Thursday, 15 May 2008

Thinking of the big idea

Photo by Millicent Bystander



There is a fascinating article in the New Yorker by Malcolm Gladwell about big ideas and the importance of someone looking at a familiar fact with a fresh perspective. It's about thinking. The following extract from the article is about Nathan Myhrvold's Intellectual Ventures, LLC--the idea that cancer can be detected long before a tumor is formed. Myhrvold, one of Microsoft's pioneers, brings intellectuals from different disciplines together to brainstorm new ideas--in this case physicist Lowell Wood meets with a group of doctors:

Last March, Myhrvold decided to do an invention session with Eric Leuthardt and several other physicians in St. Louis. Rod Hyde came, along with a scientist from M.I.T. named Ed Boyden. Wood was there as well.
“Lowell came in looking like the Cheshire Cat,” Myhrvold recalled. “He said, ‘I have a question for everyone. You have a tumor, and the tumor becomes metastatic, and it sheds metastatic cancer cells. How long do those circulate in the bloodstream before they land?’ And we all said, ‘We don’t know. Ten times?’ ‘No,’ he said. ‘As many as a million times.’ Isn’t that amazing? If you had no time, you’d be screwed. But it turns out that these cells are in your blood for as long as a year before they land somewhere. What that says is that you’ve got a chance to intercept them.”
How did Wood come to this conclusion? He had run across a stray fact in a recent issue of The New England Journal of Medicine. “It was an article that talked about, at one point, the number of cancer cells per millilitre of blood,” he said. “And I looked at that figure and said, ‘Something’s wrong here. That can’t possibly be true.’ The number was incredibly high. Too high. It has to be one cell in a hundred litres, not what they were saying—one cell in a millilitre. Yet they spoke of it so confidently. I clicked through to the references. It was a commonplace. There really were that many cancer cells.”
Wood did some arithmetic. He knew that human beings have only about five litres of blood. He knew that the heart pumps close to a hundred millilitres of blood per beat, which means that all of our blood circulates through our bloodstream in a matter of minutes. The New England Journal article was about metastatic breast cancer, and it seemed to Wood that when women die of metastatic breast cancer they don’t die with thousands of tumors. The vast majority of circulating cancer cells don’t do anything. “It turns out that some small per cent of tumor cells are actually the deadly ones,” he went on. “Tumor stem cells are what really initiate metastases. And isn’t it astonishing that they have to turn over at least ten thousand times before they can find a happy home? You na├»vely think it’s once or twice or three times. Maybe five times at most. It isn’t. In other words, metastatic cancer—the brand of cancer that kills us—is an amazingly hard thing to initiate. Which strongly suggests that if you tip things just a little bit you essentially turn off the process.”
That was the idea that Wood presented to the room in St. Louis. From there, the discussion raced ahead. Myhrvold and his inventors had already done a lot of thinking about using tiny optical filters capable of identifying and zapping microscopic particles. They also knew that finding cancer cells in blood is not hard. They’re often the wrong size or the wrong shape. So what if you slid a tiny filter into a blood vessel of a cancer patient? “You don’t have to intercept very much of the blood for it to work,” Wood went on. “Maybe one ten-thousandth of it. The filter could be put in a little tiny vein in the back of the hand, because that’s all you need. Or maybe I intercept all of the blood, but then it doesn’t have to be a particularly efficient filter.”
Wood was a physicist, not a doctor, but that wasn’t necessarily a liability, at this stage. “People in biology and medicine don’t do arithmetic,” he said. He wasn’t being
critical of biologists and physicians: this was, after all, a man who read medical journals for fun. He meant that the traditions of medicine encouraged qualitative observation and interpretation. But what physicists do—out of sheer force of habit and training—is measure things and compare measurements, and do the math to put measurements in context. At that moment, while reading The New England Journal, Wood had the advantages of someone looking at a familiar fact with a fresh perspective.
And not a Thinkers Key or Green Hat in sight.


Malcolm Gladwell, "In the Air," The New Yorker, May 12, 2008, pp. 58-59.


1 comment:

steve carroll said...

Big ideas often arent that big...just new ways of looking at a problem.
It often fascinates me when you ask a question or suggest an idea people will often say why something cant be done. Rather than think how to make something happen.