A very short history of creativity in science

Is science creative? I know that the process of scientific discoveries can be, or ought to be – is inherently? – creative. You can find some interesting opinions here, but it boils down to having to be resourceful and imaginative to design experiments for answering difficult, or big questions. I agree. However, I think that increasingly, the process of scientific discovery is constrained and pushed into a straight jacket, with implications for the creativity that is necessary to come to great scientific discoveries. Who still has time to wander through nature, observing and thinking? To have long discussions during coffee breaks, and philosophise about new ideas and approaches?

Yet this is what early scientists did. They studied the patterns they observed in nature, through spending time in nature. Think about Newton being sat under a tree when the apple fell on his head, or about Darwin and his voyage on the Beagle. Think about their books, that read like adventure novels. In the early days of the Royal Society, in the 1600’s, science and philosophy, or metaphysics, were inseparable, and doing science consisted for a large part of talking about it. Later, there were close ties between poets and scientists, and romanticism had a major impact on 19th century science. For example, the romantic poet Samuel Coleridge travelled to Germany and presumably influenced natural scientists such as Alexander Humboldt. Coleridge and his friend Wainwright got their inspiration while going on long and exhausting walks, often for weeks on end, and having opium-fuelled discussions through the night.

In those days, scientists weren’t constrained by having to write grant proposals with impact statements to fund their research – they were more likely to be born wealthy, or, the only other option to be able to do scientific research in those days, to have a wealthy benefactor for life. They were also not constrained by the oppressive formats of journals – these days, it is common for fonts in figures to be prescribed, and sometimes even the width of lines or format of tables has to be done in a certain way. Moreover, journal articles often follow a strict format: abstract, introduction, materials and methods, results, and discussion and conclusions. Early scientists however were able to observe, experiment -without any ethical guidelines! – and write freely and poetically about their findings. The introduction of the first issue of the Philosophical Transactions reads (all these early issues are freely accessible online!):

‘Whereas there is nothing more necessary for promoting the improvement of Philosophical Matters, than the communicating to such, as apply their Studies and Endeavors that way, such things as are discovered or put in practice by others; it is therefore thought fit to employ the Press, as the most proper way to gratify those, whose engagement in such Studies, and delight in the advancement of Learning and profitable Discoveries, doth entitle them to the knowledge of what this Kingdom, or other parts of the World, do, from time to time, afford, as well of the progress of the Studies, Labours, and attempts of the Curious and learned in things of this kind, as of their compleat Discoveries and performances: To the end, that such Productions being clearly and truly communicated, desires after solid and usefull knowledge may be further entertained, ingenious Endeavours and Undertakings cherished, and those, addicted to and conversant in such matters, may be invited and encouraged to search, try, and find out new things, impart their knowledge to one another, and contribute what they can to the Grand design of improving Natural knowledge, and perfecting all Philosophical Arts, and Sciences.’ (This is one sentence!)

This clearly emphasises the role of curiosity, and also that these scientific findings should be accessible for all. (Making a case for open access publishing? However, the later issues of the Philosophical Transactions are not freely accessible.)

In this first issue, there were accounts of ‘a Very Odd Monstrous Calf’, ‘An Experimental History of Cold’ and also – and I find this one particularly interesting – ‘Enquiries Concerning Agriculture’, which contains a list of questions about which soils in England are most useful for arable fields and meadows. Moreover, most articles in these early issues were in the form of letters and long correspondences between Fellows of the Royal Society. Much later, papers published in scientific journals still read as a journey. For example, the first article describing soil development along a glacier chronosequence, published in 1955 in the Journal of Ecology, reads as a travel journal rather than a scientific paper. Sometimes I wish I would have been a scientist in the early days of the Royal Society – so many unknowns, and so many things to discover! (However, as a woman, of course, I could not have done any of the discoveries that are described in the early issues of the Philosophical Transactions – the first female Fellows were elected in 1945!)

So, I am wondering whether there is space for truly free and unconstrained thinking, philosophising, and observing? I feel that for getting ideas, really the most important thing is to read. Reading gives you ideas, but it also makes you aware of what is out there, what has already been done, and what knowledge gaps there are. At least, that is how it works for me. I might then set up an experiment that addresses one of these knowledge gaps, observe the outcome, and get more ideas.

But is that really what we want to do? Fill in knowledge gaps? Write down our findings in a pre decided format, get scrutinised by reviewers, and then think about the questions our study didn’t answer, and set up new experiments? Do our thoughts really have to be framed by theories? Or is there still room to think outside the box and build new theories? Can science still be truly creative and surprising?

I like to think there is space for creativity in science, but it has become pretty hard to do proper, curiosity driven, blue skies research. Yet this is how the most important scientific discoveries are done – to quote Brian Cox: ‘The light bulb wasn’t invented by doing incremental research on the candle’. These days, it is difficult to get funding for research that is not applied, or addresses a priority area, such as food security, renewable energy, or climate change. And probably for the best, because publicly funded research needs to have a pretty solid evidence basis. I guess the place for true creativity in science is in pet projects that are not directly funded by grants. Truly exciting discoveries will always find their way into the best read and most highly cited scientific journals, but getting funding for those experiments is another cup of tea. Moreover, it’s a very risky strategy, because they have a high probability of failing. And there is not much room for failing in today’s impact factor, H-factor, and REF-driven science!

The cover of the first issue of Philosophical Transactions. From the Royal Society website.

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