Creativity in Science

Explore the role of creativity in science

creativity in science

Great art and great science have a link, a link that begins deep within curious minds, a link that involves combining thoughts, stirring memories, perceiving sensations, creating new ideas, and producing original products.

This “link” is called creative imagination.

At the middle of the last century, linking creativity and science seemed odd, not especially practical - even comical. Science was considered a rational study of observable facts and phenomena, and creativity seemed more mystical and transcendent.

Yet after psychologists started investigating creativity, and research started to gain traction, the concept of creative patterns of thought across all disciplines – not just artistic expression – began to seem plausible. The idea that certain creative thought patterns lend themselves to certain disciplines began to intrigue and perplex researchers. More intriguing was the idea that creative thought patterns influenced rational and logical thought processes.

A great part of that intrigue started after researchers began looking at the career and success of many important 20th scientists, scientists who discovered the theory of relativity, quantum theory, superconductivity, nuclear power, gene mapping, radioactivity, nuclear power, genetic engineering – to name only a few.

These scientific discoveries and inventions took the world as we knew it, and transformed it into the most scientifically and technically advanced era in history.

Einstein breaks scientific stereotype

Clearly, one of the most celebrated scientists of the last century was Albert Einstein, credited for founding the era of modern physics, and discovering the theory of relativity. In 1921 he won the Nobel Prize, resulting in continuous attention from journalists, other scientists, and the public until the end of his life in 1955.

Scientific Breakthroughs Rely on Peers

Psychologist Dean Keith Simonton writes in the book “Creativity in Science: Chance, Logic, Genius, and Zeitgeist,” that many will read Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” and understand at least some of the logic, plot, and character development. Individuals also listen to symphonies and feel moved, or receive satisfaction from paintings, dance, or sculpture.

“In contrast, it would be rare to find a layperson who could make any sense of [Newton’s] “Principia Mathematica,” Simonton states.

In other words, many individuals would enjoy an article in The New Yorker, and not get anything out of an article in the Journal of Experimental and Theoretical Physics.

Yet, Simonton said that products or outcomes considered “major” in the scientific community are those that high-impact scientific journals publish. Papers submitted to these journals go through an academically rigorous peer-review process, and are judged “creative” if they are:

  1. original and novel (not having been seen before) in their domain(s); and
  2. meet the standards of logic and fact for that particular domain(s).

A further test for a truly significant scientific breakthrough is how many times a published scientific journal article gets cited in subsequent articles.

In December 1999, Time Magazine named him “Person of the Century,” an amazing achievement given the unprecedented explosion of 20th century knowledge from not only scientists, but also from those working in so many other disciplines.

One thing that made Einstein so irresistible – and irrepressible - was the fact that he personified the opposite of the scientific stereotype.

As a youth, he showed no remarkable gifts or abilities, and some have even reported early struggles with talking and reading. (In recent publications, others have disputed those claims.)

Einstein’s image shows a man that looks unconventional, perhaps a bit economically on the skids. He never wore ties or pressed shirts or white lab coats. He played the violin, and he loved long solitary days to just sit and think. He wore sweatshirts and shabby sweaters, his long unruly hair and mustache, gray and wiry in his later years, always looked as if it needed combing.

He disdained and didn’t trust authority figures, and as a youth and even into his adult years became known as a rebel. He was a romantic and a flirt, divorced his first wife and angered his second with his romantic dalliances.

If this sounds more like an artist than scientist, perhaps that’s what gave creativity researchers – and scientists - reason to pause. And his interviews and writings supported his unorthodox persona.

In a 1929 interview, a journalist questioned him about whether his scientific discoveries resulted from inspiration or intuition. His answer was that he used both. However, he then added:

“I'm enough of an artist to draw freely on my imagination, which I think is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world."

This was indeed a revolutionary statement for 1929. Up until the 1950s, most researchers believed that intelligence and creativity were highly correlated. During the 1950s and 1960s, however, psychologists started to debunk the high- intelligence, high-creativity link. Tests emerged that showed individuals could score high on creativity and average on IQ, and proceed to lead highly creative and successful careers. (see Measuring Creativity).

But after establishing that creative thought does differ from other types of thought, researchers started investigating different forms of creativity, such as creativity in science as compared to creativity in the arts. Even though creativity is required in both domains, the fact remains that science is significantly different from art. It’s a different domain, (see General Creativity vs. Domain-Specific Creativity) or discipline, requiring a completely separate set of skills and talents.

Creativity researchers now take numerous approaches to studying creativity in science, usually focusing on either the process, the personal attributes of eminent scientists, the creative product or outcome produced – or a combination of all factors. They call the “P’s” of creativity research the six P’s, adding persuasion, place, and potential to the mix. (see the six “P’s” of creativity).

Cognitive complexity

But many experts who study scientific thought as well as creativity in science believe in another essential aspect to this complex topic. Many books, papers, and essays have documented the unique ability of creative scientists to assimilate knowledge from many different disciplines in order to produce highly original products.

Science vs. Technology

Science “discovers” while technology “invents,” according to Antonio Zichichi in his book “Creativity in Science.”

Zichichi of the Academy of Sciences and University of Bologna, Italy, states that a clear distinction must be made between science and technology.

Science concerns the discovery of the Fundamental Laws of Science, such as the four laws of thermodynamics, Newton’s law of universal gravitation, and Kepler’s three laws of planetary motion. Laws are considered facts of the universe, unless disproved by new discoveries of facts or evidence overturning the facts.

Technology bases its inventions on the Fundamental Laws of Science. Sometimes inventions precede the discovery of these Laws, however. For instance, the Steam Machine was invented before the discovery of Thermodynamics; however after the discovery of Thermodynamics, scientists fully understood this invention, Zichichi states.

Technological invention means putting together new ideas in original ways, using different “structures” or “pieces” and uses them in a way no one has ever attempted. Yet, to “invent” doesn’t necessarily mean to understand how the invention works, as the steam invention exemplified.

Creativity is required in both science discovery and technological invention. “Imagination in science corresponds to thinking of a new principle, of a new phenomenon, of a new law, and to imagining a new experiment,” Zichichi states.

Historian J. Rogers Hollingsworth of the University of Wisconsin-Madison calls this skill “high cognitive complexity,” publishing his analysis of scientific creativity in Knowledge, Communication, and Creativity.

Describing this talent, he stated that “scientists having high levels of cognitive complexity tend to internalize multiple fields of science and have greater capacity to observe and understand the connectivity among phenomena in multiple fields of science. They tend to bring ideas from one field of knowledge into another field.”

He wrote in “High Cognitive Complexity and the Making of Major Scientific Discoveries,” that he investigated 291 major scientific discoveries of the 1900s, and became intrigued that all the scientists behind these breakthroughs exhibited high cognitive complexity. His analysis attempted to understand what set these eminent scientists apart from other scientists.

For instance, the chemist Irène Joliot-Curie, awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935 with her husband Frédéric Joliot, clearly set herself apart from other scientists. Also, chemist Gertrude Elion received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1988, and John Bardeen received the Nobel Prize twice, first in 1956 for the invention of the transistor, then in 1972 for the theory of superconductivity.

What set these scientists apart from others who seemingly have a high degree of passion for their scientific fields?

Hollingsworth argued that most of the scientists who made the century’s 291 major discoveries “internalized a great deal of scientific diversity.” And this ability to “internalize” probably came from the diversity of their sociocultural backgrounds.

Original Combination: Neuroscience and Literary Fiction

ashok hegde

Ashok N. Hegde, PhD, is a neuroscientist and a creative writer. During his undergraduate days of pursuing a bachelor’s of science in agricultural studies, he published his first story called “The Strangers of Andromeda.”

Read more about neuroscience, literary fiction and an interview with Ashok N. Hegde ...

For example, Irène Joliot-Curie lived and operated in two diverse cultures, as the daughter of a Polish-born mother, also a Nobel laureate, and a French- born Nobel laureate father, Pierre Curie. She had a Polish governess who spoke Polish to her, but her French grandfather on her father’s side also influenced her. He disdained the Catholic church, which was the predominant cultural influence of Curie’s upbringing.

Her friends attended strict French schools, but Curie received a private education. Hollingsworth states that her ability to socialize and live in these disparate worlds contributed to her high cognitive ability.

Gertrude Elion also had to internalize her Jewish background while growing up in America as the daughter of immigrants. Additionally, she entered a male-dominated profession – another culture to assimilate. Hence, the requirement to function within multiple cultures developed her skill for high cognitive complexity.

John Bardeen also learned to live as an “outsider,” having been promoted in grade school to a higher grade. He has stated that learning with these older students presented a special challenge because he couldn’t connect with them, or establish friendships.

“Because such an individual internalizes multiple cultures, he/she has the potential to develop a wider horizon, a keener intelligence, a more detached and rational viewpoint – the ingredients of a creative person,” Hollingsworth postulates.

Yet some of the eminent scientists Hollingsworth studied didn’t come from especially diverse backgrounds that required internalizing, or required only a minimal amount. Hollingsworth noted that those who developed avid avocations, especially in the arts, also displayed highly complex cognitions similar to the more culturally diverse scientists.

Hollingsworth lists numerous scientists with hobbies in the visual arts, writing, music, drama, architecture and woodworking.

These scientists reported that their avocations aided their scientific accomplishments. Einstein attributed his intuition to his music, and his son reported that when his father appeared at a roadblock or dead end, he would “take refuge in music, and that would usually resolve all difficulties.”

In addition to diverse backgrounds and avocations in the arts, Hollingsworth noted that individuals with high cognitive complexity also display the following traits:

  • They are more tolerant of ambiguity;
  • They are more comfortable not only with new findings but even with contradictory findings;
  • They have a greater ability to observe the world in terms of gray rather than in terms of black and white;
  • They report that learning new things and moving into new areas is like play;
  • They tend to be more intuitive;
  • They have a high degree of spontaneity in their thinking;
  • They enjoy exploring uncertainty and engaging in high- risk research rather than working in areas which are already well understood.

Creativity in science is complex, but it’s this complexity that makes it one of the most interesting areas of psychological research today. Science presents a different challenge than studying the arts, for instance, but is as important as any other domain. Research in this area is often applied to educational fields, as well as to business and technology-based industries.

If you are interested in studying creativity in science from a psychological perspective, there are many fields available for study, including Human Growth and Development, Cognitive Psychology, Social Psychology, Educational Psychology, and Media Psychology.

To become a researcher in psychology, usually a PhD is required. However, some schools offer certificates in creativity studies. Contact schools that offer psychology programs for more information.

The Chinese Creativity Crisis

chinese flay

When Americans discuss their educational system, and what they perceive is lacking, they often point to the Chinese and the media coverage of their preeminence in math and the sciences.

But the debate over education is strongly supported by international studies, and the test scores of Chinese students.

In 2010, for example, the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development gave 15-year-old students in 65 countries a test called PISA, or the Program for International Student Assessment.

Chinese students came out first in math, science and reading while U.S. students came out 23rd or 24th in most subjects.

Blogs, pundits, and those crying for educational reform in this country hit the media hard with their commentaries on the failing quality of the current system. Americans are getting beat – badly – at least in terms of standardized test scores, and that sets off alarms among policymakers, the U.S. business community, and high-ranking governments officials.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told the New York Times that Americans were being “out-educated.”

But many others sounded a different note – even the Chinese themselves. For several years, those in China have been calling for educational reform. They cite a system lacking in something that keeps America at the forefront of innovation and ingenuity – an ingredient essential to novelty, invention, and economic development. Many call that magic ingredient creativity.

Zhang Xin, chief executive officer of SOHO China, and one of China’s richest women, told Charlie Rose in a July 2011 interview that in China “the quality of education in China is still not there.”

This CEO of the biggest real estate developer in China said that many talk of how China produces so many engineers. Yet, she said, the system still doesn’t allow for many “talents” to become nurtured or educated.

New York Times reporter Nicolas D. Kristoff wrote about this paradox in the NYT editorial “China’s Winning Schools?” He wrote that the Chinese are “scathing” in their appraisal of their system, saying that it “kills independent thought and creativity.”

They are envious of the American system that promotes self-reliance, and makes education exciting and not just a “chore,” he wrote.

The solution for both systems seems incomprehensible. Yet perhaps it’s a balanced combination of both systems that promises to produce the most educated populace yet. Developing nations take note.

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