The Creativity of Science

When you ask someone to talk about creativity, it’s a pretty good bet that there’s a limited range of subjects they'll bring up. They’ll talk about different forms of art like music or poetry, probably mention abstract thinking capacities, and maybe even throw in more practical applications of creativity, such as finding innovative solutions to everyday problems. Something that almost no one will ever mention, however, is science. After all, we know that the important part of being a scientist is mechanically processing the data from experiments, right? Where’s the creativity in that?

There’s a pretty substantial problem with this conception of science, though: it just isn’t true. In considering scientific experiments, it doesn’t us take long at all to find scientists designing solving problems in remarkably creative ways. Take developmental psychology, for example. One of the central problems of working with babies is obvious: how do we get useful information from preverbal toddlers? The brilliant and creative solution: watch their eyes! Using the fact that children spend more time looking at things that surprise them, scientists are able to design and run experiments that use the looking-time of babies to learn the inner workings of their minds.

The design of experiments themselves is often just as creative as the solutions scientists devise for data-gathering problems. A perfect example of this is the “Robbers Cave” experiment, famous in psychology. To study intergroup conflict, Muzafer Sherif gathered two groups of young boys, separated them into two fake summer camps, and then had the two camps compete with each other in events like tug of war and baseball. The results of the study are incredibly famous and worth looking up, but for a moment I want to just consider the design of the study itself. Think about how remarkable it is: in order to study how groups interact, Sherif came up with the idea to invent two different summer camps and put them in conflict with each other through an elaborate series of challenges. It’s a remarkably creative experiment, and one of the most significant results in the history of the field.

Beyond experiments though, scientific theory is often driven forward by brilliant moments of creative thinking. Take, for example, the theory of special relativity. For a long period of time before Einstein arrived on the scene, scientists had tried to measure the speed of light. However, they quickly realized that unlike physical objects, light always seemed to move at the same speed, no matter its observer’s reference frame. Scientists knew something was up, that somehow light played by different rules than the rest of the universe, but no one could quite figure out how. It took Einstein, looking at the problem in a new and creative way, to pose a game-changing question: what if the speed of light is just a constant of our universe, no matter what? What arose from that one act of creative thinking was one of the greatest revolutions in the history of scientific thinking, directly produced by a single moment of creativity.

In short, science is far from a cold and calculating field. It is a discipline in which people are trying to solve problems and answer questions, and are often doing so in rather creative ways. From experimental design to great leaps in theory, it’s always been those scientists who are willing to think creatively about the problems they’re faced with that move knowledge forward.

With excitement and optimism,

Alex