The Creative Side of Science

Mozart was quoted posthumously saying that his ideas flowed best and most abundantly when he was taking a walk or alone in bed at night, “and provided I am not disturbed, my subject enlarges itself, becomes methodized and defined, and the whole, though it be long, stands almost finished and complete in my mind, so that I can survey it, like a fine picture or a beautiful statue, at a glance.” Putting it down on paper for Mozart was almost an afterthought, he said, “and it rarely differs on paper from what it was in my imagination.” Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung, or “General Music Journal,” in 1815, vol. 17, pp. 561–¬66.

Most of us have heard this or another similar version of Mozart’s creative method; how a symphony or concerto would just appear to him, in its final form. In Peter Schaffer’s 1979 play “Amadeus,” Mozart is portrayed as a foolish prankster with an effortless God-given gift that he plops onto staff paper, whilst his nemesis Antonio Salieri works laboriously day and night on his talentless compositions.

Unfortunately, or fortunately for us mere mortals, this letter is a fake. Mozart’s biographer Otto Jahn proved way back in 1896 that this letter was not only a false representation of Mozart’s process, but that Mozart never wrote it.

Mozart’s real letters — to his father, to his sister, and to others — reveal his true creative process,” writes Kevin Ashton in his book How to Fly a Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery. “He was exceptionally talented, but he did not write by magic. He sketched his compositions, revised them, and sometimes got stuck. He could not work without a piano or harpsichord. He would set work aside and return to it later.... His work was exactly that: work.”

A similarly fanciful tale colors our perception of the scientific process. The first “Eureka!” moment is attributed to the Greek mathematician Archimedes, who was charged with the task of determining whether Hiero of Syracuse’’s gold crown was pure gold or an amalgam of gold and silver that his goldsmith was attempting to pass for pure gold. One day while working on this problem, Archimedes noticed how the water level of his bath rose as he submerged himself in it, promptly causing him to exclaim “Eureka!,”” jump out of his bath, and run naked through the streets of Syracuse.

This well-known story does not appear in any of Archimedes' known writings, and is first recorded two hundred years after the fact, in Vitruvius’s Book of Architecture. As such, its accuracy cannot be verified, and chances are, it never happened. We hold onto it, however, because it fits well with our myth of how science works, replete with lone geniuses, toiling away until that fateful “Eureka” moment.

Scientific discovery, just like works of great art, rarely happens in a bold stroke of inspiration, but as the outcome of fits and starts, failures and dead-ends, small successes and gradual conclusions. “Eureka!” is a moment born of a lifetime of effort.

Roald Hoffmann, the 1981 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, explained his process to me:

“It is not as romantic, it is always piecewise knowledge, hard-won, and you don't see the totality until a couple of years later, but the process is interesting. There are often not single ‘Aha’ or ‘Eureka’ moments, there are little pieces of understanding that slowly fall into place.”

As with other creative endeavors, doing science is work – hard work. Those of us who’ve ever struggled in an advanced level science course can attest to that. But creative? Hard to imagine. After all, scientists are the epitome of left-brainedness.

So I asked the “Father of String Theory” Leonard Susskind whether he believed his scientific outpourings were creative, he almost instantly ascribed creativity to artists; not to scientists like himself.

"An artist thinks to himself, ‘How do I create something new and different that will excite an aesthetic sense?’. I think for me it's quite different, although I have a very strong aesthetic sense what constitutes a good explanation or a good mathematical explanation of something. Nevertheless, I don't go into a thing saying, ‘Let me create something new.’ I go into a thing saying, ‘How does it work?’”

And yet that kind of thinking is arguably creative by definition.

“When I was a young person, I wanted to do something creative. I wanted to do something new and something nobody else had done or something that I could create. When I was younger I thought of trying to be a composer, a musician, and compose music and compose poetry. Unfortunately, didn't have the talent. I could play the violin, but I couldn't compose original music. I tried poetry and I like poetry, and I like reading it, but I didn't really have a big talent for it. When I got into science I had more of a talent for that. What I tried to do is use my interest in creating something new in science and medicine.” - Kilmer McCully, Chief of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine Services for the United States Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center and father of the homocysteine theory of cardiovascular disease.

Science mines for and interprets data. This is where creativity comes in. What do I want to know? Is it worth knowing? How could I design a method to find answers to my question? How can I interpret what this data tells me? Creativity is the underpinning behind all stages of the scientific process.

Astronomer Clifford Stoll: “Ask simple questions to start the creative ball rolling, such as ‘‘How does this work?’ And ‘Why?’ Find questions that interest you. Then start digging for answers. In the search for answers, you just might find better questions. And, isn’t that what science is, in the first place?”

Raising Children Who Think for Themselves

With the challenges that even the scientific community faces in following its own credo of “Just the facts ma’am,” how much harder is it for children to think for themselves, especially when they are bombarded hourly with unrelenting social cues to be like everyone else?

Recall that I wrote in an earlier article “Thinking Independently is Risky,” how birth order can influence whether one follows the status quo (mostly first-borns) or is a revolutionary (mostly later-borns). Keep in mind that these are trends and not absolutes. However, by garnering clues from the parenting practices toward first and only-borns and those toward later-borns, we can learn a lot about how to raise independent thinkers.

First-borns tend to receive a lot more parental attention than later-borns, especially since they were only children for part, if not all, of their childhood. As such, parents tend to exert greater pressure on first-borns to succeed, especially through the established pathways provided by higher education. This is especially true among immigrant children, whose parents regard education as the shortest path to climbing the socioeconomic ladder. Parental attention, parental involvement and even parental pressure often mold children to follow the traditional path of hard work and higher education.

As additional children are born to them, these same doting and involved parents naturally become more lenient and accepting. Their later-born children then, given more latitude and often being less overscheduled, grow up more independent, finding ways to engage themselves and stand out that may not always be the most traditional or accepted.

Raising a scientist means raising an individual who values and follows her curiosity, has the patience to see her hard work through fruition and the independence to follow her findings to their natural conclusions, regardless of the opinions of others. Raising a scientist, then, means combining the best parenting practices of both first-borns and later-borns.

In other words, give your child plenty of attention, while at the same time, allow her the freedom to explore her own interests.

Encourage and involve yourself in her education, while disengaging yourself from the outcome. Your daughter does not need to go to Harvard or Stanford to be a successful scientist, nor does she need to become a scientist to live her life’s purpose.

Cut back on her afterschool commitments. Allow her more playtime.

Guide her without directing her. Share experiences with her.

Share your interests with her.

Let her share her interests with you.

Listen to her.

Follow her lead.

You may be surprised where she takes you.

Standing Alone

“It's easy to stand in the crowd but it takes courage to stand alone.” - Mahatma Gandhi

Scientists, charged with the mission of following the evidence wherever it leads, are ironically often too well-entrenched in their own status and a priori beliefs to accept it. In other words, the established scientific community that devotes years and lifetimes doing the work that inspires scientific revolutions, may also be the last to accept these very same revolutions.

Rocket Girls know when to stand alone.

In order to address the epidemic of infanticide among illegitimate children in nineteenth century Europe, free maternity clinics were established to care for underprivileged women and their infants. Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian physician serving in a “chief resident” capacity at the First Obstetrical Clinic of the Vienna General Hospital, worked at one of these maternity clinics in his off hours.

He found that the four percent mortality rate due to puerperal fever, a form of sepsis of the genital tract, of women in the poor clinic was considerably lower than the ten percent mortality rate at Vienna General Hospital. This discrepancy was so well known, that some women preferred to give birth in the street rather than be admitted to the latter, more established, hospital.

Dr. Semmelweis investigated the possible causes of these discrepant events, one by one, following the evidence wherever it lead. He eliminated differences in religious practices, overcrowding – because the clinic was far more overcrowded than the hospital -- and climate, as the two institutions were close to each other. The only difference he could find was that the hospital trained medical students, whereas the clinic trained midwives, only.

When his friend Jakob Kolletschka died in 1847 after being accidentally poked by a student’s scalpel during an autopsy, Semmelweis discovered a pathology in his friend similar to that of the women who were dying from puerperal fever.

Semmelweis proposed a connection between working with cadavers and then attending to childbirths, without washing in-between, and spent the remaining years of his life, canvasing for antiseptic medical procedures. The subsequent scorn he received from the medical establishment eventually landed him in an insane asylum and early death. Germ theory wouldn’t catch on until later that century, ushered in by the work of Louis Pasteur.

As physicist Maxwell Planck wrote in his autobiography, “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die.” In the end then, good science does triumph over the status quo, even if the status quo has to die off first. Still, scientists must be willing to “follow the evidence wherever it leads,” though it may lead to the occasional post-operational death, bruised ego, or ulcer in its wake.

Rocket Girls are Independent Thinkers

Rocket Girls are Independent Thinkers

Lawrence Krauss describes what could be termed the Scientific Credo in his 2012 book A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing:

Science has been effective at furthering our understanding of nature because the scientific ethos is based on three key principles:
1. Follow the evidence wherever it leads
2. If one has a theory, one needs to be willing to try to prove it wrong as much as one tries to prove that it is right.
3. The ultimate arbiter of truth is experiment, not the comfort one derives from one’s a priori beliefs, nor the beauty or elegance one ascribes to one’s theoretical models.”

These three key principles could just as well describe any independent thinker, a person who bases her conclusions not on someone else’s dictates, but on her own findings, and more than that, is willing to be wrong if her findings prove otherwise. And so it is with Rocket Girls.

One of the most well-known and underestimated Rocket Girl of the twentieth century was Rosalind Franklin. Rosalind Franklin was said to have meticulous golden hands and a genius “that did not suffer fools gladly.” Her x-ray crystallographs of the DNA molecule were the most sought after because of the carefully detailed effort she expended establishing the ideal conditions under which to record the images. Franklin, being a scientist of the highest possible order, refused to reach conclusions without conclusive evidence. James Watson and Frances Crick, on the other hand, were in a rush to find DNA’s structure and make a name for themselves. In so doing, they tried failed model after failed model, trial-and-error, to reach their coveted prize. Franklin, the scientist, tried to prove her findings “wrong as much as one tries to prove it right,” using the “ultimate arbiter of truth experiment.”

Though there are many who faulted Franklin for being difficult to work with, too methodical and slow to publish, it was her passion in collecting data to reach conclusive evidence of DNA’s shape that enabled Watson and Crick to publish their findings.

Scientist: ‘What did Watson and Crick discover?’
Me from the back of the room: ‘Rosalind Franklin’s notes.’” - Tweet by Robby Kraft

The 10 Best Books about Women Scientists

The 10 Best Books about Women Scientists

Here is my short list of the 10 Best Books about Women Scientists. Science’s glass ceiling is still alive and well, but these women have definitely placed “18 million cracks” in it.

1. Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA by Brenda Maddox (Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA)

The Dark Lady of DNA tells the story of Rosalind Franklin, the X-Ray crystallographer whose DNA images were were shown to James Watson (of Watson and Crick Double Helix fame) without her knowledge, and who was practically written out of the story of the race to find the shape of the DNA molecule. Maddox carefully details Franklin’s youth being born into a well-to-do Anglo-Jewish household before and during World War II, the struggles she endured as a strong and powerful female scientist when it was not en vogue, and her untimely death due at 37 from ovarian cancer.

2. Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics by Ruth Lewin Sime (Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics)

Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics is the biography of Lise Meitner (1878-1968), an Austrian Jewish physicist, who discovered the element Protactinium and co-discovered with Otto Hahn nuclear fission. She was forced out of Germany by the Nazi regime and subsequently, Hahn took all the credit for the discovery of nuclear fission, along with the Nobel Prize.

3. Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars by Nathalia Holt (Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars)

Rise of the Rocket Girls tells the story of the original “human” computers of JPL. These original computers, and the first computer coders, were all women who forewent their traditionally full-time roles as housewives and mothers to hand-calculate all the mathematics of JPL’s engineers, and as such, played a crucial role in all of its space missions.

4. Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis by Kim Todd (Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis)

Chrysalis tells the story of 17th century Dutch artist and scientific observer Maria Sibylla Merian who left her husband and had to fend for herself and her two children in the 1600s. She travelled to Surinam at the age of 52 to study insects. She is most known for her exquisitely accurate depictions of insects in their habitats.

5. Madame Curie: A Biography by Eve Curie (Madame Curie: A Biography By Eve Curie ( Illustrated ))

This is the biography of Marie Curie, arguably the most famous woman scientist of all time, as told by her daughter Eve Curie. Marie Curie won two Nobel Prizes in her lifetime, an accomplishment shared by only three other scientists, all the more remarkable because of her gender.

6. In Praise of Imperfection: My Life and Work by Rita Levi-Montalcini (In Praise of Imperfection: My Life and Work)

Rita Levi-Montalcini, who received the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1986 for her discovery of the nerve growth factor, relates in her own words her struggles as a Jewish woman scientist in World War II fascist Italy and the growth of modern experimental neurobiology.

“At 20, I realized that I could not possibly adjust to a feminine role as conceived by my father and asked him permission to engage in a professional career. In eight months I filled my gaps in Latin, Greek and mathematics, graduated from high school, , and entered medical school in Turin.” - Rita Levi-Montalcini

7. Dorothy Hodgkin: A Life by Georgina Ferry (Dorothy Hodgkin: A Life)

This biography tells the story of Dorothy Hodgkin, a British crystallographer, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1964 for her work on elucidating the structures of penicillin and vitamin B-12. In addition to being a successful woman scientist, the only English woman scientist to win the Nobel Prize, she was a wife and mother and devoted much of her life to women’s education, the globalization of science and international peace.

8. A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock by Evelyn Fox Keller (A Feeling for the Organism, 10th Aniversary Edition: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock)

Barbara McClintock was a cytologist and geneticist and one of the most famous alumni of my alma mater Cornell. She devoted her career to studying the genetics of maize, and whose work on genetic recombination and transposition earned her the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1983. McClintock was far ahead of her time, and experienced the stings of a dismissive scientific community unable to comprehend the momentous nature of her work.

9. Nobel Prize Women in Science by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne (Nobel Prize Women in Science: Their Lives, Struggles, and Momentous Discoveries: Second Edition)

McGrayne, in this wonderful collection of biographical essays, takes it upon herself to the tell the story of the other Nobel Prize recipients, the 10 women scientists out of more than 300. To these she adds five biographies of women who either should have won the Nobel Prih)ze, and/or whose work led to the awarding of the Nobel Prize. She writes about the great strides these women made despite the unwelcoming, heavily male-dominated scientific world in which they worked.

10. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks)

This is the only book in this list of books about women scientists that isn’t about a woman scientist. Rather, it is about a woman patient whose cells went on to form the basis of much scientific and medical research unbeknownst to her. It is a book not just about science, but about the compromising of medical ethics on society’s most vulnerable.