Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Science and Creativity and Relativity

One of the reasons I love research is that it involves discovery and creativity. The scientific process of investigating and testing and interpreting and synthesizing and writing and drawing and speaking requires the use of many different parts of your brain, and this is very stimulating. However, a lot of people seem to think that creativity = the arts, and that science is a dry, linear activity involving sitting at a computer and staring at numbers and coming up with An Answer to a question, sort of like doing advanced homework problems. I have been spending time with my relatives, who live elsewhere, this summer, hence this semi-random topic for today.

I am the only scientist, only professor, only Ph.D. in my family, and this is viewed as eccentric. Everyone was relieved and surprised when I got married and, even more shocking, had a baby. One relative said to me "We never thought you'd have a normal life, what with all that science you do."

Every once in a while a relative will ask me what I do when I'm not teaching, and it's fun to talk about my research in a very general, non-jargony way, though I've yet to find the perfect way to describe it to my family. Once, a long time ago, my mother asked if she could read one of my papers. I was thrilled. She said that she would skip the title and just start reading, and she would stop when she got to a word or concept that she didn't understand. I picked my most general and accessible paper ever, and gave it to her. After 1, maybe 2, seconds, she put the paper aside and asked "What's an Abstract?". And that was that.

So they think I'm strange, but that's OK. When I am at a family gathering, as I was recently, we seldom talk about anything anyway. We mostly just drift around each other in a silent northern New Englandy kind of way, and that's considered enough interaction.

The part that does get to me is when my relatives talk about how "creative" some of my cousins and other relations are. A cousin who likes to go to concerts is Creative. A cousin who likes to sew is Creative. A cousin who likes to draw is Creative. And so on. Years ago, a relative said to me "You're a scientist, so you're not as creative as your cousins are." Ack. I don't want to impress them, I just want them to understand more about what science and scientific research is. This is a major goal I have when I teach my students, so it's disconcerting to have failed so spectacularly with my own family. My husband has the same situation with his family, though they are more aggressive about telling him how obscure and strange they think his career choice is. Maybe it would be easier if we were trying to cure diseases or invent a new kind of wheel instead of working to figure out how the physical world works, but maybe not.


Anonymous said...

It is quite hard for people to understand that you make the problems up yourself. That is not their experience with math and science!

Jonathan Wonham said...

This is a subject that interests me greatly. Why aren't scientists allowed to view their work as creative? Is it because they are simply perceived as working through a series of already present problems? As your previous commenter points out, the problems also have to be discovered.

Who is the archetypal 'creator'? It is god. Was God a scientist? Not, I think, in the popular imagination. He was more of an artist. He had a blank canvas, and he created the world on it. Ever since Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and even before, scientists have been perceived as working against nature, and hence against God. Their 'creations' are botches. Their work more associated with the devil.

My own efforts at trying to heal this rift are focussed on trying to see the links between science and art, rather than the differences.

Anonymous said...

I got here threough Dr. Mom's. I recently read in Richard Feynman's at "Do You Care What Other People Think?" on this subject. Feynman argued with an artist freind that he too sees the beauty in a rose, as an artist does, and even more.

Ms.PhD said...

This one made me laugh. My family is pro-science, and my parents have made valiant efforts to read my book, but I think they would love it if I would get married and have babies.

To be honest, I think the truly creative and imaginative scientists are the best ones, but they tend to be less common than the average semi-creative arts major. We have to be creative within limits, just as poets do, but we have more rules we have to work around. You are allowed to ask if some commonly accepted theorem is wrong, but only one at a time. Artists don't have the same kinds of constrictions.