Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Innovation Redux: The Prince House Story

By Keith McDowell

The crash of a dart board smacking into the wooden flooring rudely interrupted my deep pondering of the relationship between Brueckner and natural spinorbitals.  It was the late 1960s at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and someone was obviously taking out their revenge on “Tricky Dick” whose image was prominently attached to the board. Having lost my train of thought and knowing that it was time to head home for dinner, I stood up from my personal desk, opened the door to my office, and crossed the hallway to the common room, making sure to stay out of the line of fire from the intrepid and sometimes erratic dart thrower. As I entered the room, I noted that a scorecard on the blackboard had new chalk marks indicating additional sightings of the ugly cat, presumably a possession of the old woman who lived in faculty housing next to the Prince House. The truth be known, I never saw the cat myself, but I accepted its existence as a fact given the presumptive sightings. What other choice did I have?

And at the large table which occupied much of the room, several of my fellow theoretical chemical physics graduate students and postdoctoral fellows – each one a showpiece of the hippie culture, were hotly engaged in an argument about the collapse of wave functions and the meaning of reality – the Schrödinger cat paradox or a Freudian analysis of their dreams notwithstanding. Sigma, a neurotic and psychologically challenged mixed breed male collie rescued from the local dog pound, sat at their feet. Only the day before, many of those same debaters had captured a female mutt in heat and attempted to instruct Sigma in the finer points of canine intercourse. It was one of those “you had to be there” funny moments, yet symbolic of life and the passage of time as an inhabitant of Prince House.

The Morton Prince House was a three-story frame house with a basement and was originally a faculty home located behind the Mallinckrodt Chemistry Building at Harvard University. Quoting from an article by George K. Sweetnam in The Harvard Crimson of 16 June 1977:

The 126-year-old structure has housed personalities ranging from the professor of Geology for whom Mt. Whitney was named to Timothy Leary, who is rumored to have conducted his early experiments with hallucinogens in the Prince House’s basement.

During the late 1960s, Prince House contained the main office for the biochemistry department as well as offices for most of the theoretical chemistry and chemical physics graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, approximately twenty in number at any given time. It was only fitting that such a diverse group of America’s best and brightest ranging from ultra-conservatives to left-wing liberals and arrogant SOBs to silent introverts should be thrown together to practice the art and science of theoretical chemistry in the historic Prince House. It was a grand adventure with high jinks galore including ugly cat sightings and with intense and liberating debates on any subject, no matter how mundane or profound. Did creativity and innovation occur in such an environment? You bet! Prince House in the 1960s and early 1970s was an accidental experiment in how best to provide a suitable environment to create, to innovate, and to learn. To its credit, Harvard attempted in the late 1970s to recreate the Prince House phenomenon with an “open design” facility when the original Prince House was moved and turned into an office building for functionary bureaucrats. It didn’t work.

The Prince House experience wasn’t just about scientific debate in open common rooms or collaborative research and study, nor was it just about quiet introspection and deep thought by private individuals into the scientific issues of the day. It was also about the shared experience of the hippie and anti-war culture and the social fabric of the time. It was the theatre of the absurd upon which creativity and innovation flourished. And it is a story that someone should tell and others should analyze as America strives to find the best formula for global competition through discovery and innovation.

In some measure, two recent articles in The New York Times capture the essence of the Prince House experience and reflect where America should be headed. The first article by Susan Cain and entitled The Rise of the New Groupthink pushes back on the notions of open innovation, brainstorming by teams, group learning, and the power of collaboration as the sole means for achieving creativity and innovation or as a means to learn new material. She re-establishes the primacy of solitude and freedom from interruption as key factors in producing quality discoveries, innovations, and learning. But it’s a lesson already learned … and forgotten. Indeed, Prince House demonstrated that it takes a freeform admixture of the private musing of the solo genius as well as social networking, whether through the modern Internet or the cultural imperatives of the 1960s, to achieve success.

The second article by Thomas Lin and entitled Cracking Open the Scientific Process extols the virtues and imperatives of transforming the scientific process into a 21st Century enterprise making full use of instant worldwide communication and social networking. It pushes for the development of new assessment tools and metrics to measure the productivity of the individual scholar, researcher, and innovator in order to enable electronic brainstorming and individual contributions to collective problem solving while eliminating or greatly reducing peer pressure, peer-reviewed journals, and the handful of gatekeepers who throttle and often choke discovery and innovation. It’s the world of websites such as GalaxyZoo, MathOverflow, and ResearchGate – a form of Facebook for scientists to practice an enhanced form of social networking to create and to innovate. It’s a new world order for STEM that I’ve advocated for and supported elsewhere. But it’s also not new.

In a microcosm, Prince House in the 1960s already had all the essential ingredients of the new world order. For example, pecking order in Prince House, if I can call it that, wasn’t established by peer-reviewed journal articles, but by one’s contribution to the Prince House community either through debate, self-selected collaboration on scientific projects, or participation in learning circles and prepared seminars on subjects of interest, just to name a few of the “happenings” of that time including ugly cat sightings. It was unforced social networking on a local scale! And it worked!

But let’s be clear about one thing: the Prince House gang and the grand experiment didn’t solve all the scientific problems of the day nor were the gang members the only contributors to or the only nexus of scientific progress. Furthermore, the modern versions of groupthink and even the private musings of the solo genius have not solved one of the greatest challenges of our era: to create the theory of everything that explains our universe.  It’s the oldest lesson of them all. Formation of the best of all possible structures and processes doesn’t always guarantee success or immediate gratification when it comes to discovery and innovation.

But in the final analysis, I vote for a 21st Century version of the Prince House experiment, one that preserves the sanctity of the individual and the need for solitude and reflection without interruption coupled to a full-blown social network with a freeform spectrum of options and choices that recognizes the need for new and additional metrics of individual success and contributions to the whole while properly archiving the record for posterity. I vote for a global Prince House! Hmm, I wonder if I still have my bell-bottom jeans and tie-died shirts?

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