Creativity in Science and Engineering


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. []

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.

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7 Responses to Creativity in Science and Engineering

  1. Dan Iezzi says:

    Finding Your Science: Time out of mind8/13/2010
    Physics Nobel Laureate Sir Anthony Leggett talks about the paradox of time’s forward motion. Finding Your Science engages the greatest minds in science to share with …

  2. D. W. Brown says:

    According to Eric Drexler, “In science and technology, there is a broad and integrative kind of knowledge that can be learned, but isn’t taught. It’s important, though, because it makes creative work more productive and makes costly blunders less likely.”
    Sean Carroll gave a case history of the creative process of writing a research paper in theoretical physics:
    According to Antonino Zichichi, “First of all you need imagination. To have too many ideas can be counterproductive. You must be rational and concentrate on the new idea you think to be the most original one. Then you have to think about all the possible consequences of your idea. If among the possible consequences, there is either experimental evidence or other rigorous mathematical proofs that are in contradiction to your new idea, you must find out and understand the reason for it. If you are not able to overcome the contradiction, then what you thought was an original idea could have occurred to others but had been abandoned because they had already found the contradiction. You must be careful here because it could very well happen that you will be able to remove the contradiction if you understand the difficulty better than the others. You should not limit yourself to simply read other people’s work — what they have done — you should, in fact you must, understand all the details.” “Creativity in Science” (1999), p. 17
    Hamming’s Rule 8: “If you want to do great work, you clearly must work on important problems.”
    Hamming’s Rule 10: “There is a pretty good correlation between those who work with the doors open and those who ultimately do important things, although people who work with doors closed often work harder. Somehow they seem to work on slightly the wrong thing—not much, but enough that they miss fame.” “Ten Simple Rules for Doing Your Best Research, According to Hamming”
    According to Morgan C. Giddings, “Often the big discoveries come from someone noticing an inconsistency or oddity in their surroundings or experiments, then doggedly working to find out what is causing it. So perhaps being a great scientist is less about “genius” than it is about willingness to pursue the unusual at the expense of the usual.” “On the Process of Becoming a Great Scientist”

  3. Andrew Hocking says:

    I really enjoyed David Brown’s points and questions. “Does the very concept of creativity imply a concept of the human individual as usurping some of the divine generative capacity (assuming a theological perspective)?” Sadly, David was right to point out than many religious people believed that this was a usurpation. Instead, I think scripture views creativity as a gift. In the first page of Genesis, the most apparent thing about God is that He creates. “Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness’” (Genesis 1:26) I think this means a lot of things, but I think part of this means that we are creative, just like He is.
    In fact, many point out that the scripture says that God created the world “good”, but not finished. He then gives us the keys and a mission: being fruitful, multiplying, ruling, and cultivating. And with this creativity, we could make everything from symphonies to the Large Hadron Collider to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. As a an engineer, I see my role as participation in the creative work of God, using the building blocks in nature and my creativity to make a better home for other people.
    I understand that most do not believe the scripture and others will differ in interpretation. But as far as I understand, how can we usurp creativity from God, when He gave it to us?

  4. Dan Iezzi says:

    Chemistry Nobel Laureate Alan Heeger talks about how risk taking and good taste are inherent to discovery.

  5. Alan Kushnir says:

    Alan Kay said “Most ideas are bad” and I think this is echoed in your remarks. This fact is upsetting to those who fear criticism.In not a few business cultures there is a reluctance to point out the flaws in ideas because it is assumed this will ‘stifle’ creativity. These environments are ironically among the least creative places to work.

  6. Alan Kushnir says:

    Alan Kay famously said: “Most ideas are bad”, which is echoed in your remarks. I find it amusing to respond with this quote when someone in a group says ” there are no bad ideas . . . “.
    There is an unfortunate attitude that prevails in certain business cultures that one is rude to dismiss bad ideas by pointing out their flaws. Supposedly, this will discourage people from contributions. I find this attitude is much less prevalent in scientific and engineering circles.

  7. David Brown says:

    According to Wikipedia, “It is commonly argued that the notion of “creativity” originated in Western culture through Christianity, as a matter of divine inspiration. According to the historian Daniel J. Boorstin, “the early Western conception of creativity was the Biblical story of creation given in the ”Genesis”.” However, this is not creativity in the modern sense, which did not arise until the Renaissance. In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, creativity was the sole province of God; humans were not considered to have the ability to create something new except as an expression of God’s work.”
    In the traditional Judaeo-Christian view, is it only possible to discover some aspect of the divine creation and not to really create anything? Does the very concept of creativity imply a concept of the human individual as usurping some of the divine generative capacity (assuming a theological perspective)? If the divine creation is a false hypothesis and free will does not exist in a fundamental sense, then is creativity merely a psychological phenomenon that might in theory be explained in reductionist terms of biology, chemistry, and physics? By googling “creativity in science”, I found the following: “Creativity in Science and Engineering”.
    What might be the 10 most important insights concerning creativity?
    Francis Crick’s “What Mad Pursuit” gives several interesting ideas on discovery and creativity in the biological sciences.
    Two of my thoughts on creativity are:
    (1) Follow your interests if you want to do creative work. If you work at a job that does not interest you, then your creativity will be deadened.
    (2) The marketplace might not allow you to do what you want, but you can at least find the best compromise between what you really want to do and what the marketplace allows you to do. Being an entrepreneur allows great scope for creativity but also places great burdens, relentless time and work demands, and unforeseen risks on the entrepreneur.
    What might be the 10 most important insights on life in general?
    Four ideas are:
    (1) Simplicity is the greatest sophistication. — Leonarda da Vinci
    (2) Only the inadequate student fails to exceed the teacher. — Leonardo da Vinci
    (3) One of the keys to success in business is to always look at things from the other person’s point of view. — Henry Ford
    (4) The greatest discovery is discovering what people want. — Thomas Edison
    By discovering the 10 most important insights on creativity and life in general, can you optimize your thoughts and actions?

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