Creativity and science

Somebody said something rather odd the other day. It was in response to the observation that I know a great many scientists and mathematicians who are also amateur photographers. Their suggestion was that photography was a good way to express one’s creative side.

Now, there are a few dozen photographs in my collection that I’m particularly happy with. They are technically competent and have a modicum of aesthetic value. But if they demonstrate creativity is is of the most trivial variety, and in pitiful quanta. That is not to say that photography can not be creative; only that amateur photographers rarely display any significant quantity of it. We create images that have been created before, follow formulas and fashions, and imitate each other’s styles. And so what. Amateur anything — painting, poetry, music and sport — is about having fun, not about creating world changing work.

Science, on the other hand, has everything to do with creativity. A scientist’s job is to replace a package of ignorance with a package of knowledge. Scientists do not create facts — a task so simple that it is left to the science-fiction writers. Rather, the facts are already there, waiting to be discovered. The task of the scientist is to create the hypothesis — to ask the question so out-there that nobody has ever thought to ask it before — and to create the experiment that will test it.

The achievement of Watson and Crick — determining the structure of DNA — is often derided by those who rightly wish to celebrate the achievements of Rosalind Franklin. Franklin performed many of the difficult experiments whose results were crucial for determining the structure of DNA. According to some, Franklin was doing clever physics and chemistry while Watson and Crick were playing around with toy molecules. Watson and Crick did eventually get the structure by building a model, with a small amount of trial and error involved.

In reality, Watson and Crick got to the model by being creative. They created ideas and hypotheses from data such as x-ray crystallography and knowledge like nucleotide ratios and properties. They had the creative idea to have the toy molecules built and to cut out the tedious and time consuming experimental work that would be required to fill the remaining gaps by simply trying out variations until they found the one that worked.

Nobelist Harry Kroto does not feel like a great scientist because he doesn’t know everything. He enjoys science, but thinks that all he is any good at isĀ designing logos and posters. Harry: your designs are, ah… nice. But yourscience is where you are creative. And that is why you are a great scientist.

Bugger knowing everything. What fun would science be then?

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