August 19, 2010

Not too complicated for words.

Jackson Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm (seen here) is an example of a complex painting that can be grasped with a few moments of contemplation, according to Terry Teachout in the Wall Street Journal. Pollock worked during the mid 20th century, when nature was assumed to be random. However, as Robert Taylor explained in a 2002 Scientific American article:

During the 1960s, scientists began to examine how natural systems, such as the weather, change with time. They found that these systems are not haphazard; instead, lurking underneath is a remarkably subtle form of order. They labeled this behavior “chaotic,” and a new scientific field called chaos theory grew up to explain nature’s dynamics. Then, in the 1970s, a new form of geometry emerged to describe the patterns that these chaotic processes left behind. Given the name “fractals” by their discoverer, Benoit Mandelbrot, the new forms looked nothing like traditional Euclidean shapes. In contrast to the smoothness of artificial lines, fractals consist of patterns that recur on finer and finer magnifications, building up shapes of immense complexity. Twenty-five years before their discovery in nature, Pollock was painting fractals.

The worlds of art and science also intersect in pharmaceutical research and development. Information generated during new product development takes on the texture of a Pollock painting as it drips and flows through the complex structure of a pharma company. Scientists in pharmaceutical R&D are finding that challenging problems encountered during early development can only be solved using fully-integrated, interdisciplinary communication.

For me, the beauty of Autumn Rhythm and its value in addressing the challenge of interdisciplinary collaboration is two-fold. First, upon quiet contemplation, the initial perception of randomness in the lines, blotches, and squiggles gives way to distinct patterns and themes. The smooth thin curves of black and the fluffy clouds of white seem to describe two of the many themes in the painting. Applied to drug development, these themes might represent the workflow of various functional areas in pharma R&D.

Second, by studying the fractal patterns in the painting at one level, one can gain insight into other, higher levels of patterns. By analogy, studying the communication between one set of stakeholders in R&D can tell you what information other stakeholders need for decision-making. This careful analysis can also provide feedback on the gaps in knowledge that must be addressed in order to move to the next level of synthesis and questioning.

Finding the order lurking beneath the chaos is the focus of several new projects here at Cognigen Corporation. Our challenge is to help our clients improve interdisciplinary communication and collaboration. The important thing is to look for the common patterns that emerge in communications with other scientists. These patterns hold the key to more efficient and relevant communications across stakeholders and ultimately to improved productivity of pharmaceutical research and development programs. Increasing the transparency, speed, and reliability of information flow among researchers in integrated project teams is a critical step in improving research productivity.

Be sure read the next Pharma of the Future? blog entry: But. . .my projects are special. If you missed the last posting, click on over to: A Drug Is Not a Jet Plane, or Is It?


Pollock J (American, 1912–1956). Autumn Rhythm (Number 30), 1950, enamel on canvas, 266.7 cm by 525.8 cm. ©1999 Pollock-Krasner Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Taylor RP. Order in Pollock’s chaos. Scientific American. 2002;287(6):116-121.

Teachout T. Too complicated for words: are our brains big enough to untangle modern art? Wall Street Journal. June 26, 2010. Accessed August 19, 2010.


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Benoit Mandelbrot, 85, died of cancer Oct. 14, 2010, in Cambridge MA. He was the father of fractals, a term he coined in 1975 to describe a new branch of geometry that seeks to make sense of irregular shapes and processes, from the infinite zigs and zags of a seacoast to erratic fluctuations on Wall Street. His death was announced by Yale University, where he became a mathematics professor in 1987 after a long career at IBM in New York.

Article in the LA Times:,0,1983430.story

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October 26th, 2010 at 2:12 PM