Obsession with a Conceptual Leap

The mark of genius is regarded by many as the ability to take a conceptual leap – meaning to take the information (evidence) you have and rationally draw conclusions or propose theories that are detached from existing thought. Newton’s universal law of gravitation (apparently due to that pesky apple?) was a huge conceptual leap, and Einstein’s theory of relativity changed the way we thought in physics and astronomy forever. My favourite though has to be good old Nicolaus Copernicus, who was smart enough and brave enough to suggest that maybe the Earth was not the center of the universe, and we did in fact orbit the sun. Opposing both the scientific and religious doctrine of his time this is arguably the greatest conceptual leap of them all.

Conceptual leaps are important to the advancement of science, and as I said are often used as a barometer for ability; but is an obsession for conceptual leaps detrimental to research, undermining the less glamorous, but never the less solid advancements in a given field?

I pose this question as two weeks ago I attended the 45th Sheffield Stereochemistry conference and personally had an informative and interesting day seeing some great chemistry. After the conference though, a reoccurring criticism of a lot of the chemistry was the lack of a conceptual leap, and this really got me thinking.  Does it matter?

Without going into the details, one talk I particularly enjoyed took a well established chemical reaction, and using well established concepts (organocatalysis) made it better. The yields and the selectivity of this reaction (meaning no unwanted side products were produced) were excellent, and the catalyst (which is necessary for the efficiency and efficacy of the reaction) was reusable thousands of times. Both of these aspects are the key to a ‘great’ chemical reaction – one that not only does what it says on the tin, but crucially one that can be used on scale. (Scalability is the crucial factor for the transfer of a chemical reaction from a small research laboratory to an industrial setting where it can be used to produce kilograms or even tons of chemical compounds in an efficient, safe and cost-effective manner.)  This is valuable research.

I believe that in some corners academia breeds a snobbery that implies a conceptual leap is required for great science, which is not the case. In fact, a conceptual leap in its own right can often of little use; let us consider the Sinclair C5 for a moment. This is not a special case either, the same rules apply in academia; papers are published containing conceptual leaps, but the response can still be an overwhelming ‘so what?’.

Conceptual leaps are necessary and are the cornerstone of progression as the application and development of what we already know is finite.  Though, and not just when times are tough and money is tight, it is important to look at what we already have and make the most of it (see Derek Lowe’s article in Chemistry World for application of this pharma). There is a lot of unexplored value in existing research, and the exploration and development of this should not be derided.

Frugal times are putting a huge strain on funding for research.  In the UK, proposals that only research with a viable economic return will be funded by the tax payer are apparent (and incredibly short-sighted), and the reduction in industrial sponsorship, especially for blue sky research is further hindering the phenomenally exciting research that can lead to those great strides forward in science.  This needs to be addressed now, because ten years down the line when the ‘pipeline’ for research that needs development and application is empty, it will be too late.

We should remember though, a great idea is only truly great if it is taken all the way from conception to application. Edison didn’t invent the ‘lightbulb’, but he made it better and importantly ‘scalable’, thus securing his place in history.

This is of course a carefully selected example to fight my corner, but you take my point. Fundamental, blue sky research is crucial and should be lauded, but those who develop what we have are truly critical to the advancement of science, technology and thus society. These people should be celebrated, and most certainly not derided.

So, is an obsession with conceptual leaps detrimental to the less glamorous development of existing research? In reality I don’t think so, but the attitudes of some may be. If your peers do not appreciate your efforts, and your work is not recognised for the value it contains, conceptual leap or not, this could be both demoralising and demotivating, and most certainly does not help science move forward.

I think those who are quick to criticise the absence of a conceptual leap should think twice. After all, what is the point of research if nobody ever does anything with it?

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2 thoughts on “Obsession with a Conceptual Leap

  1. Clearly a large portion of any field needs to work on the improved understanding and use of existing techniques. All science is incremental after a fashion. We all stand on the shoulders of the mythologically large. To claim otherwise is to show a poor understanding of how scientific progress occurs.

  2. I think the point is not that people do not understand the iterative nature of research, just that there is a degree of disdain towards to those who choose to focus on that kind of work!

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