Atypical Knowledge and Scientific Impact


Wednesdays@NICO Seminar, Noon, February 20, 2013, Chambers Hall, Lower Level

Prof. Brian Uzzi, Northwestern University


Often purported but rarely tested is the claim is that science is spurred on when atypical ideas are united, inspiring fresh thinking and new approaches to problems. The link between atypical knowledge and creativity suggests that uncommon combinations of knowledge would be relished over convention in scientific discovery.  Nonetheless, many scientific ideas and innovations intentionally build in convention, rather than, remove it.   Electric cars are made noisier to be more like traditional autos, the blue jean was designed with a familiar pocket watch pocket to look like normal pants, and e-books retain page numbers to correspond to physical books.  Great scientific works can also display intentional conventionality.  Darwin’s Origin of Species devoted over 80% of the book to conventional, well-accepted knowledge of the selective breeding of dogs, cattle, and birds.   In popular coinage, an “idea ahead of its time” captures the risk scientific ideas appear to face when they include knowledge too distant from conventional beliefs.  From this viewpoint, the balance between extending science with atypical combinations of knowledge and embedding science in familiar conventional knowledge is critical to the link between innovativeness and impact.  However, little is known about the composition of this balance or how scientists can achieve it.  In this study, we examine the composition of atypical and conventional knowledge in over 30 million scientific papers, the largest known repository of scientific papers.  We find nearly universal patterns in science’s largest fields – Hard Sciences, Social Sciences, and Arts and Humanities – that connect atypical knowledge and conventional knowledge with patterns of scientific impact and the role of solo and team based collaborations in reaching the virtuous mix of atypical and conventional knowledge and doing the most with it. 


Brian Uzzi is a globally recognized scientist, teacher, consultant and speaker on leadership, social networks, and new media. He holds the Richard L. Thomas Distinguished Professor of Leadership at the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University. He also co-directs NICO, the Northwestern University Institute on Complex Systems, and holds professorships in Sociology and the McCormick School of Engineering. He has lectured and advised companies and governments around the world and been on the faculties of INSEAD, University of Chicago, and Harvard University. In 2007-2008, he was on the faculty of the University of California at Berkeley where he was the Warren E. and Carol Spieker Professor of Leadership.