Scientific creativity

So one of the things I do, when not writing fiction, is write science articles–which means every so often I get to interview researchers and ask them about their work. And I was thinking, today, about the one common thread I’ve found, with pretty much every single scientist I’ve talked to.

When asked, “Why do you like doing this?” the answer is almost always, in some form or other, “Because there are fascinating questions to be asked here. Because there are things we don’t know.”

I love this.

There’s this notion that being a scientist means being — well, rigid — interested in facts and figures, interested in the known, and very much not interested in the creative. But the whole reason researchers go into the sciences is because they’re specifically interested in the unknown, in treading unexplored ground, in finding something new. It takes a mix of analytical thinking and creativity to get there.

Scientists in books and movies often blather things like “I can’t accept this! It goes against everything I know!” Which irritates me no end, because the unknown is about the most exciting thing you can put in front of a good researcher.

I’ve always assumed that if a researcher really found something that went against all they knew? The reaction would be closer to, “Wow, that’s really cool. Can I reproduce this? I can? Okay, that’s even cooler, now let’s see if I can figure out what caused it, and what the implications are, and … and … and I don’t think I’m going to be getting much sleep for some time now …”

But our society (American society, anyway–can’t speak for elsewhere) wants to believe that if scientists are knowedgeable, something else has to be lacking to compensate, and it seems to be common to assume that something must be creativity. It’s a way of bringing everyone down to the same level, this business of assuming you can understand the sciences or be creative but not both.

It’s also a form of letting ourselves off the hook: if scientists “can’t” be creative then, well, people who think of themselves as creative can convince themselves that they “can’t” understand the sciences and have no obligation to try.

Here’s something I find myself thinking about: every scientist I’ve known has not only science books on their shelves, but also works of literature, philosophy, art, and so on. I’m sure there are exceptions to this, but in my experience, the whole curiosity thing doesn’t end at the borders of a scientist’s own discipline, and there’s no lack of interest in the creative arts.

On the other hand? I’ve known countless people who pride themselves on their creativity who don’t have any science books on their shelves.

Which makes me wonder, sometimes, just where the rigid thinkers really are.

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