When people speak of “creativity”, they generally mean artistic creativity. Writers, painters, dancers, and musicians are “creative types”, while scientists and engineers are not. The iconic images of creativity are of Jackson Pollock executing one of his action paintings or of Yo-Yo Ma sawing furiously away at his cello. On the other hand, Albert Einstein is revered as a wild-haired visionary genius, but he is hardly ever called creative. In my experience, people who know me as an artist or musician are sometimes surprised to learn that, by day, I am a particle physicist. A common reaction is “I never knew scientists could be creative!” But in fact, being a good scientist takes just as much creativity as being a good artist.
In science, we are constantly seeking new ways of tackling a problem, new insights on how to view the world, much as the Impressionists and Cubists redefined the notion of seeing itself. For us, the beauty of a scientific idea lies in its elegance and its ability to stir the imagination. In this sense, the experience of science mirrors that of art or any other purely academic endeavor; they all trigger our capacity for wonder.
Much is made of the scientist’s thirst for knowledge, the pursuit of which must, in principle, be methodical and grounded in cold logic. As scientists, we are trained to remove ourselves from our experiments as much as possible, so that Nature’s truths can be revealed with the greatest fidelity. By continually honing our instruments and techniques, we believe we can, over time, approach the “right” answer ever more closely. However, the perfect objectivity that is our ideal is also a myth because human intervention is ultimately unavoidable. So, to some degree, the sterile truths that scientists claim to uncover only exist because we are here to perceive them.
Thus, although scientists and artists may employ drastically different practices in their work, the lofty ends that they all strive towards are fundamentally human in nature. And it is human innovation and imagination that propel both fields forward.
Indeed, the creative spark can be found in any endeavor, large or small, where the result is uncertain and we confront the unknown. Creativity is not merely an elitist pastime. It is practiced in commonplace situations by people flipping burgers, planting gardens, and telling bedtime stories. These routine tasks do not inherently demand creativity, but we can give them meaning by engaging in them consciously and in the moment, with a desire to shape the outcome.
Creativity is our way of placing ourselves in a larger context and fleshing out its mysteries. I believe it is a mistake to hold up earth-shattering intellectual achievements as the only examples of creativity. By doing so, we romanticize something that is unattainable for most of us, and we fail to celebrate the countless creative acts that we all perform every day. Rather, let us recognize that it is possible to explore the universe from our very own homes.