Beginners Mind

I've been reading the zen classic, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind and it really has struck a chord with me. In particular, the concept of beginner's mind. I had an interesting moment of confusion when I confronted this simple statement: 

In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, in the expert's mind there are few.

I immediately thought "oh, that makes sense. Like a master chess player doesn't think farther ahead, he just doesn't see bad options, 'in the expert's mind there are few'.  I was trying to shoehorn the quote into my mindset of 'being an expert is a good thing', but that is not the point of the saying. The point is that you want to have many possibilities, you want to keep your mind open to possibilities and become an 'expert' tends to close people's minds to the 'stupid options'.

I have always been extremely curious. I had two favorite books growing up. One was The Way Things Work, and the other was Brain Surgery for Beginners


I credit these books with every inch of creativity and spirit of exploration that I have. They ignore the obvious problems facing a technical book for children and just put it all out there. They treat complex topics without ever saying "hey this is supposed to be hard", so I was never threatened. They treated them with humor and lightness that made me keep a copy of The Way Things Work near me all through college.

But isn't the goal of life to become an expert in your field? Yes but not at the sacrifice of openness to new ideas. One of the greatest things that the University of Chicago gave me was a set of Physics professors who where just incredibly curious about all different kinds of phenomena (soft matter department > astrophysics, trust me I've worked in both). I worked in a lab that actually encouraged me to look into the conceptual art side of the physics that we where doing! I took classes that encouraged me to go and figure out how to do real polymer physics in my kitchen.

Science suffers from this problem all the time. They don't see the incredible opportunities standing right in from of them. Here is an example. I took a biology class recently where we talked about how different animals move in fluids, everything from birds to bacteria. First of all, it is really fun to be in a class you are under qualified for. Everyone knew all the genus/species names for things and wouldn't simply say "shrimp" or "eagle" but their latin counterparts. In these situations, I found that smiling and conceding my own stupidity was the best option. Of course when it came to how streamlines worked or how viscosity changes with shear velocity, I was the only one who knew, so it wasn't all bad. As a physics major, particularly a physics major with interest in fluid mechanics, polymer physics and soft matter, I had a lot more technical knowledge of these fields but I still had no idea how a circulatory system worked, so I got to sit there and absorb it! But I noticed something strange when we got to the topic of bacterial flagellum.

Flagella are a really, really cool structure. Because bacteria live at such a low Reynolds number, the standard locomotion techniques of high Re animals just don't work. You can't flap your wings because you don't glide, you simply stop and when you pull your wings back you move backwards! You can't use a propellor or even lift generation devices like fins. Two major ways exist to move at low Re, use cilia or use a flagella.

Prokaryotic flagella are just a filament attached to a motor embedded in the cell membrane. It spins and makes a corkscrew motion, which actually does produce net thrust. But back up, it is a filament attached to a motor.

Prokaryotic flagellum, one of the only biological solutions that is almost identical to the mechanical solution, in this case to the problem of rotary motion. Source wikipedia

Prokaryotic flagellum, one of the only biological solutions that is almost identical to the mechanical solution, in this case to the problem of rotary motion. Source wikipedia

Yes, a motor. The reason this is so freaking cool is that if you think about it, motors don't really exist in biology. We use electric motors all the time, but there are no animals that actually use rotary motion! Except here. This is almost identical to a man made electric motor. It uses a proton gradient to provide electric field, a rotor and a stator the exact way an electric motor does!

So you now have an exact analog of a macro scale human invention in the microscopic world. Except you don't have to build it, it gets built on its own. Oh and you don't feed it electricity, it is enough to just feed it food.

Nobody in my class was floored by this except me.

The reason I was floored was because this should be a huge research area! We should have whole fleets of tiny submarines! Maybe we could figure out how to grow arrays of these motors to power bigger things, maybe for targeted drug delivery! Or oil cleanup! We have the propulsion, and a super easy way to control it (protons in -> spinning).

Keep your mind open and the world will continually amaze. I love studying science because I am wow'ed over and over again.