Traversing the Razor: On Creativity

 As well as being a research scientist, I am also an artist of the photographic variety. I tend towards either introspective, slightly abstract studies of everyday things, or to the photography of models in fashion. Both of those sit far apart from my scientific work which concerns rocks – I am a geologist. My photography, however, is not the subject of today’s essay.

Frequently, people make the mistaken claim that art is where creativity appears and that science is where concrete, logical thinking occurs. Let’s step back a moment and look at that noun: Creativity. A simple dictionary definition has it meaning the use of the mind to create something. It is a word that is associated with the arts, but as I’m sure you might appreciate, science has created many things itself. It seems that the word people use in science and technology is ‘innovation’; a far more boring word that sounds like it is straight out of a corporate handbook.

All the most brilliant of scientific discoveries have involved creativity of exactly the same sort that powers the finest works of art. The source of this power is the connection of seemingly unrelated ideas to produce a cohesive, new concept. That’s it, there. Simple really. Now go out and make some amazing scientific discoveries, because I’ve just given you the secret!

‘Difficulty’ is perhaps a word you don’t associate with creativity. The picture many have of the life of an artist is wearing hipster clothes, smoking pot and occasionally applying paint to canvas in ‘moments of artistic brilliance’, before going to the pub. Okay, this might be a stereotype of a small portion of the artistic community (choice of fashion notwithstanding). The great art, though, comes through connecting the great themes of the human struggle with the objects of our daily lives to tell a story. If you’ve ever tried to write a story, or paint a picture, or pen a song or poem, you’ll know that creating these subtle connections is hard to do at the best of times, and really hard to do well, which is why skilled artists are so amazing. But the bringing together of these different elements to create a new thing is the backbone of the process, and the skilled artist is a genius in this domain.

In science, it is no different. The solutions to many of science’s big problems have come through a creative process nearly identical to the artist’s process. The key has been to step out from the constraints of a particular field’s ideas and to bring in external ideas. The chemist finds the answer through the thinking of a physicist; the geologist through the work of the US Department of Defense’s need to find submarines (true story – the Plate Tectonics nut was cracked this way). It is this bird’s eye view, and an openness to new ideas, that allows the mind to make connections that may lead to the next discovery. This is why many truly creative scientists have historically belonged to the ‘lunatic fringe’ of science – their ideas are ‘out there’.

The difference though, between the creative genius of the scientist and of the artist is that the scientist then has to create a theory that generates testable hypotheses. These hypotheses then require support in order that the crazy ideas become not so crazy. The works of scientific beauty that exist today are therefore not only some of the most useful components of our society; they are also monuments to creativity. Just like important works of art, they deserve celebration in museums, the media, and in general society.