The nature of creativity in physics, other sciences and engineering has always fascinated me. This essay contains my observations on some aspects of creativity: the constraints on creativity in science and engineering, what helps creativity, the unavoidable occurrence of bad ideas, helpful and not helpful colleagues, the art of obsession in research, and new technology. In this essay I include examples in other sciences and engineering.
What are your thoughts on creativity in science and engineering?
Constraints on Creativity in Science and Engineering
Creativity is sought everywhere: in the arts, business, mathematics, as well as in science and engineering. Common elements of creativity are originality and imagination. Creativity is intertwined with the freedom to design, to invent and to dream. In engineering and science a creative idea is useful only if it meets three conditions: the constraint of the natural laws, the constraint of cost, and the constraint of technical feasibility.
The Constraint of Natural Laws
A creative idea in science or engineering must conform to the natural laws. An inventor who thinks that she or he knows how to violate these laws will have to disprove a vast amount of previous experiments and accepted theory. The burden is particularly tremendous on a scientist to prove the violation of a known law. This is illustrated by the present debate about the correctness of the finding by the OPERA Collaboration that neutrinos can travel faster than light. [Reflections on Physics, Oct. 29, 2011 posting]
Of course the temptation and the dilemma for the researcher is that the highest form of creativity is proving a violation of a known law.
The Constraint of Cost
Cost constraint is obvious whether the creative idea requires a new experiment or new technology. It is obvious in the industrial and commercial and military world when the new idea is a new device or a new process. Sometimes the cost cannot be clearly determined, particularly if the implementation takes many years. An example is the implementation of practical and cost competitive power from nuclear fusion, either the magnetic confinement method or the inertial confinement method. There are many creative ideas in the field of fusion power but the final costs are not known.
The Constraint of Feasible Technology
The implementation of creative ideas requires the existence of feasible technology or the ability to develop the required technology. An example of an idea that is certainly creative, but does not have a feasible technology is the nuclear powered X-ray laser first proposed by Edward Teller.
To Be Creative
Here are some qualities that I believe are needed to be creative in science and engineering.
Competency in Mathematics
You don’t have to be a mathematical genius. There are fields where mathematics is secondary. Nonetheless, it is good to be competent in mathematics.
In engineering and scientific work it is crucial to be able to visualize how the work can be accomplished. The intended work might be the invention of a mechanical or electronic device, the synthesis of a complicated molecule, the design of an experiment to evaluate the efficacy of a new drug, or the modeling of how proteins fold and unfold.
Different kinds of work require different kinds of visualization. Spread sheets or flow charts may work best in some cases. Drawings might be more suitable in others. Whatever the project, the value of visualization is in finding the best way to proceed while avoiding mistakes and perhaps even finding alternative solutions or interesting related ideas. Visualization is crucial for creativity in engineering and science!
Imagination is another crucial ability required to be creative in engineering and science. Begin with the far reaches of your imagination at the science fiction level, then gradually apply constraints such as known physical laws, observation, experimentation, feasibility and practicality.
Evaluate Your Skills – Pure and Applied Experimental Research
Evaluate the extent of your experimental skills to find the areas in which you can be creative. Are you good at working with tools, at building equipment, at running equipment – electronics, microscopes, telescopes…? This is my strength. I am an experimenter in physics because I like to work on equipment, am mechanically handy and get great pleasure when an experiment works. But hands-on skills do not have to be your strength. Isidor Rabi, my doctoral research supervisor at Columbia University in the 1950’s, had little laboratory skill. Yet Rabi won a Nobel Prize for advancing experimental atomic physics by inspiring and depending on his colleagues and students.
Evaluate Your Skills – Theoretical Research
I have not done theoretical work and I know nothing directly about the criteria for success. I would value readers comments on this subject greatly.
Getting Good Ideas
Imagination and obsession
Imagination and obsession are the keys to getting a good idea. To help your imagination keep your eyes and ears open. Avoid the “not invented here prejudice”. Remember you can learn from many different people and fields.
When we were looking for fractional charge particles in meteoritic materials, we used colloidal suspensions of the finely ground meteorite, a mixture of mineral and metal powders. We learned how to make such suspensions not from the theory of colloids but from the technology of gasoline engine lubrication; engine oil must suspend mineral and metal powders until the filter is reached. [http://arxiv.org/abs/hep-ex/0204003]
Expect Bad Ideas
For every good idea, expect to have five, ten, twenty wrong or useless ideas. You cannot avoid the bad ideas if you keep your imagination free. There is no spam filter for bad ideas. Even great engineers and scientists have bad ideas as well as good ideas. Nikola Tesla was the inventor of alternating current technology and a pioneer in the development of wireless. For his time he knew a great deal about electromagnetic waves. Yet he thought that substantial amounts of electromagnetic energy could be transmitted around the world by ordinary low frequency radio waves.
Sorting Out Good & Bad Ideas
You may turn a bad idea into a good idea — don’t kill the bad idea prematurely. A bad idea can evolve into a good idea.
Find Colleagues Who are Smart and Know Other Fields
I always look for colleagues who are smart, and who know a lot in many fields. The obvious advantage is that she or he may be able to solve the problem that has produced trouble in your work. Also smart and knowledgeable colleagues can save you time, and are interesting and inspiring!
Avoid Colleagues Who Tend to be Dismissive of New Ideas
The best colleagues are those who will think about your ideas, who will talk with you and offer insight, constructive criticism. No one needs to be crushed for having a new idea.
When you are imagining and visualizing an idea that you expect to be fruitful it is important to be obsessed with the idea. Think about the idea as much as possible—even to the extent of neglecting friends and family. Obsession, immersing yourself in the problem, will enable you to focus and thoroughly explore all the aspects of the idea: what has been done on related ideas, compatibility with physical laws and mathematics and logic, feasibility, practicality, extensions, variations.
But, if in the course of the work you find that you have run out of money, someone else has a better idea, or your idea has a serious flaw give up the obsession immediately and move on.
The new idea may use old technology or require new technology or the new idea itself may be technological. In any case you must be interested in – perhaps even enchanted by – some of the technology. Then the bad days are not so bad. Another advantage of being enchanted by your technology is that you will be more likely to think of improvements and variations. You should be fond of the technology but not so much in love that you are blind to the possibility that there may be better technology. In many cases your selection and use of the technology will determine your success. Pay a great deal of attention to technology.
To be informed of a new posting of Reflections on Physics sign up for the RSS feed or subscribe using your email address (see form in the right column).