May 8, 2011

Asleep on the job?

Somewhere in the boxed detritus I haul around through my various moves is an old red notebook to remind me of the power of sleep. Its pages, witnessed by another chemist and a bioengineer, have the first description of a process for making a UV-blocking silicone crosslinker which was a critical ingredient for the first optically clear platinum-cured silicone for making intraocular lenses as replacements for the eye's natural lens when cataracts set in. The idea came to me as I woke up from a nap in a particularly boring lecture; the problem of optically clear, UV-blocking materials for injectable IOLs had kept a few research groups busy for a decade. When I realized that my Ph.D. adviser was more interested in publications than a patent that would earn millions, I gave the technology away to a friend. It did in fact make a lot of money for a number of people at STAAR Surgical Co., and in all the later years when I consulted there to keep that technology on track, very few knew where it had originally come from.

I thought about that notebook a few days ago when I saw a tweet from Ed Gandia which led to an audio clip talking about the importance of sleep to the creative process. My own experience over more than four decades has affirmed this time and again. About a year after dreaming up the UV silicone, a friend asked me if there were any jigsaw puzzles for her 3-year-old to play on their Mac Plus. I told her "not as far as I know" and explained patiently that this would be a rather difficult problem, certainly beyond my abilities. At 3 am the next morning I woke up with all the code in my head, and an hour later the first working version of "HyperPuzzle" was created, which took pictures of animals, cut them up into a grid of tiles which were mixed up, rotated and reflected. I released it as shareware and made just enough money off it to "enjoy" a few meals at Wendy's, but I did get quite a thrill when I found out it was being used for stroke patient rehab at a clinic in Boston. Later, some of its modules were incorporated into the Voyager edition of Brian Thomas' virtual monastery library.

It's actually rather common, not just with me, for sleep to be the critical element missing from a problem's solution. Problems of translation are no exception. So often I have stopped dead at the fortress walls of some three-quarter page abomination of a sentence in a German patent, attacked it on various flanks and retreated in disarray to my bed. The next morning, well rested, I notice that the gate in that wall was left unlocked and unattended, and I pass through to a coherent, accurate translation of the previously impenetrable sentence.

I think that anyone reading this must have similar experiences, where the frontal assault on linguistic barricades is fruitless, but a little or a lot of R&R sweeps the obstacles aside. So why do we persist in doing the opposite of what our experience tells us is necessary for creative productivity? Par force translation is usually neither faster if accurate nor of better quality. Truly, the end justifies the sleep.


  1. Yes, yes, and yes! I couldn't agree more! I always try to get my translations done at night so I have time to read through and proof them after a good night's sleep.

  2. Speaking my mind, Kevin! It has been my conviction for many years that the brain is way more productive (not only more creative) in sleep than when awake. No better way to solve a puzzle than to go to sleep with a faint thought about it, and attack it afresh the next day. Wherever the new insight comes from, it could only have been produced by your brain while asleep.

  3. Absolutely -- we've experienced that many times. It's truly amazing how the fog sometimes just lifts after some deep sleep. Occasionally, a nap does it, too. We schedule plenty of time into our deadlines so we have time for that important piece of QA: sleep.


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