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.