Creativity and science

My story starts today with the dreaded personal statement.  Writing this document is a bane to just about every applicant to a graduate program or fellowship.  GRE?  No problem.  Writing a research proposal? Bring it on. But ask me to write an essay about why I deserve money or a coveted spot in your program (while sounding simultaneously interesting, humble, intelligent, capable and unique) and a bit of panic sets in. I usually started my writing with some insipid phrase like, “As a girl canoeing down the Wisconsin River…”  But before I applied to the PhD program here at Duke, I took some time to reflect on my relationship with science, and came up with a central theme that tied my experiences and my passions to the path I’ve chosen: the relationship between creativity and science.

As someone with undergraduate majors in both zoology and theatre, I’m pretty invested in the idea that science and “creative pursuits” aren’t incompatible.  I take issue with science (as well as technology, engineering and math – the STEM fields) being put on the opposite end of a spectrum from music, art, and literature.

We’ve been brought up to believe in an unspoken dichotomy between rational thinking (the realm of science) and creativity, but it doesn’t have to be that way…

As children, we learn about the scientific method: we learn to identify a question, form a hypothesis, design an experiment to test that hypothesis, and finally, draw and communicate a conclusion.  It’s a linear progression from question to conclusion, without a lot of room for creativity.  We are taught that scientists follow a straight and rational path to learn about the world.  Why would they need to be creative? Though it might not be said outright, it is instilled in us at an early age: the creative types pursue fields like theater, art, or music, while those who choose STEM are ruled by logic and rationality — traits thought of as at odds with the creative spirit.

When I first started writing this post a few weeks ago, I realized that I’m out of my league discussing the reasons why this dichotomy between scientific thought and creativity just doesn’t make sense.  I had to call in a friend to help me understand the philosophy of creative thinking.  Here, Dr. Nick brings some history and explanation to the tension between creative and rational thinking:

“We can roughly characterise creative thinking as thought that results in a novel and valuable product (which may of course be something immaterial, like a theory or another thought). Rational thinking is, again roughly, thought that proceeds from a given starting point to a pre-specified end via a series of justified steps.”*

These two types of thinking are often thought to be opposed for a couple of reasons. First is an “old-fashioned view of creativity as a sort of benign derangement… If this were right, creative and rational thought would be opposed, since derangement precludes rationality.”* But of course that can’t be right, because not all creative people are crazy, so maybe rationality and creativity aren’t opposite ends of a spectrum.

A second reason why we might think of rationality and creativity as opposed is because

“rational thinking might be thought of as in some sense determinate. There’s a single rational path from starting point A to finishing point B. Further, B can be specified in advance. But it’s of the nature of creative thinking that we can’t really say in advance what the end product will be…Even if the goal can’t be specified, we can say when we’ve arrived there. What distinguishes
that from rational thought? And conversely, the goal of rational procedures can’t always be specified except vaguely. Finally, it would seem that the two can work together; in pursuit of a creative goal, one can rationally consider what the next step will be.”*

The two aren’t really as opposed as we’re led to believe.  In fact, good science relies on creativity.

We need creativity in our science to generate alternative hypotheses (good science tests multiple hypotheses for an observation at once, rather than running through them in series), and synthesize new models to further our understanding of how the world works.  Creativity helps scientists develop new ideas about the world when results don’t fit with what we know about the world.  Think of a concept like time dilation/relativity, or the arrangement of the periodic table of the elements, and tell me there wasn’t a creative process in their development.

Post Script: As the academic grandchild of Stuart Fisher (yes, scientists can be huge nerds about their academic genealogies), who wrote one of my favorite scientific papers, I would be remiss if I didn’t spend some time thinking about the interplay of science and creativity.

*Many thanks to guest expert Dr. Nick Wiltsher (quoted above), who provided lots of insight into the nature and history of the tension between creative and rational thinking, and who is a swell guy.

One thought on “Creativity and science

  1. Yes, we scientists should give ourselves credit for being creative, and we should think often about how to foster creativity in ourselves and our colleagues!

    There’s also a role for artistic *appreciation* in the sciences, both in helping us make new discoveries and in motivating us to keep studying the many beautiful and complex systems of the world. See this link (, for example, on how professor John Jungck uses art for appreciation and understanding in mathematical biology.

    The upshot is that we scientists should be seeking out people like John Jungck and Megan Fork to be our colleagues, collaborators, and sources of inspiration!

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