the cheapest time in your career, and the academe can let a grad student's mind wander for pennies on the faculty dollar.

To be fair, I think many faculty do encourage creativity from their students, and that many students don't seek it out. Maybe we need to find ways of actively teaching creativity. I like "Hack Day" events that have been popping up at conferences/workshops lately, and the growth of the "unconference" (though both of these have silly names for what they really are).

I suggest we organize an astronomy unconference focused on creativity itself. The first meeting of the Society of Speculative Astronomy. Instead of an afternoon "Hack Day" where people do projects, we could have a "Hat Day" where people just foster new ideas. Invited speakers to discuss the history of crazy ideas and the future of the absurd. Lightning talks on specific mysteries or opportunities. Known unknowns. Unknown unknowns. Unknown knowns? Not dreaming up fantasy, just considering possibility. It would be a celebration of creativity!

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