What images does science spring to mind for you?
A puzzle to be put together to lead to a logical and passion-less conclusion?
A cold process that requires no emotion to be thought through?
I have the distinct feeling that for most people, especially those that don’t do science might actually feel that way about it. Science and the arts have come to be seen as two very different fields almost like polar opposites, where arts and other creative ventures, such as acting, music, dancing and painting are seen as pursuits which exude passion, warmth and creativity. Articles such as 18 things that highly creative people do differently generally invest in a stereotype that only an artist can have creativity, but not a scientist. (Ask any scientist if they do any of those 18! I do the majority of them).
It’s not hard to see where this stereotype might come from. More often than not, science is communicated to the public by way of dry facts and figures. Results of experiments are regurgitated in as much the same way that science is often taught in schools (Office of Science and Technology, and Wellcome Trust, 2000, Science and the Public). This will certainly leave the public with a nasty aftertaste of black and white facts, but with nothing to reveal about the process of doing science itself.
For centuries scientific progress has always been made because nature and its assumptions have either been questioned or criticised. Whenever an experiment leads to a new discovery about the world, this results in a change of how we see the world and the laws that operate it. In Thomas Kuhn’s 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, these discoveries are anomalies that do not fit with the previous world view. In other words, they go against nature and its assumptions. What then follows is repeated experimental work and analysis to question the existence of this anomaly. So can creativity lie within this procedure? And where is it?
As DeHaan (2011) writes in Science, creativity is hard to define. It is complex, abstract and multi-layered, but it is the root of innovative thinking. A creative insight, as DeHaan explains, is a “sudden, unexpected recognition of concepts. . . in a new relation not previously seen” (pg1499). This conjures up images of scientists in their ‘eureka’ moment: Newton and his apple or Archimedes and his bath. To achieve this creative insight, what becomes clear is that it is necessary to un-focus thoughts, go beyond the obvious and think of new re-structured ways to approach problems. Nothing can illustrate this better when Sheldon Cooper decides to take what he considers a “mundane” job in the Big Bang Theory episode “The Einstein Approximation” [Season 3, Episode 14]. By distracting himself with this “mundane” job, he is placing his focus elsewhere so he can finally solve his physics bugbear equation. This un-focusing, as Kuhn notes, is a requisite to observing anomalies and confirming them. Such inspiration leads to apparatus being re-designed, old ideas being revised, new ones coming out, or in the case of Sheldon Cooper, his discovery based on the scatter pattern of the plates he dropped on the floor of the Cheesecake Factory!
Put your hand up if you have heard of the chemists Friedrich Kekulé (1829-1896) or Dmitry Mendeleev (1834-1907). No? Well these two made some big discoveries in chemistry. Kekulé proposed the structure of benzene, but could not figure how the different carbon atoms were bound together, until he was fast asleep! Mendeleev was trying to sort and organise all the elements into an ordered list. He worked on this without sleeping for three days and nights, but still could not figure it out. Eventually he did, while he was also sleeping. Both of these chemists had dreams that enabled them to solve their analytical problems. Kekulé dreamt of an ouroboros; the ancient symbol with a snake eating its own tail. Upon waking he could clearly see that carbon atoms in benzene were arranged in a circular fashion. Mendeleev dreamt of the Periodic Table transforming chemistry in a big way. It has been noted that sleeping, or rather REM (rapid eye movement, not the band!) has been identified as crucial to the creative process and problem solving (Cai et al, 2009). This therefore makes these two discoveries highly creative indeed.
But there are also areas where creativity and science cross over in unusual ways. The journal Science has their competition “Dance your PhD” and there are numerous photography and film competitions. The New Scientist in particular hosts Culture Lab “where books, arts and science collide.” Nothing is off limits when thinking of new ways to integrate creativity into science.
It thus becomes clear that creativity does reside within science and is essential to its process; the wealth of discoveries can only prove that. The problem is that this creative method starts to be employed much later in academic education, namely at university level. Undertaking a PhD is the point where individuals are encouraged to think creatively and outside the box. It is designed for this purpose: to train the next generation to think creatively about scientific problems. Unfortunately this side of science is often not revealed to the public. Maybe the future of public engagement of science should show this creative process as well as the conclusions that arise from it. Once people begin to understand what truly lies beneath science, it can then be appreciated as a creatively rich field filled with the glory of past achievements.