The Scientific Muse

The worldwide impact of discoveries over recent years in genetics is evident, but also worth considering is the potential effect on the performance of biology. Could these achievements spark an upsurge in creativity elsewhere within the life sciences? The reason this may be likely is that, since the dawn of the 20th century--and even earlier, going back to Gregor Mendel's experiments--the gene has been an abstraction par excellence, a chemical entity described without direct evidence of its exi

Nov 27, 2000
Steve Bunk

The worldwide impact of discoveries over recent years in genetics is evident, but also worth considering is the potential effect on the performance of biology. Could these achievements spark an upsurge in creativity elsewhere within the life sciences? The reason this may be likely is that, since the dawn of the 20th century--and even earlier, going back to Gregor Mendel's experiments--the gene has been an abstraction par excellence, a chemical entity described without direct evidence of its existence. Such an approach to problems, long taken by the physical sciences, already has brought new creativity to the generally more methodical and conservative biological sciences.1

"The physical scientists have more fun. Their theories are more eccentric; they live in a world in which the unexpected is everyday," mathematician and writer Jacob Bronowski declared in 1958. "The biological sciences are young, so that fact and theory look alike; the new entities which have been created to underlie the facts are still representational rather than abstract."2

That assessment, accurate in its time, is becoming increasingly less so. Consider the concept of mind as an emergent phenomenon. One day, this complexity might be reducible to chemistry, just as molecular biology already has interpreted the gene as a chemical entity that can be isolated in a test tube. Looking even further into the future, perhaps the body-wide pathways of the immune system, or even the interplay of environment and heredity in genetics, eventually could be expressed in chemical terms. Obviously, for such intricate relationships to be thus represented, abstract thought is indispensable. And that requires creativity. To show how abstract thinking is related to creativity calls for a definition of the word, which, like "talent," tends to be elusive.

Scientists often have described "discovery"--a close relative, if not twin, to creativity--but such accounts typically deal with phases of the process, or its accompanying conditions, or the personalities of people who make discoveries. Exactly how the creative insight or solution arises remains infused with mystery. Then there is the so-called "criterion problem" of deciding when creativity has occurred and somehow measuring it.3 In that regard, creativity's products often are confused with its process. For example, if social usefulness and absolute novelty must be considered parts of the creative process, then a child could not be said to use creativity in learning to do, say, simple math.


Creativity Defined

There is a recurrent definition in the literature that flirts with, but skirts the criterion problem: creativity is the association of familiar, yet seemingly dissimilar elements in novel, useful ways. "A man becomes creative, whether he is an artist, or a scientist, when he finds a new unity in the variety of nature," Bronowski wrote. "The creative mind is a mind that looks for unexpected likenesses."2 Writer Arthur Koestler opined, "The creative act consists in combining previously unrelated structures in such a way that you get more out of the emergent whole than you have put in."4

Chemist and philosopher Michael Polanyi likened scientific discovery to learning to reorient onself while wearing spectacles through which objects appear upside down. The words "above" and "below" can't help in overcoming this inversion, because their meanings have become inappropriate. In order to reintegrate sight with the other senses, the imagination must be kept fixed on a global result, rather than trying to cope with each particular change. This is the same way a new scientific vision arises. Polanyi insisted that scientific discovery is informed by imagination and integrated by intuition.5

One of the most celebrated attempts to characterize the creative process was delivered in a 1908 lecture by French mathematician Henri Poincaré, who identified four stages of mathematical invention. The first is a period of hard and ostensibly fruitless preliminary labor. The second stage is quiescence, otherwise described as incubation or gestation, when the unconscious mind sets to work. Then comes the inspiration of new insight, the flash of illumination that brings with it a sense of conviction and delight. The last stage is verification. Poincaré's definition of mathematical discovery stipulated that combinations of facts must be useful. "Discovery is discernment, selection." He added that the only facts worth studying will reveal "unsuspected relationships between other facts long since known."6

How Ideas Arise

As mentioned, it isn't clear just how this awareness of new relationships arises. Koestler argued that the process is largely subconscious, likening it to sleepwalking. British mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead believed it begins in an "imaginative muddled suspense," and novelist Henry James sought a "rich bare little fact" that would provide the impetus for creative work.7 As Poincaré suggested, the number of ideas a thinker has does not necessarily equate to good ideas. Two-time Nobelist Linus Pauling recounted, "In 1935, a student of mine asked me, 'Dr. Pauling, how does one go about having good ideas?' I said, 'You have a lot of ideas and throw away the bad ones.'"8 Albert Einstein claimed he discarded new ideas every two minutes,1 yet when French poet and philosopher Paul Valéry asked if he carried a notebook with him to jot ideas down, Einstein famously replied that he did not; good ones are too rare for that.

Cognitive scientist Howard E. Gruber asserted that creativity is a "growth process in which the person must persevere against obstacles and use all the resources at his command." He contended that two general approaches to creativity have arisen, both of which attempt to eliminate purposefulness from their definitions. One approach attributes the creative act to environmental effects, the influences of the Zeitgeist or spirit of the age, or even to chance. The other explanation emphasizes subconscious processes, implying that conscious thought is too constrained by prevailing contemporary ideas to be creative. Gruber's interpretation of this refusal to credit deliberate invention was, "The idea of a purposefully creative individual seems to conjure up the old argument from Design. Fear of teleology has influenced various ways of dealing with the appearance of deliberate innovation."9

Psychoanalytic theory ascribes invention to "primary" nonlogical, dreamlike thought processes, and verification to "secondary" processes that are logical and under the person's control. However, the creative individual moves easily between the more primitive, primary phase and the secondary one.3 University of Rockefeller president emeritus Joshua Lederberg, a Nobel laureate for discoveries pertaining to the genetics of bacteria, and chairman of this journal's editorial advisory board, subscribes to the notion that the most creative individuals are those who move easiest between "fantasy and rigor." Such people embrace "two sets of norms," typified by two ancient Greek ideals: the ecstatic liberation of Dionysus, and the medicine, arts, and divination of Apollo. In more contemporary terms, he cites such characteristics as imagination, iconoclasm and experimentation on one hand, alongside critical rigor, respect for established truth, and reflection on the other hand.10


Watson and Sex

An example of the imaginative dreaming that can aid scientific discovery is the thoughts that went through James D. Watson's head while he and Francis Crick were absorbed in solving the structure of DNA. Watson, only in his mid-20s at the time, was understandably fascinated by sex, as is evident in his 1968 memoir, The Double Helix.11 (He even was willing to advance a theory concerning bacterial sex, despite doubts about venturing into Lederberg's terrain.) In 1973, F. R. Jevons, then a professor of liberal studies in science at the University of Manchester, noted the many lighthearted references to coeds and au pair girls in Watson's book, and connected these comments to "an intuition about sex, of which base pairing is the expression at the molecular level."12 Jevons suggested that Watson's apparently facetious banter about sex was actually an intuitive orientation that helped him to solve the complex problem of DNA's structure. For example, Watson decided to pursue a double-chain helix rather than a triple-chain model on the grounds that important biological objects are paired. Although life's Yin/Yang dualism is hardly a revelation, it is interesting that in drawing together these clues from Watson's story, Jevons likewise makes a creative leap: finding unexpected, enriching likenesses in apparently disparate elements.

As Nobel recipient Sir Peter Medawar observed, scientists tell stories that are then tested to see if they conform to real life.13 Elegance and beauty are often guidelines in the construction of these "stories," perhaps because the self-similarity of nature--the patterns it repeats with such wondrous predictability--point the way to truths. "The useful combinations," Poincaré wrote of mathematics, "are precisely the most beautiful."6

The biological sciences certainly have their beauty. It may be that these young professions are just now coming of age, allowing imaginative leaps based on intuition--putting together pieces in new ways that are inspired by the elegance of nature--becoming, in their prime, more creative endeavors.


Steve Bunk ( is a contributing editor for The Scientist.



1. H.A. Krebs, J.H. Shelley, eds., The Creative Process in Science and Medicine, Amsterdam, Excerpta Medica, and New York, American Elsevier Publishing Co., 1975, pages 93-105.

2. J. Bronowski, "The creative process," in Scientific Genius and Creativity: Readings from Scientific American, New York, W.H. Freeman and Co., 1987, pages 3-8.

3. A. Roe, "Psychological approaches to creativity in science," in M.A. Coler, ed., Essays on Creativity in the Sciences, New York, New York University Press, 1963, pages 153-82.

4. A. Koestler, "The three domains of creativity," in D. Dutton, M. Krausz, eds., The Concept of Creativity in Science and Art, The Hague, Boston, London, Martinus Nijkoff Publishers, 1981, pages 1-17.

5. M. Polanyi, "The creative imagination," in Ibid, pages 91-108.

6. R. Taton, Reason and Chance in Scientific Discovery, London, Hutchinson & Co., 1957, pages 13-34.

7. B. Ghiselin, "The creative process and its relation to the identification of creative talent," in C.W. Taylor, F. Barron, eds., Scientific Creativity, New York, John Wiley & Sons, 1963, pages 355-64.

8. H.A. Wilmer ed., Creativity: Paradoxes and Reflections, Wilmette, Ill., Chiron Publications, 1991, page 81.

9. H.E. Gruber, Darwin on Man: A Psychological Study of Scientific Creativity, London, Wildwood House, 1974, pages 243-57.

10. J. Lederberg, "Introduction: reflections on scientific biography," in J. Lederberg, ed., The Excitement and Fascination of Science, Vol 3, Palo Alto, Calif., Annual Reviews, 1990, pages xvii-xxiv.

11. J.D. Watson, The Double Helix, New York, Atheneum, 1968.

12. F.R. Jevons, Science Observed, London, George, Allen & Unwin, 1973, pages 54-9.

13. H.F. Judson, The Search for Solutions, New York, Holt, Reinhart and Winston, 1980, page 3.