Eric Haseltine: Can The Past Guide Us To Future Scientific Breakthroughs?

Feb 24, 2017

Part 5 of the TED Radio Hour episode The Spirit Of Inquiry.

About Eric Haseltine's TED Talk

Trained as a neuroscientist, Eric Haseltine is always asking questions. He's identified four concepts that lead to scientific breakthrough. One of them: acknowledging we're not the center of the universe.

About Eric Haseltine

Eric Haseltine is a futurist, author, and a consultant. Throughout his career, he has worked in a variety of industries. In 1992, he worked with Disney as the executive vice president of "Imagineering" and head of Research & Development.

After 9/11, he joined the National Security Agency as the director of research. Haseltine continues to do basic research in neuroscience. He is the author of Long Fuse, Big Band.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

Today on the show, the Spirit of Inquiry, why the question is usually more important than the answer. Is there a sense, you know, among scientists that - I don't know - that, like, a lot of the big things have already kind of been discovered?

ERIC HASELTINE: No (laughter).

RAZ: No.

HASELTINE: It's an interesting thing. There are some of us scientists who believe that what we don't know is vastly more than what we do know. Just look at dark energy and dark matter. We don't know what 95 percent of the universe is.

RAZ: This is Eric Haseltine.

HASELTINE: Ph.D. ADHD.

RAZ: And the ADHD part is only a half joke because while Eric does have a Ph.D. - it's in neuroscience - over his career he's found it pretty hard to focus on just one thing.

HASELTINE: Well, I've always moved around when I thought the world was about to change.

RAZ: He's built flight simulators for the aerospace industry, he worked at Disney on digital animation and after September 11, he was in charge of research and development for the National Security Agency.

What do you do now?

HASELTINE: I'm a futurist and consultant on innovation.

RAZ: So basically what that means is that Eric studies how science could ask really big questions to achieve really big breakthroughs. And he says there are lessons about how we can do that from the past.

HASELTINE: The past, I think, is a tremendous guide to the future because it shows you one of the most important antecedents of a big scientific breakthrough which is a fringe idea.

RAZ: Here's Eric Haseltine on the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

HASELTINE: 1847, Vienna, Austria - Ignaz Semmelweis was a somber, compulsively thorough doctor who ran two maternity clinics. They were identical except for one thing. Women were dying of high fever soon after giving birth three times more often at one of the clinics than at other. In trying to figure out what the difference was that caused this, Semmelweis looked at everything he could - sanitation - no, medical procedures - no, air flow - no. The puzzle went unsolved until he happened to autopsy a doctor who died of an infected scalpel cut. The doctor's symptoms were identical to those of the mothers who were dying. How was that possible?

How could a male doctor get the same thing as new mothers? Semmelweis reconstructed everything the doctor had done right before he got sick, and he discovered that he'd been autopsying a corpse. Had something gotten in his wound that killed him? It turned out that at the hospital with a high death rate, but not the others, doctors delivered babies immediately after autopsying corpses in the morgue. A-ha. Corpses were contaminating the doctors' hands and killing his mothers. Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis had discovered an infectious disease. But the doctors of the day thought he was crazy because they knew and had for hundreds of years that odor's vapors called miasmas cause disease, not these hypothetical particles that you couldn't see.

It took 20 years for Frenchman Louis Pasteur to prove that Semmelweis was right. Pasteur was an agricultural chemist who tried to figure out why milk and beer spoiled so often. He found the bacteria were the culprits. He also demolished fond ideas that people kept close to their heart. Miasmas didn't kill people. Bacteria killed people.

RAZ: Now, a radical idea like that, Eric says, is one of the four things that can trigger a massive scientific breakthrough.

HASELTINE: Yeah. So the first thing is a radical idea. Another one is an invention of a new instrument. So you had the telescope and the microscope, and they opened up worlds that we didn't even know existed. The third one is the collision of radically diverse disciplines. In the case of DNA, it was X-ray crystallography, Mendelian genetics, biochemistry, molecular biology. All of those things kind of fused together into an exotic cocktail that led to the discovery of the structure of DNA. And the fourth one is due to Freud.

Freud said that humans advance when they remove themselves from having to be the center of everything. So you have Copernicus who said, you know, we aren't the center of the universe. You had Darwin who said, we're not special. And now you have people who are looking at many worlds' theories of quantum mechanics and saying, you know, our universe isn't even unique. And I think that's really important because we do have a very anthropocentric view of the universe.

RAZ: Yeah.

HASELTINE: And it limits us.

RAZ: So if that's the case, I mean, how are we going to find, you know, the next Einstein or Darwin or Watson or Crick, you know? How are we going to know that we've found them if we do?

HASELTINE: Well, really, I would look at people who have a track record of orthodox science but who are exploring completely bizarre, strange things that would turn our understanding of nature on its head. You know, I think that the biggest quandary in physics is the contradiction between quantum mechanics and general relativity.

But Julian Barbour is this physicist who said - well, you know what, it's just because we have this inconvenient idea called time. And time doesn't really exist. There's just an eternal now where it's just like the movie frames are all there. We're just moving from one frame to another. And if we remove time, then there is no contradiction between those two theories. So that's an example. You know, he could be one of those people.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

HASELTINE: I'm not talking about science that takes baby steps. I'm talking about science that takes enormous leaps. I'm talking Darwin. I'm talking Einstein. I'm talking revolutionary science that turns the world on its head. I got to believe that there are Darwins and Einsteins out there. Consider this - there are seven times more people alive today than during Darwin's time. When you consider that the proportion of scientists in the population has skyrocketed, there are now 7 million scientists. I got to believe - and I do believe - that there's one of them out there - who is working right now in obscurity to rock our lives. And I don't know about you, but I can't wait to be rocked.

RAZ: So I'm just curious, though - I mean, do you think that there are things out there that we will just never be able to understand?

HASELTINE: Well, I think there's this hubris that we think the complexity of the universe is on a scale that we can comprehend. I wonder...

RAZ: Right (laughter)?

HASELTINE: I remember a conversation I had with Marvin Minsky. And I said - Marvin, do you think humans, either individually or collectively, are smart enough to understand nature in its totality? And immediately, he said no. I have a cat that's the smartest cat I've ever had or seen, and I'll never teach it French.

It's a really novel way of looking at it - to have humility. I think that's really important in a scientist - to have humility, to respect that this thing could be way bigger than we can really understand and not to try to say - finally, this is the truth.

RAZ: I mean, it's kind of exciting because it means that there's just the infinite possibility of asking questions. I mean, it's perpetual. It never ends.

HASELTINE: Right. I don't think there will ever be an end to science.

RAZ: So if you had to place a wager - right? - like, what are the big questions we're going to answer in the future?

HASELTINE: Well, you know, I often ask people - imagine a color that you've never seen before. And you can't do it because our brains construct things from building blocks of what we've experienced. If you've never experienced it, you can't imagine it.

You know, there are two futures. There's the boring future, which is things that are just an evolution of what's already here changed a little bit. And then there's the interesting future, which is utterly unlike anything you could imagine. I think the interesting future is a color that you've never seen before. And so, if you look inside yourself and say - what do I expect to happen? - the interesting future is the opposite of that. It's what you don't expect.

Isaac Asimov said that science doesn't proceed with eureka. It proceeds with that's funny. And so I think by definition, the things that are going to make the biggest difference in the future are things that sound weird.

RAZ: Yeah.

HASELTINE: That's why I think Einstein - what he meant when he said imagination is more important than knowledge, knowledge is an anchor that anchors you to the past. Imagination - that's where the future lies.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Eric Haseltine - he's been a neuroscientist, an industrial psychologist, an entertainment executive, intelligence officer and probably the most interesting person at every dinner party he attends. You can see his entire talk at ted.com.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ASK")

THE SMITHS: (Singing) So ask me, ask me, ask me. Ask me, ask me, ask me because if it's not love, then...

RAZ: Hey, thanks for listening to our show on The Spirit Of Inquiry this week. If you want to find out more about who was on it, go to ted.npr.org. To see hundreds more TED talks, check out ted.com or the TED app. Our production staff at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Brent Baughman Neva Grant, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Casey Herman, Rachel Faulkner and our newest member Jinae West. Welcome, Jinae. We had help this week from Camillo Garzon and Daniel Shukin. Our intern is Thomas Lu. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Kelly Stoetzel, Anna Phelan and Janet Lee.

If you want to let us know what you think about the show, you can write us at tedradiohour@npr.org. You can also follow us on Twitter. It's @tedradiohour. And don't forget to subscribe to our podcast. Find it at npr.org/podcasts or on iTunes. I'm Guy Raz, and you've been listening to ideas worth spreading right here on the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.