It’s the weekend, and I’m trying to relax – but finding it hard. Thing is, next week is choc-a-bloc with interviews with a wide spectrum of interesting thinkers and so I’m swatting up and thinking of good questions. Monday is Bill Mitchell, head of MIT’s Smart Cities group, Tuesday I visit ‘thin film’ solar panel manufacturers Konarka, Wednesday is Juan Enriquez (I’m particularly looking forward to this) and Friday the mighty Wally Broecker (of ‘er, folks I’ve discovered climate change’ fame) and Klaus Lackner (hopefully to be of ‘er, I think I’ve solved climate change’ fame) – all people I not only want to ask good questions of, but who themselves are pre-eminent question askers.
There’s a great quote from Nobel Prize winning physicist Isidor Rabi that I often trot out in my day job (co-running learning consultancy Flow Associates). Asked why he became a scientist he replied, “My mother made me a scientist without ever intending it. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: ‘So? Did you learn anything today?’ But not my mother. She always asked me a different question. ‘Izzy,’ she would say, ‘did you ask a good question today?’ That difference – asking good questions – made me become a scientist!”
There’s a kind of semi-carnival going on outside my hotel, with the fringe benefit that food stalls of all nationalities are serving up steaming portions of culinary goodness. I spend half an hour trying to choose something to eat. With my brain full of genomics, the future of energy and the implications of climate change choosing what to have for lunch suddenly becomes an intractable problem. It’s like my brain has switched into a different gear – and it’s finding it hard to shift to the ‘mundane’ task of choosing what to chow down on. I should be enjoying the atmosphere, the music, the smells, the joy of travelling in a foreign city but I’m distracted. Standing on the corner of Main St. and Vassar St. in Cambridge is, after all, like standing at one of the focal points of our future. If you wander a block in any direction you’ll find laboratories and research institutions that are creating new knowledge (and applications for it) at an incredible rate. Take the Broad Institute for instance, a joint venture between Harvard and MIT, “to pioneer a ‘new model’ of collaborative science [to] transform medicine.” Just down the road is The McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT created “with a mandate to use neuroscience to help people with brain disorders, and to ultimately benefit all of mankind by improving human communication and understanding.” The MIT media lab is round the corner on Ames St where “unorthodox research approaches” envision “the impact of emerging technologies on everyday life—technologies that promise to fundamentally transform our most basic notions of human capabilities”. In the Stata centre you’ll find the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. The list goes on and on… If the future wanted a zip code, I’m standing in the middle of one of the strongest contenders.
MIT attracts people who ask good questions. Playful minds with a strong desire to find out ‘new stuff’. MIT encourages us to ask ‘What?’, ‘When?’ and ‘How?’ but also seems to have a strong emphasis on ‘Why?’ I’m beginning to feel I want to live here. You can almost smell the spirit of enquiry. It’s in the brick, the sidewalk. I walk past a advertisement that says “For rent: office and laboratory space”. Even the estate agents know that to sell in Cambridge MA, you sell by saying ‘discover stuff here’. Charles Kettering the inventor once said “My interest is in the future because I am going to spend the rest of my life there. ” If he’d been alive today he might have said, “so I’m moving to Boston…”