A Pensieve for your Thoughts

Last weekend my OT colleague Stephen Curry put up a thoughtful and thought-provoking post reflecting on the shortness of life, where his is going and other angst-inducing topics including obituaries, all provoked by the fact that he was approaching 50. It was an excellent read and I wanted to put out a tweet about it, describing it as pensive. Instead, I nearly found myself describing it as pensieve. The Potter fans amongst you will recognize that word, but for those of you who have avoided being drawn into JK Rowling’s world here’s the definition of a pensieve used by one of the characters

One simply siphons the excess thoughts from one’s mind, pours them into the basin, and examines them at one’s leisure.

Now wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to do this? Of all the fantastical imaginary things in the Potter books, this strikes me as the most attractive. How often do I sit in a meeting/seminar/on a train and my mind runs free. Suddenly, if the conditions are right, something unexpected pops into my head. I’m sure it happens to us all. Maybe that famed light bulb moment when suddenly all the results slot into the coherent pattern you’ve been searching for high and low (though I’m no great believer in such Eureka moments). More likely it is something rather prosaic but useful: the prompt for the next blogpost, perhaps, or the idea for your mother-in-law’s birthday present. Most likely it is somewhere in between these two extremes: some insight into how to join the dots between disparate ideas you’ve been mulling over for days or an appreciation of what tweak you need to make to the experiment that didn’t work last week suddenly behave itself. Whatever it is, how fantastic it would be if, instead of trying to jot down a few words to remind yourself of the neat idea for when you are in a position to act upon it, you could simply transfer the whole silvery stream of thought to a portable dish from which it could later be recovered with a flick of a wand.

Even when dutifully sitting at my desk pondering some aspect of my work or other, I can find myself trying to think about several (possibly, but not necessarily, related) bits of the problem at once. I want just to do a brain dump of the different strands but there is no mechanism to do this swiftly. Jotting down the key points of one path may mean the others all escape before they can be captured. If I could just wave a wand past my head and collect the relevant ideas in neatly separated strands, ready packaged to be picked up another day, life would be so much easier. Instead I find every surface covered in post-it notes of different sizes, each trying to capture the essence of a single thought, but so often incomprehensible the next time one stumbles upon it.

I have confessed before about the state of my office.  Following my previous post I discover, rather to my irritation, that although I’ve cleared out a lot of filing cabinets our move has been put back a year or two. So, the post-it notes will continue to decorate the surfaces for a while to come (and, for those who wonder, some are virtual post-its actually stored on my iPad). Yet so rarely are they actually useful. What does a note that says ‘failure to understand non-linear model‘ mean? I don’t even now know which project this may refer to. Or how about ‘different timescales – how to bridge?’ That isn’t going to get me very far, but no doubt when I wrote it the phrase seemed important. If I could lift these words along with the context of all that prompted them in a coherent bundle from my pensieve, maybe I could recapture their significance and move on. As it is I am left frustrated and none the wiser.

It isn’t just thoughts around science that I would love to consign to my pensieve. Thoughts about topics for this blog are frequently triggered by things I hear or read, but not at a moment when I can sit down and write. So another set of post-it notes have useful comments like ‘more on impostor syndrome‘ (yes that post is coming soon) or one I’ve just (re)discovered ‘excellence in different cultures‘. For that latter I neither know what triggered the thought by now, nor what I might have thought it should cover although I’m sure it’s a good idea. But a good idea that probably isn’t going to make it onto my own blog any time soon – feel free to make use of it if it strikes a chord with you.

I don’t expect any innovators are going to create a pensieve in the near future, unfortunately. I am quite sure there would be a huge lucrative market for them. Meanwhile I will continue to use up large numbers of those sticky yellow notes, many of which will be consigned to the bin without having delivered the intended message that lurked behind the scribbled words.


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8 Responses to A Pensieve for your Thoughts

  1. Meg Munn says:

    This is a fascinating glimpse into how you as a scientist work. As a non scientist trying to get more girls to consider science careers, this made me think that we need more descriptions of what scientists do day to day.

    • Meg
      Interesting because it would never have crossed my mind this sort of thinking was something unique to scientists. But I totally agree that we need to do a better job of making it clear what science is (and what it isn’t) to school children – both boys and girls. Interestingly, I went to the Science Museum’s wonderful Collider exhibition yesterday (disclaimer: I am a Trustee) and I think it does a great job of humanising this massive endeavour. This is hugely important. When I talk at schools I try not only to convey the excitement of what we do, but the reality of what experimental science is like warts (or rather, dead ends) and all.

      • Andrew Derrington says:

        I don’t think it is unique to scientists. I think that’s a really important point. Scientists are not a race apart. They are ordinary people who do science.

  2. Michelle Bayne-Jardine says:

    Hi Athene

    I’m a DPhil student in a humanities discipline (History) and your blog accurately describes both the way my mind thinks and my work space (in addition to a pensieve for the former, could we also have house elves to clear up the latter?), so I’m not convinced that this type of thinking is unique to scientists. Might it say more instead about a societal perception of scientists as arriving at their arguments via linear thought processes? Just a thought. Right, I’d better get back to searching my desk for the post-it note of a crucial point I need to make in Chapter 2…

  3. This rings true. In recent years I have become an addict of indexed notebooks (e.g. Leuchtterm) so that I can keep all these thoughts in some kind of order. As a medic I have to write absurd “reflective notes” on any educational event I attend. While I continue to dispute with the Royal College of Physicians and Faculty of Public Health the value of notes within their portal, I find carrying around an indexed misceellanea of everything running through my head in recent months is empowering. It also takes the edge off really tedious and unprofitable meetings as I can make diligent notes on something serendipitously related…

  4. Meriel Chudleigh says:

    Thank you Athens for you interesting insights. I last caught up with your thoughts when you seemed quite cross about the lack of a readable response to your blog. As a consequence I now feel I have to comment!
    I like the Pensieve idea, unfortunately my lack of a coherent formal advanced level education has lead personally to a very eclectic thinking process. I love to hear enthusiastic experts talking and often write copious notes but these are usually poor quality on an inadequate amount of paper (back of an envelope or advertising puff). Every bit of the paper is covered in scrawl wedged into every blank space. The end result is usually useless within 6 months as I have no idea what/where or when it was written. However I seem to have experienced a spurt of organisational development, over the past three months I have started to re-write the notes at home into an email to a colleague… It has really worked to help to bring ideas and lessons learned and opinions formed. Not sure if the email is welcome but it certainly helps me! A virtual pensieve?

  5. Meriel Chudleigh says:

    Sorry Athene despite some development I still forget to stop my spell checker from distorting the message…you can retaliate by calling me Muriel if you feel strongly about it.

  6. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Ah yes, the cryptic post-it note. I know it well.

    I remember when I was a grad student waking up in the middle of the night with a stupendous idea that just had to be written down THAT VERY MOMENT because it must NOT be lost to mankind. When I woke up the next morning, the post-it by my bed said “Idea! Placebo: Love?”. I still have no idea what that was supposed to mean.

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