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Sorry for the absence…

Dear follower,

Thank you for signing up to receive updates about this blog, “From Tweet to Thesis”. I unfortunately have not kept up my side of the bargain and provided anything to be updated about. The last two years exactly have been my most stressful ever, with PhD thesis submission, viva and effectively rewriting with a view to resubmission. Now that I have resubmitted my thesis, and am awaiting oral examination, I am in a position to resume this blog again.

If you are a PhD student, please feel free to submit a post about the inspiration behind their research question, via the “Contribute” page. If you know a PhD student, please encourage someone else to contribute.  I am also interested in the origin of ideas in general.

If you are not actually a follower but a random reader who has stumbled upon this site serendipitously, then I hope you find something to make it worthwhile to stick around. 🙂

Kind regards,

Pravin Jeya

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In the beginning was the word…

This might sound egotistical but I have realised recently that the title of this blog, ‘From Tweet to Thesis’, points to the PhD as an image of divine creation (in the same way than humans are made in the image,of God). As I have probably said so many times before, a PhD thesis starts with a tweet in the imagination – a phrase that could be written in a limited number, say 140, of characters. In my case, that tweet would have been ‘How does law change behaviour, if nagging doesn’t work?’ The answer is physically embodied in my thesis, which is also a collection of words. One is words in my mind, the other is words on a page. But the whole point of this blog is that the tweet of the imagination is not the real beginning of the thesis, because it itself is the result of a process. The tweet can be broken down into smaller collections of words, and words themselves, and each word is themselves the result. As Hegel argues in his preface to The Phenomenology of Mind, my tweet of the imagination is merely a proposition. Trafford argues from his research into the nature of doctorateness that my submitted thesis will be a proposition too.

There had to therefore be a first word, from which all words came. And if there was a first word, there had to be a first speaker and thinker. According to the Gospel according to John, in the beginning was the Word. He used the Greek word, logos, which translates as ‘word’ in English but was used by Ancient Greeks to describe an underlying rationality. But John continued: the Word was with God and the Word was God. The first word was God and it was also with, that is, in the mind of, God. In other words, God is the first word and the underlying rationality of that word. In autopoietic fashion, God beget God. As alpha, he is at the beginning of the first word and, as omega, he is at the end of the word; that is, God will last for as long as God exists.  And when God spoke, as per Genesis, the word became embodied. For Christians, the word is Jesus Christ and the thesis or embodiment of him is The Bible. Therefore, there is a dialectic or conversation between God and everything he speaks into being; he speaks, it exists, and he then sits back and sees that it is good, before speaking again. Given the experiential beginnings of PhD theses, it could be argued that they – like everything else – are part of the continuing creative work of God. However, he does create things to have a mind of its own and they can choose how to act, so even though as he is writing his thesis, as any PhD student knows, the thesis often resists being shaped. In many ways, though, writing a PhD is like creating one’s own world, where one’s thesis is the prevailing value. (Just to be clear though, the PhD student is most definitely not God.)

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Martine Wright – Destiny calling

As I watched the Paralympics opening ceremony and the run-up on Channel 4, I couldn’t help but be moved by the story of Martine Wright, the GB sitting volleyball player. 

She strongly believed that losing her legs in the London 7/7 bombings, the day after we won the bid for 2012, was a part of her destiny, and not a freak accident. Her achievement at London 2012 is not only a consequence of her training, but also down to her overall experience, including sitting next to one of the suicide bombers.

Many of the contributors to this blog have written of how their PhD is not just about their research but is also the result of experiences. Elsewhere, I have blogged how an Olympic medal is like a PhD? Was your PhD part of your destiny?

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A PhD topic as one node in a network of ideas

I started this blog because I was interested in that tweet of the imagination, that moment of inspiration, that lead to a phd topic. But, according to Steve Johnson, there is no such thing as the famed Archimedes moment. In reality, The badly-named environment is a network of human and non-human entities in contradiction and in dialectic to each other. One person’s tiny idea is, as Hegel would say, the synthesis of thesis and antithesis. Those big ideas – one amazing example that Johnson cites is the development of GPS – are really the collision of smaller ideas, that occur through the communication of people with their network.  We talk about the apple falling on Isaac Newton’s head but the apple wouldn’t have fallen without gravity to pull it down, without Newton being in the right place and who knows what else happened from him to be there.  (Indeed, the ‘apple of the head’ is believed to be apocryphal, most likely developed to explain the moment that drew everything that Newton went through before together.) Catherine Malabou would have described this idea as le voir venir (to see what is coming). In this video, Johnson refers to a number of famous innovations and the network,behind them and explains why coffee shops are a part of writing a PhD. It turns out that they are a part of our societal DNA. But it also raises a good and pedantic question: why is the outcome of a PhD called a thesis when it should surely be a synthesis?

I have just realised that through this post and the previous one that this blog is  part of a larger network of researchers.

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Elizabeth Gilbert on the spiritual origin of creativity

Sometimes, being creative feels like an overflowing river bursting its banks, granting fruitfulness to the land. At other times, it can be like trying to get blood from a stone. A common piece of advice for being creative is the important of writing regularly – the more you do it, the easier it becomes. There is some truth in this. After all, that is how the brain works. Neuronal connections become stronger each time the connection is repeated. So of course, one would not want to dispute neurobiological research. But I can testify to the argument of writer Elizabeth Gilbert, speaking at TED, that creativity is not the result of a purely mechanical process but something that is given to us from a force larger than ourselves.

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Where did your “Archimedes moment” come from?

I started this blog because I was interested to in the “Archimedes moment” of PhD topics. It was my hypothesis that there was a connection between a PhD topic and the ‘environment’ of the researcher. The “Archimedes moment” – that moment of insight or aha or Eureka – was a moment of what Catherine Malabou calls le voir venir, where the researcher consciously or subconsciously looks back to what went before and then forwards to what is to come. Indeed, a number of contributors to this blog have often commented how the very act of writing a post was a cathartic process of making sense.

But one thing I have noticed during the course of my PhD is that there has not been just one moment of insight, there have been a whole series of them. I noticed I would have them at the oddest times – travelling on the bus or train, in church, watching TV and always when I was not thinking necessarily thinking about my PhD. In fact, sometimes I even had them while procrastinating. Perhaps the best example is my actual theoretical reading.  Sometimes, I would start reading a philosophical book and it makes no sense whatsoever so I put it to one side and get on with something else. I would then keep putting off going back to that book. But eventually I do and it makes perfect sense. It’s almost as if I had to do other things first, read other things first, come to certain points in my thinking first, before my brain was ready to process a particular philosophical text.

On the one hand, I would put this process of insight after preparation down to God. He knew, in his omniscience, what I needed to do and in what order; he had his teaching programme all mapped out, and if I tried to depart from it (unknowingly) it wouldn’t make sense. But then I wondered, how does he do that exactly? According to Jonah Lehrer, it’s done through the very structure of the human brain.

It turns out that there is no such thing as right-brained or left-brained people. Well, there are, but those people are suffering from brain damage. But the healthy person uses both sides of the brain. The left side focus on individual detail and the literal meaning of words and the right side focus on connections, underlying order, connotation and so on. We are physically reading or looking at some data, our brain will use the left side as far as possible to understand it but eventually it reaches an impasse where what we are looking at does not make sense. We give up in frustration and decide to do something else. But that’s when our right side kicks in. Having failed to understand on the surface, the brain goes under the covers and looks underneath the data. That’s when we get insight. It works when we are not actually ‘working’ because it is only reviewing the work that has already been done.  I’m going to hazard a guess but that must be why I’ve woken up in the middle of the night with a solution.

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