“The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious – the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science.” ― Albert Einstein
What do science and creativity have in common? And what can we learn from science about being creative in our lives?
Now this topic might be a bit of a surprise given the ideas we have developed about creativity and science.
We have often placed science in the realm of the logical. We have boxed in creativity in the realm of the esoteric and the non-tangible.
While this categorization has some truth to it, it may not surprise you that science has many delightful lessons to teach us about being creative.
What can science stories and insights show us about being creative?
“An expert is a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field.”― Niels Bohr
Let us go:
1. Unnecessary Science Redundancy or a Creative Improvisation?
“The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”― Neil deGrasse Tyson
When you study biology, you realize that often redundancy is inherent in the system.
There can be many genes cooperatively affecting a quantitative change on a trait for an organism.
Plants have duplicated genomes that have vast stretches of redundant DNA.
The DNA double helix itself is a wonderful example of a repeating structure. DNA is a helical molecule repeating itself for the sake of having a second non-coding copy. This is an insurance policy and a template for copy and duplication.
While nature is efficient, it would be an understatement to say that life usually has a backup plan.
This is important for the survival of an organism through redundancy and repeating.
How can we apply redundancy seen in science to creativity:
1. Develop redundancy in your creative process.
2. Try several approaches even if you are getting the desired effect in one of those.
3. Repeat and make your process redundant for the sake of creative mastery. This does not mean that your writing is more wordy and long. It means that you try out many different forms even if one is working well. This is a great way to build the creative muscle and get to the same results through different approaches. Even if that seems redundant.
4. Make many copies of your creative work if possible, and save the manuscript as a backup. Redundancy in saving your creative work is a must especially in this digital day and age.
2. Scientific Form or Structure and Creative Function
“Art is unquestionably one of the purest and highest elements in human happiness. It trains the mind through the eye, and the eye through the mind. As the sun colors flowers, so does art color life.”― John Lubbock, The Pleasures of Life
Form and function are inseparable in science.
Helicopter or winged seeds have a structure to fly down and disperse.
The bones of birds are hollow and light and remain aerodynamic to support flight.
The talons and the super-vision of hawks support the function of them being birds of prey.
The lesson for creativity:
1. Ask if your creative projects and the form that they are taking have a strong function associated with them.
2. Remember that when creative form meets great function, magic happens. Art meets value. Ask others on how to improve your creative form and function and take the constructive feedback.
3. The Science of Chaos Theory: The Law of Entropy and The Secret Undercurrent in Creativity
“According to Lamarck, there was a force—the ‘power of life’—that pushed organisms to become increasingly complex.”― Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
The second law of thermodynamics is the law of entropy.
Sadi Carnot, the french physicist was attempting to develop better steam engines. It was not that steam was foreign to scientists because it was already driving the spinning and weaving of cloth. Steam was also draining water from mines.
While steam could forge iron, the biggest issue was that engines were not energy efficient.
The political climate also pitted the English against the French for the immediate development of a better engine.
And France was losing the engine competition and Carnot decided that steam was the way to go.
Carnot discovered that motion happened when heat dropped from the hot boiler to the cooler parts like the condenser.
Thus he concluded that while independent of the steam itself, the energy efficiency depended on the temperature of the hottest and coldest parts. He wrote The Reflections on the Motive Power of Fire in 1824.
An example is that if you clean your room up with the input of energy, you are moving from chaos to order.
But if you leave the room as is for a while, dust will settle and things will start accumulating as you go through your days.
The disorder or entropy naturally increases and all you have to do is to take action to decrease it.
The same is with creativity and creative discomfort and entropy. There is a secret chaos or entropy element to the science of creativity.
How you harness the order and the disorder becomes vital for successful and sustainable creativity.
“Creativity is our only weapon against entropy” ― Dean Cavanagh
Lessons for creativity from the Law of disorder or entropy
1. Entropy is a natural phenomenon. Disorder is not bad, just misunderstood.
2. Given a lack of energy input, all systems including creative systems will go towards disorder.
3. As you build the creative project, you will have a period of great heat or activity and cold or no activity. Similar to the 2nd law, use the energy differential to encourage and inspire your work and not discourage yourself.
4. What creative systems do you have in place that move you from entropy or disorder to order?
5. Creative chaos and discomfort is not a state to avoid but a natural and desirable consequence of the creative process.
6. One of the big lessons from thermodynamics is that heat is lost in natural systems. For creativity, this loss of heat is through the loss of time and energy through busywork and distractions. Can you reduce some of these distractions?
7. Create systems that work by engaging the heating and cooling principle. Do your best work when the creative heat is warm in you and rest in creative cool periods.
8. Like the engine, use the right elements such as a heat source and a condenser for efficiency. In creativity, that could be the right elements and parts.
“You should never be surprised by or feel the need to explain why any physical system is in a high entropy state.” ― Brian Greene, The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality
4. Creativity’s Biggest Tool, the Scientific Process?
“Everything must be taken into account. If the fact will not fit the theory—let the theory go.”― Agatha Christie, The Mysterious Affair at Styles
In the classic 1964 review paper titled Strong Inference, Dr. John Platt emphasizes the importance of forming and testing alternate hypotheses.
Platt says that rapid exclusion of the ones that do not work and recycling this method can bring forth a rapid solution of a problem.
Platt says that this is no different from climbing a tree where you might have to make a decision to choose which branch to climb.
Do you go the left branch or the right one at a fork and so on? Platt rightly says that this Strong Inference is allowing certain fields in science such as particle physics and molecular biology to rapidly advance.
The method consists of 4 steps including developing alternate hypotheses and setting up one or many crucial experiments.
The experiments will have alternate outcomes that can corroborate or reject a hypothesis. The third step is to go ahead with the experiment to get a clear and clean result you can interpret. And finally step 4 is to recycle the process to refine the remaining choices by making sub-hypotheses.
Lessons for creativity:
1. Create several hypotheses or possible outcomes to your creative problem. This allows to solve the problem with different perspectives.
2. Set up several key tasks and projects that can speak or subtract from those hypotheses.
3. Exclude the ones that do not work and move on to the next creative hypothesis. Repeat this process and you can quickly assess what works for your creative problem solving situation and focus on that. Remember that not trying out different options and actions is what keeps people stuck in a creative rut or comfort zone.
4. Allow the scientific process to move your creative problem along.
Use the following:
- The Power of Observation.
- Set up critical experiments.
- Collect honest data about how your creative results and be objective.
- Publish or launch creative work often. Allow ideas to go from your creative thinking process and out into the world.
- Get feedback or peer review from other creatives and the public.
“Science, however, is never conducted as a popularity contest, but instead advances through testable, reproducible, and falsifiable theories.”― Michio Kaku
5. Science, Creativity and The Observer Effect
“Science no longer is in the position of observer of nature, but rather recognizes itself as part of the interplay between man and nature. The scientific method … changes and transforms its object: the procedure can no longer keep its distance from the object.” – Werner Heisenberg
Science and science fiction come together when you think of the idea that the very act of observation will change the phenomena that is being observed.
Thus this question of the change of observed reality by an observer has fascinated philosophers and physicists.
This may be somewhat explained by the idea that we all have different perspectives as observers and observe our versions of reality, however objective we may try to be.
When we measure something and report it, the act of assessment may change a very tiny detail of reality.
Examples include the pressure of a car tire. When you take the pressure, you have to let some air out thus changing the pressure a bit.
Lessons for Creativity:
1. Remember that we look at reality from the unique perspective of the observer.
2. You can change reality or the outcome of the creative project when you look at it from a different perspective.
3. You can use a change of perspective personas. You can use the set producer or the collaborator persona.
4. Do not be overly attached by the way you look at the world. Your audience may be looking at things in a different way. So understand the value of different perspectives and observer feedback.
6. The Story and Reality of Uncertainty: Where Science Meets Creativity
“I find the idea quite intolerable that an electron exposed to radiation should choose of its own free will not only its moment to jump off but its direction. In that case I would rather be a cobbler, or even an employee in a gaming house, than a physicist.”― Albert Einstein
Closely related to change and the observer effect is uncertainty in science.
Werner Heisenberg, one of the pioneers of Quantum Mechanics at Niels Bohr’s institute in Copenhagen is famous for the uncertainty principle.
Heisenberg received the Nobel prize in Physics in 1932. It shocked Heisenberg that matter, especially subatomic particles could change by the mere act of observation.
Also, electrons were small and light and clouds of tiny negative charge. Even a light radiation used to measure their position and nature could alter their position and their momentum.
The uncertainty principle states that we cannot measure the position and the momentum of a subatomic particle with a high degree of precision.
“[T]he atoms or elementary particles themselves are not real; they form a world of potentialities or possibilities rather than one of things or facts.”― Werner Heisenberg
Lessons for Creativity:
1. The position and the momentum of your creative project is uncertain like the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.
2. You can try to control for all outcomes but that might not be practical. A small curved ball in the form of a destabilizing event or setback can make your creative situation seem like it is spinning out of control.
3. The only way forward for creative success is to become all right with the inherent uncertainty of creativity.
4. Ask if you prepare for uncertainty. Are you all right with the creative risk involved in putting your work out there? This is one of the main reasons why people think twice before being creative. They hate being vulnerable and uncertain.
5. Train yourself to be all right with small uncertainty and small risks first before jumping right in and taking a huge creative risk.
6. Have other options such as alternate plans and ideas if your main ideas do not pan out.
7. Build in uncertainty in the planning of your short term goals and your long term plans.
“The Quantum Mechanic will fix your car, but it won’t work unless you observe him fixing it”― Dean Cavanagh
7. Kekulé’s Creative Dreams of Science
“Let us learn to dream, gentlemen, then perhaps we shall find the truth” – Friedrich August Kekulé
There have been many stories where inventions and discoveries have resulted from relaxed mind states. This typically happens when the conscious mind has given up on analysis.
The thinking mind switches to incubation or processing of information in a slower mind wave state.
We are able to switch on incubative and creative problem-solving modes when the brain gets a break.
German chemist, Friedrich Kekulé came up with the cyclical structure of benzene in a dream.
The story is that Kekulé had a vision of a snake devouring or grabbing its own tail. The dance of the snakes was a metaphor for the structure of benzene and made the concept clear for Kekulé.
Creative problem solvers understand the importance of space and gaps.
Artists understand the importance of the white space between strokes of color.
Musicians understand the importance of silence or gaps between notes.
Lessons for creativity:
1. Allow yourself to creative problem solve during sleep and dreams.
2. If you are not getting creative solutions, allow your brain to incubate over the problem over a good night’s sleep.
3. Have a pen and paper at hand on your bedside table should you wake up with the idea and solution.
4. It may sound counter-intuitive but sometimes letting go of thinking more about the problem might give you great solutions. This happens through the incubative thinking process.
5. Allow rest, relaxation, gaps, periods of silence and lots of high-quality sleep to enhance your creativity.
8. The Scientific or Creative Accidental Breakthrough
“I have been trying to point out that in our lives chance may have an astonishing influence and, if I may offer advice to the young laboratory worker, it would be this—never neglect an extraordinary appearance or happening. It may be—usually is, in fact—a false alarm that leads to nothing, but may on the other hand be the clue provided by fate to lead you to some important advance.” -Alexander Fleming
In 1928, Sir Alexander Fleming walked into his laboratory in London. Fleming was back after a two-week vacation with his family.
Fleming looked around at the cluttered benches with glassware of different sizes and bottles of chemicals.
Among the lab environment, he noticed that there was a stack of culture plates sitting in the corner in the sink.
He looked at his plates and observed that some of his plates got contaminated with a mold.
Normally, contaminated bacterial culture plates get tossed away since they serve no purpose for the experiment at hand.
But this was no ordinary contamination. The bacterial cultures developed halos or areas on no growth in the areas where the plates got contaminated with the mold.
The contaminating mold was a fungus called penicillin. And antibiotics were born through an accidental discovery.
In 1943, inventor James Wright of General Electric wanted to find a cheap alternative to rubber. The idea was to find an alternative for boots and tank treads at the time of the world war.
Wright’s experiment did not work but one could stretch and bounce it giving the scientists a lot of play time. Silly putty was officially born.
The Lessons for creativity:
1. You have ideas and projects that do not seem to work out but that does not mean that they have no value.
2. It is possible that one use of your innovations may have an application in a completely different field.
3. Be open to accidental creative discoveries and coincidental serendipitous creative breakthroughs.
9. You Are as Good as Your Scientific and Creative Tools
The early microscope watchers and microbe hunters did not find viruses and other sub-cellular details. It turns out that they were too small to view with the early compound microscopes they put together.
The early microscopes lacked the resolution power to resolve something that was smaller than what the optics permitted.
Only after the discovery of better and more advanced microscopes like the electron microscope and others that we could see greater detail.
Even the keenest scientist is only as good as the resolution of the tools that they use to get to the bottom of the problem.
Lessons for Creativity
1. What tools are you using in your craft?
2. Are you able to use the right tools so that you can use your creative skills to express your best?
3. Even with the best tools, are you pushing the boundary of what technical aspects that the tools bring to the table? For example, there is no use of having the most sophisticated SLR camera if all that you do is point and take pictures. In that case, you will need to learn the technical details of your tools better.
10. Newton’s Law Of Creative Motion: For Every Creative Action, There is an Equal and Opposite Reaction
“What we know is a drop, what we don’t know is an ocean.”― Isaac Newton
Newton’s third law fits well with life and creativity.
Lessons for creativity:
1. Take appropriate actions to get results.
2. If you take the same creative actions, you will get the same creative results.
3. For radical and different results, take action that you have never taken before. In other words, improvise in your creative pursuits.
4. The more you put in, the more you get out.
11. Stable Scientific Equilibrium and Creative Comfort Zones
“Physics depends on a universe infinitely centered on an equals sign.”― Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves
Le Chatelier’s principle states that a system opposes changes and stays In a state of stable equilibrium.
When there is a change in physical conditions such as temperature and pressure, a system in equilibrium will readjust till there is a new equilibrium reached.
A disturbed stable equilibrium shifts towards minimizing the disturbance or change.
Lessons for Creativity:
1. You can easily get into your stable equilibrium state in your creative process.
2. This state of comfort or equilibrium is usually resistant to change and is the creative rut.
3. When you have events, setbacks, failures that challenge this state, your tendency is to go back to the status quo. You resist all changes to your creative limits.
4. When you do change and improvise, the most likely response is to take the path of least resistance.
5. If you understand how creative equilibria and comfort zones work, you can push the envelope to become a greater creative force in your life.
6. Remember that most us seek comfort and would resist creative change if possible thus establishing a non-productive state of equilibrium.
12. Scientific Peer Review: Get Your Creative Idea Out into the world
“If I had my life to live over again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week.”― Charles Darwin, The Autobiography of Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin began putting together the puzzle pieces for his theory of Natural selection by the late 1830’s.
He had gone on his famous voyage aboard the HMS Beagle. He had seen the fascinating flora and fauna of the amazing Galapagos islands.
But Darwin did not feel like he was ready to present his idea to the public. He wanted to gather more evidence and make his theory even more sound before presenting it.
Meanwhile, another explorer and scientist by the name of Alfred Russell Wallace was busy formulating his own theory.
The two briefly corresponded over the years and even exchanged specimens. It was not until Wallace sent his work to Darwin in 1858 that he realized that both theories were quite similar.
Darwin being the gentleman wanted to give all the credit to Wallace.
But upon insistence by his peers like Lyell and Joseph Hooker and others that he agreed to share the credit with Wallace. In 1858, both the theories were presented to a meeting of the Linnean Society in 1858.
Darwin went on to publish the famous On the origin of Species while Wallace continued working in the field of biogeography.
Lessons for Creativity:
1. Do not wait to publish your creative work.
2. Immediate peer review is a great idea since someone else will can come up with the idea.
3. You do not need to perfect your creative work by adding refinements. Simply do the best and launch. Improvise later as you get feedback.
13. Eureka, the Creative Aha Moment
“Discovery consists of looking at the same thing as everyone else and thinking something different.”― Albert Szent-Györgyi
Did you think that great ideas in science happened by the famous aha moment. Or were they small and incremental changes over a period of time.
Notebooks of many famous scientists and engineers suggest incremental build up of small strokes of insight. This is in contrast to the proverbial and huge aha moment.
The most famous story of eureka insights is of Archimedes.
The story of King Heiro of Syracuse and Archimedes is a great example of eureka insights. King Heiro suspected that the goldsmith who made his pure gold crown had mixed in some silver as an impurity.
But the king had no way of testing if this was true. In fact, there was no known method in science to test the impurity reliably at that time.
Heiro entrusted finding a solution to this perplexing problem to Archimedes.
Archimedes was stepping into a bath when he noticed that the water level rose as he entered the water.
Archimedes joyfully leapt out of the bath after his stroke of insight. He is famously known to have run naked through the streets of Syracuse, Italy screaming “Eureka” or I have found it. And hence the legendary nature of the word eureka.
The truth according to many reports is quite different. Archimedes mulled the problem of how to measure the volume of an irregular liquid.
He immersed himself (no pun intended) in this problem for a while and had incremental insights. The king’s unique problem presented itself and finally crystallized the understanding in his mind.
The lesson for Creativity:
1. Small incremental insights are more important than aha moments.
2. Even though you may have aha moments, they do not usually happen without deep creative work for a period of time.
3. Forget about getting to the solution fast. It takes a lot of hard work and surrounding yourself with the creative field for a while before you become masterful.
14. Scientific Serendipity And Creative Hindsights
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” ― Steve Jobs
It turns out that many discoveries happened through a process of serendipity. Things happened by chance and the outcome was ultimately a beneficial one.
The discovery of the post-it notes in the company 3M is one such example.
Spencer Silver of 3M was trying to discover a super strong adhesive. But over the course of his research, Spencer Silver discovered an adhesive that was weak.
In fact, the new adhesive was so weak that he could apply and peel it off without leaving any messes or traces.
Now this would be the end of a story. A failed attempt. A chapter closed on a project.
But, four years later on a Sunday, Arthur Fry of 3M was singing in the church choir. Fry had a unique problem that morning.
Fry was trying to keep markers in place in the hymnal but they kept falling off. Fry brought an old project, the weak adhesive into a new problem, the falling markers.
He ended up coating the markers with Silver’s weak adhesive and tried those as markers.
The good news was that the markers were effective in keeping the place without falling off.
Additionally, he could also lift them off without damaging the pages.
Meet Post-it notes. One of the most innovative discoveries was due to connecting a problem with a prior failure.
Lessons for Creativity:
1. Make a database of all innovative inventions even if they have failed for a particular reason.
2. Connect an old project with a new problem.
3. Change the perspective and the context you view the new problem and through the eyes of older ideas and solutions.
4. Everything has value, even if it does not work in one context, it may be successful in another.
15. Even The Small Scientific and Creative Teams Matter
“If we worked on the assumption that what is accepted as true really is true, then there would be little hope for advance”-Orville Wright
The Wright brothers were the first to be successful in manned flight.
We all know who invented human flight but let us go deeper into the story. The brothers were bicycle mechanics who had many interests and hobbies.
In 1889, Orville Wright who was 18 years old began a printing press where his brother Wilbur joined him.
A few years later, they mastered the art of making bicycles. Bicycles had become a great new craze and the brothers wanted in.
Soon, the brothers turned to aviation. Here was a field that interested them immensely.
They studied and learned a great deal about aviation. Especially from all the people who could teach them like Octave Chanute and Otto Lilienthal.
This was an age and time when there were much better funded and experienced teams trying to crack the puzzle of flight including Samuel P Langley.
The Wright brothers built wind tunnels to test out miniature plane models and the principles of lift.
They also studied birds and the principles of natural flight. The rest as we know is history.
“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” ― Isaac Newton, The Correspondence Of Isaac Newton
Lessons for Creativity:
1. Even if you have a small and dedicated creative team, you can be successful. Think small advertisement company vs. a big and well-funded company.
2. Learn and study the field till you are masterful. You and your creative team can become great creative assets. Improvise with what you have learned. If you want to write, read a lot and improve your writing style.
3. Develop a variety of interests, hobbies, and experiences to lead into your unique creative niche.
4. Develop focus and deep practice in your creative niche.
5. Learn from the best in the field and stand and look further on the shoulders of giants or the experts in your creative field. Seek inspiration from the creative and innovative best. Even get creative mentors if possible. If not, study them, their methods and improvise to develop your own creative style.
This is the end of this post. I hope that you enjoyed reading it. Please let me know what resonated with you and which ideas and stories inspired you.
Dear Readers, would you like a copy of my latest free ebook? If you are already subscribed to the list, please send me a note here and I would be happy to send it to you. If you are not subscribed, sign up below to get a free download!