In my previous posts on the value of mental and physical models, I suggested that it is the dialog that we create between these two types of reasoning that helps us tackle the discovery of what is novel and complex:
In the field of physical science, an excellent example of this process is illustrated in the Watson and Crick discovery of the double helix structure of DNA. They achieved this daunting task (in part) by building the right kind of physical model from which to test their thinking (mental model) and use this model-based reasoning to validate their hypotheses and make a breakthrough discovery about the nature of life.
However, as we examine the fuller historical record of this event, another vital dynamic in the process of discovery emerges: the value of collaborative reasoning.
It is the underlying social mechanism behind all great discoveries. It derives its benefits from the cooperation and sharing of ideas between people studying the same problem to find a solution.
However, in science as in most of human endeavors, people do not always cooperate, but rather compete and obtain valuable insights from the work of others – sometimes without their permission.
Although this is clearly an ethical and legal issue, much of the end result of collaboration derives from some blend of cooperation and competition.
Looking deeper into the context of Watson and Crick’s “discovery,” there were at least two other people searching for this answer who contributed to their breakthrough in understanding the true chemical and physical structure of DNA in ways that cannot be solely reduced to their brilliant use of mental and physical model-based reasoning.
Linus Pauling was the first to publish a paper on the structure of DNA, but he attributed the structure to a triple helix structure radiating around a sugar phosphate backbone. However, Crick recognized his error in chemistry in which all of these parts of the structure were negatively-charged and would repel each other.
Rosalind Franklin, another scientist working on this problem using the technology of x-ray crystallography produced photographic evidence of this helical structure, but only in the x-shaped image of a two-dimensional view.
One of these images was shown by one of her colleagues (without her permission) to Watson who then showed it to Crick. Crick, with his background in crystallography, recognized it as representing a double-helical structure and that is what propelled them to test this data using mental and physical models.
Here is an excellent video produced by Virginia Commonwealth University that tells this fuller story:
Rather than refuse to acknowledge it (with all of its ethical and legal ramifications), we need to acknowledge and incorporate this social factor into our own work in the “discovery” process – whether we are discovering a solution to a problem in science, solving a business problem, or the design of an informational or instructional system that meets the needs of its users.
Here’s where the technologies we call social networking and social media can support this collaborative discovery process. Perhaps we will see corresponding development of vertical software solutions that address this objective using these technologies, but in the meantime, there are plenty of opportunities to “re-purpose” existing social networking and social media to achieve a similar function.
As comments in reply, I welcome your thoughts about the value of collaborative reasoning in discovery and design and the use of these technologies to support our reasoning process.