copyright © Jerome Friedman
Creativity in Science
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
I start this discussion with a sense of humility, because creativity
is not really understood. We cannot teach it in schools, but when
we see it we can recognize it. Nevertheless, I would like to
speculate about some of the elements of creativity in science and also
touch upon the arts and humanities.
In science, as in other activities, there is a continuum of degrees
of creativity, ranging from the solving of small problems to
making major discoveries or conceptual breakthroughs which change
the underpinnings of a fieldsuch as three of the major
developments in twentieth-century physics: special relativity, general relativity,
and quantum mechanics. Each of these made striking changes to
our view of the world.
A common aspect of all creativity is to give us some sense
and meaning of the various observations, impressions, and emotions
that fill our lives. For example, in a letter to his brother Theo,
Vincent van Gogh wrote: "I see that nature has told me something,
has spoken to me, and that I have put it down in shorthand . . . and
it is not the tame or conventional language derived from a
studied manner or system rather than from nature itself."
In physics we have a similar objective. We want to understand
the various phenomena that we observe in the physical world. We try
to find the fundamental principles that explain and relate these
phenomena. We want to describe the world in a succinct and
beautiful wayvery much like a poet. Like a haiku, a set of equations describes
and relates a complex assortment of phenomena with a
great economy of symbols. Maxwell's equations, published in 1864,
are a marvelous example of this. Four short related equations describe
all of the manifestations of electricity and magnetism, at the
macroscopic scale, in all conceivable situations. It is a great triumph.
There are similar satisfactions experienced by the scientist
and artist in the creative process. As Arthur Koestler points out in
The Act of Creation, the marvelous clarity that enraptures a scientist when
he or she discovers a law is shared by a poet when the words of a
poem fall into a pattern that seems to fit exactlyor when a
felicitous image unfolds in the mind of the artist to express the inexpressible.
He views the sense of oceanic wonder as the emotive aspect of
both art and science. It is the most sublime expression of
self-transcending emotionan emotion that is the root of the scientist's quest
for ultimate causes and the artist's quest for the ultimate realities
of experience. Koestler asserts that intellectual illumination and
the emotional catharsis that accompanies it form the essence of
the aesthetic experience.
In physics, the description of nature must be limited to
general concepts, and the language used is mathematics. Each physicist
who reads the equations will understand them in the same way.
Thus, scientific descriptions have a universal character. The laws of
nature hold throughout the cosmos, and their articulation
transcends personal and cultural boundaries.
What about art? An artist's interpretation of the world is
always an individual interpretation. Van Gogh implies this in the
previously cited quote, in which he speaks of his shorthand that "is not the
tame or conventional language derived from a studied manner or
system." However, a work of art must also have some universal aspect to
make a connection with different individuals, enabling the artist to
speak to them in some way. But even so, the viewer of a work of art
may see it in a totally different way from the artist who created it.
This reinterpretation makes the work of art accessible to the viewer
and validates it in a personal way. Jacob Bronowski makes the same
point in contrasting Pythagoras and Homer:
Pythagoras is deliberately trying to mean the
same thing to everybody who listens to him, and
Homer is not. Homer is content to say something
universaland yet mean different things to everybody
who listens to him. A poem, unlike the theorem of Pythagoras, is not meant to make up your mind
Another difference between art and science is that in art
the manner of expression and content cannot be separated. In
scientific creativity, these are separable. Only content is important
scientifically; and although an insight into a law of nature can
produce feelings and emotions, such as the joy of insight and a sense of
awe, they are not part of the message.
What elements are necessary for creativity? I believe
creativity requires a powerful imagination and a strong intuition.
Imagination is always an experimental process. It is the ability to
manipulate images and symbols in the mind to make combinations that
are totally new. Reasoning is constructed with moveable images, just
as poetry is. Very often analogies are the threshold to
creativity. Creativity often results from combining images or ideas that
appear to be quite dissimilar. Since the number of possible combinations
of images in the imagination is exceedingly large, there must be
some constraints that help select those which seem most promising.
One of the elements that help select possibilities for the
imagination is intuition. I believe intuition consists of imprints of
experience, knowledge, relationships, and taste just below our threshold
of consciousness. The reason I think intuition exists in the
unconscious is because, in general, we cannot justify it. The fact that a good
deal of processing goes on below our conscious activity is suggested by
a number of cases in the scientific literature of discoveries or
crucial insights that appeared to occur spontaneously or took place
The great mathematician Karl Frederick Gauss described in
a letter to a friend how he finally proved a theorem on which he
had worked unsuccessfully for four years. He wrote, "As a sudden flash
of light, the enigma was solved. . . . For my part I am unable to
name the nature of the thread which connected what I previously
knew with that which made my success possible." Similarly, George
Polya, a twentieth-century mathematician, remarked: "When you
have satisfied yourself that the theorem is true, you start proving it."
There are a number of other similar examples in the literature.
With regard to discoveries made in dreams, there is the case
of Frederick August von Kekule, a professor of chemistry who,
one afternoon in 1865, fell asleep and had a dream that
revolutionized organic chemistry. He dreamed of the benzene molecule as a
snake biting its tail while in a whirling motion. From that vision
his concept of the six-carbon benzene ring was born, which in turn
led to the idea of a closed structure for certain organic molecules.
In another example, Otto Loewi had a dream that led to his
discovery in 1920 of the chemical transmission of nerve impulses.
While the use of imagination is an exploratory process, a
sometimes overriding constraint to flights of the imagination is
knowledge or logic in the conscious mindincluding principles that
are considered too important to be violated. But these
constraints should not be too strong. Very often they arise from the
intellectual orthodoxy of the time. Still, there are some constraints which
must be there because they embody extensive, well-established
experimental evidence, such as the conservation of energy. But one of the
most important constraints is aesthetics. There is an implicit
assumption that the laws of nature are elegant and beautiful. If there is a
choice between two theoriesone ugly and one beautifulthe
beautiful theory wins out.
In 1957, I attended a conference at which Murray Gell-Mann
was describing a new theory of the weak interactions, one that he had
just developed with Richard Feynman, to explain some recent
astonishing experimental results. However, there were three experiments
in the literature that contradicted this new theory. Gell-Mann
boldly asserted that these three experiments must be faulty, because his
new theory was too beautiful to be wrong. And future
experiments decisively proved that Gell-Mann was correct.
Dirac, the father of relativistic quantum mechanics, clearly
stated the importance of beauty in discovering the laws of nature.
He remarked "I think . . . it is more important to have beauty in
one's equations than to have them fit experiments." He went on to
explain that some discrepancies with experiment may be due to
minor features that are not properly taken into account in a theory
and which will be cleared up with further developments. As
previously noted, these discrepancies can also be due to faulty experiments.
A similar point of view exists in mathematics. In his classic book,
A Mathematician's Apology, G.H. Hardy wrote "Beauty is the first
test; there is no permanent place in the world for ugly mathematics."
Thus, in the creative process in science, beauty can be the
compass to finding one's way. In the turmoil of the creative process,
the scientist is in no better position than is the artist, because at
the scientific frontier, truth is as uncertain and subjective a guide
But what is beauty in this context? Defining beauty in physics
and mathematics presents difficulties as daunting as those in
defining beauty in the arts. However, since I have already shown my
audacity in discussing creativity, I will briefly discuss this issue and make
an attempt to suggest some characteristics.
Numerous scientists and philosophers have wrestled with
this question. From the writings of Werner Heisenberg, Jacob
Bronowski, S. Chandrasekhar, and others, I would list three criteria that I
find compelling for beauty in physics:
- A beautiful theory has an unexpected simplicity;
- Every part of the theory fits in harmoniously (it has no ad hoc elements);
- It has strangeness to a degree that excites wonderment and surprise.
Still, in the long run, a theoryno matter how beautiful or
self-consistentmust provide predictions that conform to nature, or
it will be discarded. Are there any such restrictions in art? In the
theory of aesthetics there has been a good deal of discussion about what role
truth plays in the validity of art. In this context, truth certainly
has a different meaning than in the sciences. However, it seems to
me that a work of art must have a certain compatibility with
the experiences and culture of the observer to produce what
Arthur Koestler calls a re-creative echo: the work is validated by
providing a confirmation of certain inner truths, but also by moving
the observer beyond them.
Let me sum up by stating that creativity in science
combines rationality and non-rational processes, recklessness and
constraint, and imagination reigned inbut not too tightly. I think the
same description would aptly apply to the arts and humanities.