How A Burglar Changed Gravity

The New York Times has an interesting article about a new approach to understanding gravity led by physicist Erik Verlinde. Rather than treating gravity as a separate fundamental force, it can be seen as a consequence of the laws of thermodynamics. Basically, gravitational attraction is the result of the universe's natural tendency toward disorder, or entropy. This makes no sense to me, since I think of gravity as an ordering force, coalescing mass and maintaining the proximity of objects in space. But apparently I'm in good company -- the idea is pretty controversial among scientists.

Besides its radical nature, however, what I found interesting was how Verlinde came up with the idea:

That inspiration came to him courtesy of a thief.

As he was about to go home from a vacation in the south of France last summer, a thief broke into his room and stole his laptop, his keys, his passport, everything. “I had to stay a week longer,” he said, “I got this idea.”

Up the beach, his brother got a series of e-mail messages first saying that he had to stay longer, then that he had a new idea and finally, on the third day, that he knew how to derive Newton’s laws from first principles, at which point Herman recalled thinking, “What’s going on here? What has he been drinking?”

When they talked the next day it all made more sense, at least to Herman. “It’s interesting,” Herman said, “how having to change plans can lead to different thoughts.”

So the next time you're forced to change plans, or otherwise bumped off your routine, it may be an opportunity for a breakthrough idea. Try to create some time and space for creativity. And be sure to capture any imaginative sparks so they can flash over later. For more on routines and creativity, see this interesting post from Jack Cheng.