Updated: Mar 21, 2021
What comes to mind when the word ‘creativity’ is presented? – you may think of a novelist, a playwright, or an artist, but why doesn’t the word ‘scientist’ come to mind and what is the relationship between creativity and science? “Creativity is the creation of an idea or object that is both novel and useful” according to Robert DeHaan, a cell biologist. People tend to believe that scientific education is merely a collection of facts that must be memorised, rather than a creative, experimental process. Science does not only consist of blunt facts; it is a description of our universe, through models, that can be used to manipulate its properties into unthought of, revolutionary machines, whose creativity we are surrounded by daily.
Contrary to popular belief, science is the most adept subject for satisfying our intrinsically curious appetite to understand and create things from our universe. Each step of the scientific method uses aspects of creativity, from the research question, the tools used, the data collection methods to how that data is given meaning and interpreted in multiple ways. This process is used to produce new, exciting prospects. Dudley Herschbach used molecular beams to observe the results of colliding two beams of different molecules, reasoning that he would learn more about how quickly chemical reactions would occur when they collide. This was considered unfeasible and deemed ‘the lunatic fringe of chemistry’ but his creative approach led him to uncover such significant advances that, in 1986, he went on to win the Nobel Prize.
Clearly, out of the box thinking is essential. In 1543, Nicolaus Copernicus presented a heliocentric model of our solar system, one with the sun at the centre, rather than the standard geocentric model, which asserted that the earth was the centre of the universe; he did all this whilst having the same starting observations as everyone during his time. Copernicus’ work had a tremendous impact on human culture, leading people like Giordano Bruno in his 1584 work ‘On the Infinite, the Universe and the Worlds’ to reason that if stars are other suns, possibly with their own planets that may even contain life, the human race could no longer claim to be the pinnacle of creation that the universe was made for.
Research like the ‘Double Slit Experiment’ is a significant example of creative problem solving because it developed a complex method to demonstrate that light could behave both as a particle, when observed (measured), and as a wave, despite all at the time debating it to be one or the other. Scientists are always blind to the eventual conclusions that they will draw from their experiments, therefore they require creative foresight to adequately control extraneous variables.
Especially now, during the pandemic, creative foresight was essential in producing the oxford vaccine. By taking a common cold virus that infects chimpanzees, scientists engineered it to become a vital step in quickly producing a vaccine against the ongoing coronavirus, compared to other methods. To achieve this, Oxford scientists had to account for numerous possible outcomes, making a viral agent that could be genetically modified to train the immune system to attack whatever became necessary.
People separate creativity from science because it is commonly believed that we are soon approaching the limits of what we can feasibly achieve, but this is not the case; they think science has been reduced to making refinements to our understanding of minor things that do not affect our lives in a significant manner, rather than the massive advancements that have made all aspects of our past civilizations change. One potential illustration of the modern applications of our acquired knowledge is the development of the first generation of quantum computers. Many confuse this as being just a more powerful version of classical computers, but they operate by controlling particles like electrons and protons in a completely different way to regular computers. In the words of Oren Harari, a business professor, “the electric light did not come from the continuous improvement of candles;” it is a completely different technology.
The future of scientific discovery necessitates the creative drive of all those who strive for it.