Commentary and Opinion

MAURER: Exercise your creative muscle

June 26, 2010

Mickey MaurerCousin David called the other day with some exciting news. David is moving from his position as professor of physics at the University of Illinois to one at the University of Washington associated with the Center for Experimental Nuclear Physics and Astrophysics.

David and I enjoy sharing riddles. His latest offering was posed by one of his graduate students to a number of highly intelligent scientists in David’s laboratory, many of whom are having difficulty with the solution. David thinks it’s because intelligence and creativity are not necessarily correlative. He should know.

David is an experimental nuclear physicist whose research probes the fundamental nature of matter at very small, distinct scales. He has been cited as a remarkably creative innovator. David’s latest initiative studies particles called muons. These are unstable subatomic particles similar to electrons but about 200 times as heavy. The research is focused on a quantum property of the muon known as its magnetic moment.

According to a May 22 article in New Scientist, muons and their lighter cousins, electrons, can be thought of as spinning balls of charge that generate a tiny magnetic field—the magnetic moment. Muons decay nearly 200,000 times faster than you can blink your eye, so a special trick is needed to measure their magnetic moment. It comes courtesy of relativity. Time slows down for muons if you accelerate them to close to the speed of light, ensuring that they stay intact long enough to be studied. If you don’t understand what I just said, it really doesn’t matter.

Here is the riddle:

One hundred prisoners are locked in solitary cells. Each cell is windowless and soundproof. There is a central living room with one light bulb; the bulb is initially off. No prisoner can see the light bulb from his or her own cell. Each day, the warden picks a prisoner at random (some might be chosen more than once), and that prisoner visits the central living room. At the end of the day, the prisoner is returned to his cell. While in the living room, the prisoner can toggle the bulb if he or she wishes. Also, the prisoner has the option of asserting the claim that all 100 prisoners have been to the living room. If this assertion is false (that is, some prisoners still haven’t been to the living room), all 100 prisoners will be shot for their stupidity. However, if it is true, all prisoners are set free and inducted into MENSA, since the world can always use more smart people. Thus, the assertion should only be made if the prisoner is 100 percent certain of its validity.

Before this whole procedure begins, the prisoners are allowed to get together in the courtyard to discuss a plan. What is the optimal plan they can agree on, so that, eventually, someone will make a correct assertion?

According to David, creativity, like muscle tone, must be exercised if one is to increase it. We need to seize opportunities to think creatively. Challenging riddles like the one above interrupt the normal routine and rev up our brains.

Many years ago in this column, I proposed a riddle of my own. Why is there not a greater correlation between intelligence and success in business? Sometimes the answer is obvious. We all know bright people who do not commit the time and energy necessary for success. In other cases, perhaps the low correlation is due to the presence of many other factors: focus, nerve and luck to name a few.

David and I agree that, whether in the office or in the physics lab, intelligence is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition to assure success. Add creativity and chances for success are greatly enhanced. Without it, you may fare no better than the condemned men in David’s riddle. If you have any questions with regard to the riddle or wish to offer a solution, e-mail me at the address below.•


Maurer is a shareholder in IBJ Corp., which owns Indianapolis Business Journal.  His column appears every other week. To comment on this column, send e-mail to



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