08 April 2010

Like a Seven Year Old

Yesterday I spent a delightful evening sharing the podium with Harvard physicist Lisa Randall at the Cambridge Forum to talk about science and creativity.  Here were my opening remarks:

In some autobiographical notes, Albert Einstein remembered being haunted as a lad by a strange thought: If a man could keep pace with a beam of light, what would he see? Would he observe a wave of electromagnetic energy frozen in place like some glacial swell? “It does not seem that something like that can exist,” Einstein recalled thinking at the youthful age of sixteen.

There is a stereotype about creative scientists: they are born geniuses, whose brains are somehow prewired to recognize how nature works. They see a problem and, out of the blue, the answer arrives as if by magic. The science cartoonist Sidney Harris captured this so well in one of his cartoons. He has Einstein standing at the blackboard. At the top Einstein has written, E = ma2, but crosses it out. Below it, E = mb2, and then crosses that out as well. Well, of course, reality works far differently.

Einstein thought long and hard about that light beam. Creativity did not come easily. He didn’t solve the problem until 1905, when he was twenty-six years old. Einstein’s solution was found by thinking outside the box—questioning the unquestionable. He let go of the familiar and found an alternate route. He had this wonderful ability to embrace new ways of thinking. That often happens in science when a person is young and not yet weighed down by old habits and allegiance to conventional wisdom. A recent experiment even made this point. Two psychologists at North Dakota State University asked a group of undergraduate students to imagine what they would do if school were cancelled for the day. The students’ responses were pretty bland, until they were told to think like seven-year-olds, whereupon the answers became far more original and spontaneous. Likewise, the most creative scientists often retain a childlike curiosity about the world.

By thinking outside the box, Einstein concluded that no one can catch up to a light beam, no matter how fast you go. Even if you’re in a spaceship rocketing away at near-light speed. Which seems bizarre, until you realize, as Einstein did, that space and time are not absolute as Isaac Newton had us think, but rather, well, relative. Our measurements of length and time alter, depending on our motions with respect to one another. The only thing that we will agree on is that light travels at 186,000 miles per second. Moreover, this new idea was backed up by experimental tests. Perhaps creativity in science comes from encouraging heresy.

Creative is usually a term applied more to the arts and humanities than to science. In fact the noun “creativity” originated fairly late, in 1875, to refer solely to poetic imagination—the way in which artists and writers bring new entities into existence. But when applied to scientists, there’s one big difference. Scientists can imagine a lot of things, but unlike artists and writers they are restrained by the rules of the game—the laws of nature that were set into place at the creation of the universe. Their creativity comes into play in the approaches they take in arriving at new theories, which must then be experimentally proven.

There is, of course, no precise path, but many roads. Creativity, for instance, can emerge from the mentor/apprentice relationship, which was beautifully rendered by my colleague at MIT Robert Kanigel in his book Apprentice to Genius, where he describes how recognizing a good problem and how to find a solution to it can be handed down from generation to generation of scientists. Kanigel’s book involved four generations of neuropharmacologists studying drug metabolism and opiate receptors in the brain. Creativity was handed down, as if genetically, from mentor to apprentice. There’s further evidence that certain creative habits can be acquired. J. J. Thomson, the discoverer of the electron and a recipient of the Nobel Prize, himself trained nine Nobel prize winners, as well as 32 fellows of Great Britain’s Royal Society.

What are those habits? Louis Pasteur once said, “In the fields of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind.” Creative scientists are prepared. Legendary discoveries are not lucky breaks but more like unanticipated detours in well-designed research efforts. Take Alexander Fleming. As the legend goes, a stray penicillium mold lands on a bacteria-filled petri dish in his lab. About to discard the dish, he notices the mold has dissolved the bacterial colonies. Voila, antibiotics. But actually Fleming at first noticed only the mold’s mild antiseptic properties. He didn’t clinch that the bacteria were truly being wiped out until further research, after he deliberately cultured the mold. Fleming cast a large net in his lab, experimenting with anything he could find. His creativity came from “playing,” designing experiments that would likely yield surprises.

Creativity can also arise from, what looks to outsiders, like drudge work. Science often involves finding patterns, where none are expected. And that comes from gathering lots and lots of data. We’ve seen that in the human genome project, climate change, Darwin’s development of his theory of evolution, the history of particle physics. Drawing on my own work covering the field of astronomy, a famous example is the work of Henrietta Leavitt. In the 1910s, she was working at the Harvard College Observatory, assigned to examine the myriad photographic plates the observatory was amassing and look out for variable stars, stars that regularly vary in their luminosity—brightening, then dimming, then brightening once again. She did her job well. By the time of her death in 1921, she had discovered some 2,400 variable stars, half the number then known to exist. But she went beyond her job description and noticed, out of the hundreds she was finding, a special group of twenty-five variables, called Cepheids, whose light varied in a specific way: the brighter the star, the slower its period. Tracking the blinks of those variables allowed them to be used as standard candles for gauging distances in space. With her deep concentration and focus on her data, Leavitt unearthed astronomy’s celestial Rosetta stone, a means for astronomers to measure distances far beyond the Milky Way. It was the tool that allowed Edwin Hubble to discover that the Milky Way was not alone in the universe, but rather just one of billions of other galaxies.

More and more creativity, especially in 20th century physics, has been arising from seeking mathematical beauty. And it’s had its successes. In the first half of the 20th century, physicists were finding a chaotic zoo of elementary particles with their atom smashers. They practically ran out of Greek letters to name them all: lambdas, sigmas, pions. “Who ordered that?” exclaimed one theorist when the muon, a heavy electron, was identified. Physicists Murray Gell-Mann and George Zweig independently got order out of this chaos through a mathematical breakthrough. Nearly all of those particles were actually composites, each a different combination of smaller, more fundamental particles we now call quarks. The search for mathematical beauty allowed complexity to be replaced by a wondrous simplicity. But can that be carried too far? Some ask that about string theory, which hypothesizes a submicroscopic world that cannot yet be tested directly.

What will be interesting to track in the future is whether science is getting hampered in its creativity by its overspecialization, fields getting subdivided further and further into niche specialties. Science has blossomed a millionfold since the 1600s, yet we are not witnessing a millionfold increase in the number of fundamental discoveries. Where are the thousands of Newtons, Darwins, and Einsteins that should now be walking the earth given the astounding explosion in scientific publications. Has science become so bureaucratic that it ends up sabotaging those who would discover?

Some believe that new bursts of creative thought will come from interdisciplinary work. Chemists talking more to physicists, biologists with mathematicians. So that skills from each discipline will be communicated and exchanged. Each teaching the other how to think outside their respective boxes....possibly to think once again like seven-year-olds.

Image Credit: Physical Review Letters, Volume 99, 213901 (2007)

1 comment:

  1. Great article...personally I think science will advance beyond our wildest imagination; however, true scientists follow their passions and don't give in to fads and societal trends and pedagree, and all the artificial standards (money, title, position...) that permeate our society. Really enjoyed this.