Human Intelligence

What role does creativity play in science?
Answered by Dr. Michio Kaku, Mario Paniccia and 2 others
  • Dr. Michio Kaku

    Dr. Michio Kaku

  • Mario Paniccia

    Mario Paniccia

  • Nina Tandon

    Nina Tandon

  • Diana Bocco

    Diana Bocco

  1. Dr. Michio Kaku Theoretical Physicist and Author


    When I think of innovation and I think of creativity, I don't necessarily think of thousands of scientists getting together to create a gigantic space program. I think of the individual scientists. The people who have this "ah-ha" moment, this "eureka" moment that allows them to see farther, to make that incredible breakthrough, to open up whole new worlds that were never seen before. I think that there's a role for, yes, team scientists. There's a role for gigantic Manhattan Project programs. There's also the role for the individual scientist who says, "Ah-ha, I see it." It's that simple.

    More answers from Dr. Michio Kaku »

  2. Mario Paniccia Intel Fellow, Director, Intel Photonics Technology Lab


    Some of this goes to the conversation of people talking about how do you do innovation? People have tried [photonic connections in silicon] for a long time. Sometimes, you say, "We're going to go to the Moon." And if you get people who've spent the last 30 years trying to go to the Moon, they'll tell you all the reasons you can't get there. And sometimes it takes a mindset of "We're going to go do it and bring fresh people looking it."

    So part of this was the physics hasn't change; it's electrons and holes moving through silicon interacting with light. I was fortunate to have a team that felt, "Let's go do it. Let's go try it."

    And the physics -- turns out that they're not optically friendly. But you can optimize the physics with structures and designs, so that we've proven that we can build devices that are just good enough. That's the theme if you think about it.

    Most of the people in optical work are from the telecoms, the Bell labs, AT&T. And if you're doing telecom, you need to go 100 kilometers; you need Ferraris. You need high-performance, cost isn't important. And when we started to look at what we wanted to do, we wanted to solve the 10-meter problem. So I wanted to be just good enough so I could trade off performance. I could trade off attributes, but I wanted high-volume manufacturing and low cost.

    And if you look at today, and you ask the world and the research community, most people are convinced now that the way to do photonics is in silicon. Some of these things -- you just have to prove it. And a lot of it was through technical papers and publications. There's a psychological piece here that says, "Oh, I didn't realize you could do that in silicon."

    And then once that happens people start saying, "Oh, well what about this -- or what about that or what about this?" It's not something you can direct. It morphs, but you have to make sure that you never lose sight of where you're going, and you move as you go.

    More answers from Mario Paniccia »

  3. Nina Tandon Postdoctoral Staff Associate Researcher, Laboratory for Stem Cells and Tissue Engineering, Columbia University; Associate Adjunct Professor of Electrical Engineering, the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art

    I think that creativity plays a role in almost any joyful endeavor that we undertake, and I think science is no exception. Science is so beautiful because we get to be curious about the world and ask questions, but at the same time that we’re asking questions we also have been given a systematic method for being able to answer those questions. Embedded within all of that is creativity, so if you’re a curious person with just that first step: by asking a question by “creating” a question, you’ve created something that’s unknown.

    And what I always tell my students is that an important transition for them as undergraduates who are growing up and becoming adults and intellectual citizens is to transform themselves from information consumers – who read textbook – to information producers – the people who will be WRITING those textbooks. I think curiosity is a huge part of that because you have to read critically. You have to say, “Well, what is the thing that the scientists didn’t do? What could they have done?” And that critical reading process--just that first curiosity--is also a creative process because we’re imagining that person’s world, imagining what they could’ve done, imagining what they did do, what it was like for them.

    That’s just one step when creativity plays a role in the scientific mind. I think once you’ve decided that a question is worth answering, coming up with the way that you’re going to try and answer it is another creative process. I’ve had students who tell me, “Oh my goodness, it’s such a challenge because I’m used to being given problems, and I’m in a lab, and then all the ways to put that answer together are sitting in the lab. And here I actually have to come up with a way that I’m going to build something to help me answer that question.”

    And I’m like, “Yes! Isn’t that exciting! Congratulations! You’re transitioning from an information consumer to an information producer,” because in order to produce information, in order to allow your experiment to manifest that information for you, you need to build something that performs a test. And that’s a creative process as well.  Let’s just take it to the next step, so after you’ve created this experiment and you got results from that experiment, all of that analysis that goes into trying to understand your results is another creative process because we have to figure out how to combine information together in order to create a product, to create knowledge out of that. 

    For example, in a physics lab, where you might do an experiment with sliding blocks and ramps you might say “Okay, I saw this block move in such and such a way.” But, how fast did it slide? Trying to visualize that experiment, trying to visualize those results is another creative process, and then finally presenting your results to the world that say an academic conference, if you’re lucky enough to have some results that are worth sharing, all of that performance is another creative process. And then interacting with other scientists and coming up with new ideas based on what you’ve done in the past again is like explosions of creativity right and left.

    I think that’s why if you get far enough to be a scientist it’s a really exciting place to be because it’s a very fertile intellectual playground full of lots of fun things to do, and fun ways to play and create. And just being on the forefront of knowledge is a really exciting place to be. An important challenge is to get young people to realize that science isn’t necessarily reading textbooks and reproducing answers to questions that have already been asked and answered-- to try and inject some of that creativity into their learning process.

    I think that that’s the challenge my colleagues and I face when we’re drafting some of these children’s workshops—trying to translate that wonder and creative process for young people. 

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  4. Creativity is the capacity to come up with new ideas. Creativity often is more associated with the arts than with the sciences, but creativity is a huge factor in new discoveries in the science realm. After all, many of science and technology's most important discoveries arose from bursts of inspiration.

    An example is the discovery of the printing press. Johannes Gutenberg created the printing press by adapting mechanical presses that were in use in the wine industry. He combined movable type letters -- which had already been used by the Chinese -- with a wine press. He came up with the idea because he was looking for a way to speed up printing and hopefully make some money. Gutenberg used ingenuity and creativity to build something useful.

    Author Isaac Asimov, most famous for his science fiction books, is a clear example of how creativity and science can come together. Besides being a fiction writer, Asimov was a professor of biochemistry at Boston University. Asimov wrote numerous works on mathematics, physics and astronomy and he often credited his love of fiction as key to understanding science better. Asimov also was the person who invented the word "robotics" to use in one of his short stories, "Liar!" (1941). The word caught on and became standard in science and technology, a clear example of creativity becoming a useful tool in the sciences [source: Merriam-Webster].

    Many scientists arrive at new discoveries by confronting puzzles of sorts. They knew of a problem that apparently had no solution, and they set out to look for possible answers. The scientist had to use creativity to come up with new ways to solve the problem. For example, Hungarian physician Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis was looking for a way to prevent puerperal fever (a precursor to life-threatening septicemia that can sometimes be contracted during childbirth). In the mid-1800s, when he was a practicing doctor, germs had not yet been discovered, so cleanliness wasn't a priority in hospitals. Semmelweis tried a number of solutions to prevent puerperal fever, including the one that finally worked: making sure he washed his hands between seeing patients [source: Project Creation].

    In science, being creative and having an open mind can lead to impressive discoveries that never would have been reached by the uninspired scientist.

    More answers from Diana Bocco »

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