Monday, 29 July 2013

What of the Mute Inglorious Miltons? - unacknowledged creativity

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Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
Hands, that the rod of empire might have sway'd,
Or waked to ecstasy the living lyre.

But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page
Rich with the spoils of time did ne'er unroll;
Chill Penury repress'd their noble rage,
And froze the genial current of the soul.

Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathom'd caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

Some village Hampden that with dauntless breast
The little tyrant of his fields withstood,
Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
Some Cromwell guiltless of his country's blood.

From Thomas Gray's  Elegy written in a country churchyard

Note: this is a first rate poem - if you do not know it, take a look: http://www.bartleby.com/101/453.html

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The idea of Mute Inglorious Miltons is intended to convey that creativity, and even creative genius, may have its effects and innovations may result - and yet the creative originator may be unknown and credit misallocated (for example, appropriated without acknowledgement by an uncreative person - or the provenance of the breakthrough simply lost to history) - or else the advance may simply be regarded as an obvious-next-step and taken for granted as having required nothing in the nature of creativity.

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(Creativity is grossly undervalued by the uncreative - who are, as it were, 'tone deaf' to the operations of creativity. This is possible because creativity usually appears to be wrong, dysfunctional, silly -- and deriving from incompetence, ignorance, craziness, arrogance or some other undesirable trait in the creative person. And of course, more often than not, the products of creativity turn-out to be, indeed, relatively dysfunctional. But when creativity, rarely, leads to an improvement discernible even to the uncreative, then it no longer appears to be a breakthrough but merely a product of common sense.) 

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But my observations have suggested that only creative people generate innovations, and the majority of people are - in any given context - utterly uncreative and would never innovate, nor even improve (regardless of their intelligence). 

I give two examples of uncreativity from my experience of methods in medicine and laboratory science.

1. Use of alcohol to clean skin before taking blood. When I was taught to take blood, I was told to sterilize the inner elbow with an alcohol swab, then to push the needle through the still wet alcohol in to the vein. This introduced alcohol under the skin where is produced an immediate painful stinging, like a bee sting - and this would be sustained for an hour or so after the blood had been taken.

On enquiry, I discovered that the alcohol could not possibly have any germ killing effect in the few seconds after application, so that it was working merely as a cleaning (not sterilizing) agent, and could (and should!) therefore be rubbed- or wiped-off before inserting the hypodermic needle.

Thereby leading to a great reduction in pain.

So hundreds, thousands of people, on millions of occasions, have inflicted needless pain when taking blood - simply because they were not creative, they were not able or motivated to want to improve the process.

(The same applies to the common but useless and pernicious practice of pressing on the hypodermic needle as it is withdrawn from the vein; thereby scratching the needle tip along the inner surface of the vein;, inducing deep pain of the kind that makes you faint and causing several days of aching.)

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2. In preparing samples of human brain (post-mortem brain samples, I should make clear!) for the measurement of neurotransmitters, I needed to denature the structural protein of the brain. the approved method did this by 1. adding strong acid and 2. boiling the resultant mixture.

(Denature means to disrupt the 3-D structure of the protein, while preserving its chemical identity - this happens to the albumin when boiling an egg - the clear raw egg 'white' becomes white-and-opaque when boiled. The same effect could be achieved by adding a strong acid, with the obvious disadvantage to subsequent eating.)   

When confronted by the hazardous requirement to boil multiple vessels containing concentrated acid I enquired why it was necessary to do both procedures - adding acid and boiling - when seemingly either of them alone would suffice to denature protein.

I tried the experiment of just boiling the brain (leaving out the acid) and the method worked just as well. So by dropping one step I saved a lot of time, and made the method safer.

But why had so many people been doing it wrong, wasting time, risking accidents - so often for so many years?

Furthermore, it was not necessary to boil the brain, since this kind of protein denatures at about 56 degrees Celsius (quoting from memory) - so I heated the brain to 80 degrees for a time long enough to ensure that it could do its job - and the protein was denatured without inconvenience, mess and hazard of dealing with boiling tubes. 

Now, these modifications I made were not exactly 'rocket science' , but they were instances of creativity in action in an everyday setting - and the necessity for these micro-creative modifications provides examples the very low level of creativity of most people who devise and perform procedures and do things in everyday and institutional life.

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Furthermore, such exaples of creativity are highly likely to be appropriated without acknowledgment - and this is fair enough, since they are tiny; but this neglect may give the false impression that creativity was not needed for them, that they were merely 'trial and error' of a kind which can simply be taken for granted.

Not so! - even this kind of creativity cannot be taken for granted but depends on specific individuals - albeit such individuals have not all that rare in England in recent years.

But that situation may not apply at all times and places, and sometimes therefore even micro-creativity is lacking in a social situation or a whole society - and then procedures will ossify and become irreversibly degraded with time.

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