It was a warm fall day when Paul Davies, a celebrated physicist slash cosmologist slash author from Arizona State University, received the call.
While Paul had spent the majority of his life working in science innovation, publishing 19 popular-science books (even more to-date) and leading many academic studies, the person on the other end of the phone that day wasn’t interested in physics, necessarily. Instead, the caller wanted to see if Paul would be interested in speaking at a workshop for the National Cancer Institute.
What a nation-wide network of biophysicists, doctors, and cancer researchers wanted to hear from a physicist stumped Paul. He was, up until that phone call, only vaguely aware of what the NCI even was.
Paul was intrigued and said yes, then did what he was best at and made a list of “dumb questions.”
When the workshop came Paul presented his keynote speech and brought up the questions. “Where does metastasis occur? What makes tumour cells suddenly break apart? How could physics contribute to cancer research?”
The keynote was a huge success. Paul’s questions completely clicked and started rolling around in the researchers brains. Suddenly their world – of linear system analysis and cancer cells being something other than a physical object – shifted.
By simply asking questions that he, himself, had about cancer science, Paul was able to invoke creative thinking in countless cancer researchers, doctors, and scientists. The physics of the cosmos and the world around us, it turns out is surprisingly similar to the physics of cancer. Paul’s questions were exactly what the audience needed to hear in order to use their imaginations, look at their work from a different perspective, and start exploring options they hadn’t envisioned before. Through Paul countless ideas and new research methods have risen, and today he influences cancer research more-so than nearly any other physicist alive.
His questions were so inspiring that, two years after his keynote address, the NCI proposed a plan to fund 12 physics-oncology centers around the nation for roughly $120 million. Paul became principal investigator in the physical sciences for the organization and kept doing what he did best: asking questions.
Asking seemingly naive questions, it turns out, is a remarkable way to spur creative thinking.
Stuart Lindsay, one of Paul’s colleagues, said it best: “It takes someone like Paul, constantly nagging, asking disruptive questions, to get people to take a fresh look at their assumptions.”
To have creative ideas you have to ask questions, especially ones that might make you seem naive. It’s in those questions – even the most basic questions – where the brightest flashes of insights appear.
For more on Paul Davies and his work, checkout his 2011 story Physics meets cancer: The disruptor