Young Soviet boys with captured Sherman weapons following the Battle of Stalingrad. February, 1943.

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SKIP TO CONTENTMIT Technology ReviewSubscribeExpand menuMIT Technology ReviewSubscribeExpand menuTech policyIsaac Asimov Asks, “How Do People Get New Ideas?”

A 1959 Essay by Isaac Asimov on Creativity


October 20, 2014

Note from Arthur Obermayer, friend of the author:

In 1959, I worked as a scientist at Allied Research Associates in Boston. The company was an MIT spinoff that originally focused on the effects of nuclear weapons on aircraft structures. The company received a contract with the acronym GLIPAR (Guide Line Identification Program for Antimissile Research) from the Advanced Research Projects Agency to elicit the most creative approaches possible for a ballistic missile defense system. The government recognized that no matter how much was spent on improving and expanding current technology, it would remain inadequate. They wanted us and a few other contractors to think “out of the box.”

When I first became involved in the project, I suggested that Isaac Asimov, who was a good friend of mine, would be an appropriate person to participate. He expressed his willingness and came to a few meetings. He eventually decided not to continue, because he did not want to have access to any secret classified information; it would limit his freedom of expression. Before he left, however, he wrote this essay on creativity as his single formal input. This essay was never published or used beyond our small group. When I recently rediscovered it while cleaning out some old files, I recognized that its contents are as broadly relevant today as when he wrote it. It describes not only the creative process and the nature of creative people but also the kind of environment that promotes creativity.

Isaac AsimovAndy Friedman


How do people get new ideas?

Presumably, the process of creativity, whatever it is, is essentially the same in all its branches and varieties, so that the evolution of a new art form, a new gadget, a new scientific principle, all involve common factors. We are most interested in the “creation” of a new scientific principle or a new application of an old one, but we can be general here.

One way of investigating the problem is to consider the great ideas of the past and see just how they were generated. Unfortunately, the method of generation is never clear even to the “generators” themselves.

But what if the same earth-shaking idea occurred to two men, simultaneously and independently? Perhaps, the common factors involved would be illuminating. Consider the theory of evolution by natural selection, independently created by Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace.

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Sarah Bernhardt Sculpting in Her Studio, Marie-Desiree Bourgoin, 1879

Lukacs argues that, through the fetishization identified by Marx, this mode came to become the “dominant form in society” under modern capitalism, such that the commodity form itself can only be “understood in its undistorted essence when it becomes the universal category of society as a whole.” Thus, under capitalism, the appearance of objective value allows the commodity form to become the form of objectivity as such. The driving force of our relationship with the world is no longer connections between humans, but between things. This is physically manifested in the mechanized industrial method, through industrial specialization, which fragments the “organic, irrational unity” of the product.

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I’ve finally seen Children of Men, on DVD, after missing it at the cinema. Watching it last week I asked myself, why is its rendering of apocalyspe so contemporary?

Polyhymnia, Muse of Eloquence, Charles Meynier, 1800

This post is about a few patterns I use when illustrating ideas about computers. If you are interested in using drawings to teach people about your very favorite computer topics, hopefully this will help you!

Let’s talk about how to structure cartoons and how to translate computer concepts into pictures!