Science as a Creative Endeavour — part 1

By Michael Edmonds 05/11/2010 10


In her recent talk at the New Zealand Association of Scientists conference, Professor Jacqueline Rowarth describes how science is an intensely creative endeavour. While most of us who work in science would agree with this observation it is one that, in my opinion, is not commonly held by the general public. So why is this so? Why are painters, poets, dramatists, and designers viewed as more creative than scientists? I believe there are two main reasons for this.

1)      It is easier for the average person to understand (at least superficially) what a painter, poet or artist does. The realm of the scientist (or engineer) is seen as complex and hard to comprehend.

2)      Most people associate the term creativity with that which is fun, frivolous or entertaining. Creativity does not seem to be commonly connected that which is practical or ‘useful’.

Most scientists know differently. Just as the artist creates a new work by applying his knowledge of colour, texture and shape, the electrical engineer creates a new device by applying his knowledge of electronics and the physical world. Just as the poet rearranges the words that are available to all into something with unique meaning and beauty, the medicinal chemist manipulates molecules to afford a previously unknown structure. The fact that the new molecule may cure a disease, does not detract from the creativity. Rather it could be considered to require greater creativity to produce a novel molecule while requiring it to have specific properties or applications.

Often when we communicate science to the public there is a tendency to focus on how important science is, how it contributes to economic growth and to technological and societal advancement. Occasionally we may talk about the beauty of science. But perhaps we should also be acknowledging, nay celebrating, science as an intensely creative endeavour.

In a future post I will consider how viewing science as a creative endeavour requires a change in how we support and fund science.


10 Responses to “Science as a Creative Endeavour — part 1”

  • As a physics teacher who also writes fiction and makes fabric art, I think that the designation of science as useful and art as non-useful is limiting to both. I’d like to hear more about what you think are the commonalities of creativity across all areas of endeavour.

    • Hi Gwyneth

      Have you listened to Jacqueline Rowarth’s talk.? She makes the claim that for every scientist she knows she can give examples of their creativity outside of their profession (e.g. interior design, gardening etc) and I can do the same with most of the scientists I know. I guess I see writing as my creative outlet – even when I’m writing non-fiction I am constantly playing with the words to see how they best fit together. I also, very occasionally, write poetry.
      Anyway enough about me – I think there are definite commonalities in creativity. I see creativity as the ability to take the same “starting materials” that are available to others but to put them all together in a different way. So for me lateral thinking and imagination are key to creativity. I think creativity can also involve seeing patterns that others cannot see.
      Other skills may factor into different types of creativity – I have zero musical talent because I am virtually tone deaf, but I have pretty good spatial abilities which allow me to visualise organic molecules in my head and this has helped me, creatively with organic synthesis.

  • Creativity is a huge part of the common ground shared by science and the humanities. (And yes, modern type casting of science and scientists misses this point – among others!) For some of the best contemporary thought about the form and function of this common creativity I cannot recommend highly enough the writing of Robert Root-Bernstein. Search with his name and also “synosia” for a wonderful synopsis! His web site has a collection of many other interesting essays and papers too.

  • “In a future post I will consider how viewing science as a creative endeavour requires a change in how we support and fund science.”

    How such a change would benefit science and scientists is a mystery to me.

    In today’s society, the arts are funded far less generously than the sciences. If scientists and engineers think they have it tough, they should consider the dire straits of their creative colleagues at symphony orchestras, ballets, theatres, literary publishing houses, and art museums.

    For example, the arts were the biggest loser in England’s recent spending review, facing a cut of 30%, which will devastate theatres, festivals, the performing arts, orchestras, and regional and local galleries. In contrast, England’s £4.6bn scientific research budget will be maintained for the next four years.

    Of course, I guess it’s always possible that in some lab somewhere, there lurks an individual who is the scientific equivalent of Lady GaGa or Pablo Picasso in terms of BOTH creativity and money-making potential. Let me know when you find her!

    • Emily, it is indeed unfortunate that when times get tough the arts are looked upon as expendable. The same happens for the more exciting areas of science.
      Science is a very creative endeavour, but as it has become viewed as a commodity or even a business it has had deadlines imposed on it, outcomes expected at certain times and the expectation that outcomes can be achieved with short term funding. As someone who appreciates the arts I think you will agree that all of these things tend to stifle creativity rather than enhance it.
      If one acknowledges that science is a creative endeavour then there is a case for longer term funding, more freedom to pursue interesting developments etc– approaches that have always enhanced creativity in the art world. Of course in recent times the art world has also suffered from bureaucratic hampering of creativity.

  • The pursuit of scientific discovery and dissemination of new knowledge is actually one of the most creative of human endeavors, because it requires a combination of many skill sets to perform this successfully. The creativity is bounded by high discipline and standards.

    To begin with, a scientist has to assimilate a huge amount of available data and come up with a series of hypotheses to account for these observations, which can be intellectually challenging and require high creativity. Then the scientist has to come up with a series of experiments that can conclusively test the various hypotheses. This may require ingenuity in the design and construction of the apparatus or equipment for data collection or deploying existing technologies in novel ways.

    Once the data is collected, analyzed and interpreted, the next challenge is to communicate the results effectively to the rest of the scientific community. Initially, this might be through delivery of an oral presentation at a conference or seminar, which requires developed oratory and graphic arts skills. Indeed, a good talk is much like a dramatic performance before an audience. Later, it is important to produce a scientific manuscript based on the research findings, and so the scientist must become a writer that can effectively tell a complex story in interesting, clear and compelling fashion. Here again, the scientist may also have to be a graphics or fine artist for the creation of the figures that accompany the manuscript. I can think of few professions where so many different types of creative talents are required in a single individual.

    • S. Pelech
      A nice description of the different levels of creativity in science
      On a personal level, it has always been the first part of what you describe which I have found the most exciting and creative part of science – making connections between different peoples ideas, developing my own hypotheses and testing them, pursuing unusual results and trying to work out what is going on.
      While I agree that the writing and presenting can be creative, I often find it more of a drag and only do it because it allows me to do more of the discovery.
      Even now, that I do less research than I used to I still enjoy reading other peoples research and trying to work out where it fits into the grand scheme of things.
      As many people find it difficult to be experts in all these different areas this is where collaborations come in handy.
      If I could have just found someone to write my papers for me while I got to play in the lab 🙂

  • Great discussion: Science is art – I have no doubt.

    I have the luxury of working with outstanding scientists that generate images so beautiful we regularly turn them in to works of art (on a creative commons licence here: http://bit.ly/6mm7t1)

    And through this, I find myself in continual dialogue with artists who are scientists and vice versa, about what we could do to promote this way of thinking.

    (full disclosure – I am a the PR at GE Healthcare that works with the company’s cellular imaging competition)