by Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein 1999, 401 pages, $24.00, ISBN 0-395-90771-3. Published by Houghton Mifflin Co.
There is a common delusion that the arrival of computer-aided design (CAD) and the long promised artificial intelligence (AI) computers have, or will, obsolete the need for inventors and other creative individuals. This book puts a pin in that balloon. While such computers are useful tools, the authors make a strong case for thirteen mental tools of thought that the masters of creativity in many fields have used in the past and that are still absolutely vital today. They devote a full chapter on how to utilize each tool and a final chapter on how these creative thinking tools could be added to schooling today.
They begin with an overview examining thinking and schooling. Most of us are the product of educational systems that focus on what to think rather than the far more productive how to think. They emphasize "Our feelings -- our intuitions -- are not impediments to rational thinking, they form its origin and bases." They give as an example how young Albert Einstein's mind blossomed when he transferred to a high school in Switzerland that was run by an educational reformer (Johann Pestalozzi). Instead of rote memorization the students "learned to draw, create models, pay attention to their intuition, see and feel things in their minds."
The first of the thirteen thinking tools they discuss is observing. The power of simple observation is amazing. One illustration of this is how the discoverer of vitamin C observed that a banana turns brown when injured, but an orange does not. He found plants containing vitamin C could prevent oxygen from oxidizing the polyphenols.
Next, they cite how inventors such as Charles Steinmetz and Nikola Tesla had the ability "to visualize -- to imagine the look of things not physically before their eyes." This ability, imaging, is also a common factor found among great artists and writers. This skill can be taught "with hands-on experience in arts or crafts, or simple mental practice."
They examine the art of abstracting. That is the abstracting of the simple from the complex. Ibis often results in great insights, the "aha!" experience. A similar tool is recognizing patterns. Note is made of how cultural patterns bias us. We fail to see patterns if they do not conform to our x-y-z (height-width-depth) dimension system. They point out how Buckrninster Fuller rejected both x-y-z and polar coordinates systems when he invented the geodesic dome. He used a tetrahedral concept. A "tolerance for dawdling and play" is an important factor in developing the mind's ability to recognize patterns. They stress this applies to people of all ages and especially that children should not be deprived of time to experience "aural, visual, and verbal patterns."
Likewise, the mental tool for forming patterns is a part of the mental arsenal of creative people. Examples are given in the fields of music, visual arts, and the sciences. They note how Fourier analysis (how complex wave are the sum of simple waves) has,figured in the development of magnetic resonance imaging and electronic synthesizers. Science students should be encouraged to devise patterns. For example, in chemistry, to explain the periodic properties of the elements. Too often minds are quickly frozen into the standard textbook explanations by the memorization process.
The book is filled with examples of practical applications of the thirteen thinking tools. The invention of the stethoscope and of velcro illustrate the power of analogizing. In the chapter about empathizing, Charles F. Kettering (automobile electric starter), is quoted as telling his engineers, who were lost in some calculations, "Yes, but do you know what it feels like to be a piston in an engine?"
Discussing dimensional thinking, they note many people cannot think three dimensionally, indeed, that "form-blindness" is much more common than color blindness. Suggestions for developing 3-D thinking and even 4-D thinking (!) are given.
The importance of playing is made clear by their relating how Fleming discovered penicillin, how Elmer Sperry developed the autopilot, and how Jerome Lemelson (over five hundred patents) started out with two toy patents.
Will reading this book make you into a successful inventor overnight? No, but it will expand your mind and enable you to see how you can encourage your children to become creative and enjoy a lifetime of learning experiences.