Creativity in Science and Engineering

Copyright 1998 by Ronald B. Standler

Table of Contents

personality traits associated with creativity
how creativity occurs
         solitary activity
management of creativity
issues in education of creative students
industrial management of research
interesting books on creativity
         Sternberg's theory of creativity

1. Introduction

My interest in studying creativity was inspired by the frustrations that I felt as a student, then as a professor. I wanted to know how I could encourage creativity in myself, my students, and my colleagues.

Politicians, industrial managers, academic administrators, and other leaders often say that innovation is critical to the future of civilization, our country, their company, etc. But in practice, these same people often act as if innovation is an evil that must be suppressed, or at least tightly controlled.

The purposes of this essay are to (1) quickly examine some of the personality traits that are associated with unusual creativity and innovation and (2) to criticize management and educational techniques that penalize or discourage creativity. The way to increase the productivity of creative people is simple: give them resources (time, equipment, money) and stand out of their way!

2. Definitions

First, consider a definition of creativity. A creative person does things that have never been done before. Particularly important instances of creativity include discoveries of new knowledge in science and medicine, invention of new technology, composing beautiful music, or analyzing a situation (e.g., in law, philosophy, or history) in a new way.

It is important to distinguish among three different characteristics: intelligence, creativity, and academic degrees. Intelligence is the ability to learn and the ability to think. Creativity was defined in the previous paragraph, as the ability to produce new things or new knowledge. Academic degrees are what one gets after one has sat through years of classes, passed the examinations, and completed all of the other requirements (e.g., senior thesis, doctoral dissertation, etc.). In comparing and contrasting these three traits, I note that:
  1. Most people who create significant things are intelligent.

  2. There are many people with an earned doctoral degree who do not have a single creative idea in their head. They are intelligent and highly skilled problem solvers, but someone else must formulate the problem for them (e.g., give them an equation to solve). Thus intelligence and academic degrees are not evidence of creativity.

  3. Students who are both intelligent and highly creative often make mediocre grades in school.
Genius is a vague term: sometimes it indicates a person with an unusually high score on an IQ test, other times it indicates an extraordinarily creative person (e.g., Mozart or Einstein). I don't like the word genius, not only because of this vagueness, but also because it often has the connotation in colloquial American language of indicating a freak, weird, or abnormal person. I am interested in understanding and encouraging creativity, not pasting pejorative labels on creative people. Further, someone who is not a genius can still make a valuable contribution to progress.

theory of creativity

Readers who have not previously considered the psychology of creativity might first wish to read my summary of Sternberg's theory of creativity at the end of this document. In short, the ability to be creative is the amalgamation of several different kinds of intelligence and personality traits. Creativity is an amazingly complex subject.

There are many books about the psychology of creativity in artists, but relatively little about creativity in scientists and engineers. However, there are (1) a number of biographies of scientists, which give some light on creativity in scientists, and (2) some books on creativity in mathematicians.

The following are my own conclusions and comments about creativity, based on: It is obvious that before one can do creative science and engineering, one must have some technical knowledge of facts, laws, and methods (e.g., study of physics, chemistry, calculus, differential equations, statistics, computer programming, etc.). If one compares highly creative scientists and engineers with their plodding, ordinary colleagues, one finds essentially the same kinds of intelligence and knowledge in both groups. Therefore, I conclude that it must be the personality traits that distinguish creative from noncreative people.

3. personality traits
associated with creativity

A. diligence

Many people who are famous for their creative output are highly diligent, often bordering on the obsessive. It is common to see creative professors working 60 to 80 hours/week for the sheer joy of the effort. Creative people have an inner need to express their creativity. They can not keep their new idea inside their head forever, the idea needs to be born. In fact, many creative people would be creative, even if they were not paid for their effort or output, a situation that has lead society and managers to a frankly shameful exploitation of many of the greatest innovators in the history of mankind.

Not all creative people work long hours. I get the impression that mathematicians and theoretical physicists are often exhausted after 20 to 40 hours/week of intense thought.

In discussing the amount of time a creative person spends on work, it is important to reward productivity, not number of hours worked. Many times, a creative person will work a few hours and encounter an obstacle. Continuing to stare at the work is unlikely to produce a breakthrough. Experience shows that novel insights often come at unexpected times (e.g., while doing some mundane task, such as walking or in the shower).

In industry, it is common to see creative engineers working in their spare time, or working during evenings and weekends, on their "secret" project. If they asked their manager for authorization, the manager would likely say "No!", so the creative people keep their project secret until it is completed or it becomes clear that their concept will not work.

Nights, weekends, and holidays are good times to accomplish creative work, because there are fewer interruptions (e.g., from telephone calls, unexpected visitors) to break one's concentration.

I can not emphasize too strongly that a diagnostic sign of a creative person is that he/she finds their own work to do, rather than sit idly until someone else gives them an assignment. Creative people need to express themselves through creative projects. However, one should distinguish between a workaholic who puts in 80 hours/week doing routine work and a creative person who works long hours doing new things, often things that no one else thought could be accomplished.

Many people with unusually great creativity are ambitious, concerned with their reputation, and apparently need to prove themselves worthy. I suspect that these characteristics formed the motivation for their diligence, which is necessary for success. Their need to prove themselves worthy may come from experiences early in life in which other children, other students, etc. ridiculed or taunted them.

Reading biographies of famous scientists and inventors shows that many of these men had an intense focus on their work. One could describe this intensity with pejorative terms: obsession, monomania, idée fixe. Or one could recognize that the intense concentration was necessary to take them beyond the reach of ordinary men.

B. stubborn

In trying to do innovative work, I have often noticed the following problems (in addition to my ignorance and mistakes!):
  1. My colleagues tell me it is "impossible", "you are crazy to try this", "it will never work", "it has been tried before", etc. Of course, when I accomplish my goal, they forget their earlier prediction.

  2. There is nearly always inadequate funding and inadequate laboratory resources, which makes the experiment take longer than it would with appropriate equipment.

  3. There is always inadequate time, because the project is in addition to one's regular activities (e.g., sponsored research, teaching, earning money, family and personal life)
Being creative is extraordinarily difficult work that is essential to progress! And society seems to delight in making it more difficult by denying resources to creative people who need them. The way to succeed in spite of these artificially created burdens is to have some combination of the following character traits: Most people would characterize these traits as negative or undesirable qualities, yet I believe they are essential to innovation.

By arrogant, I mean trusting one's own judgment and ignoring other people's adverse opinion (e.g., "you're crazy to try that", etc.). It is ok to be arrogant in selecting projects and goals for one's self and allocating one's personal time.

C. gender

It is well known that, as a general rule, men are more aggressive than women, owing to testosterone. For example, nearly all violent criminals are male. It may be that testosterone gives men an advantage over women in persisting, despite the disappointments and frustrations that are inherent in research. (Having said something that might be provocative, please do not misunderstand me!   I believe in equal opportunity and removing gender barriers in life, including professions.   I simply observe that there are differences in genders beyond sexual anatomy. For these reasons, providing equality of opportunity does not assure equal outcomes.)

The subject of gender differences is complex. For example, one can observe that an appreciable fraction of undergraduate students majoring in biology or chemistry are women, while only a few percent of undergraduate students majoring in mathematics or physics are women. When I have discussed the issue with women, they have often told me that guidance counselors in high school and college told them that "women are not able to do physics or mathematics", advice that is surely not correct. Surprisingly, women seem to accept such bad advice in a passive way. In contrast, telling a man that he is not able to do something often serves as a challenge to prove the advisor wrong. This trait of perversity in men could be valuable in persisting in the face of inevitable disappointments and frustrations in creative work.

I am intrigued by the observation that women are much more common in the police and military, occupations that involve violence and physical courage (i.e., traditional male attributes), than in physics or mathematics, which are safe, clean, indoor occupations. Similarly, many attorneys who successfully litigate cases are female, more proof that women can succeed in a profession that requires aggression and stamina. So I am baffled by the absence of women from science and mathematics, particularly when one considers the success of women in police, military, and litigation.

I have the impression, from my experience teaching electrical engineering for ten years, that women tend to approach problems in a formal mathematical way. This earns them good grades in school on textbook exercises, but is not necessarily the best way to approach practical problems. Many of my male colleagues are intuitive when approaching problems, the mathematical analysis comes later as one works out the details. My guess is that men develop this intuition by building things during childhood and tinkering with automobiles and computers during adolescence. In contrast, conventional culture denies these experiences to women, by insisting that girls play with dolls, sew, cook, etc.

In the USA, there is a toy called an "Erector Set" that consists of a collection of metal beams, brackets, machine screws and nuts, etc. for children to build their own toys. During the late 1950's, the Erector Set was a common Christmas gift for boys, but was conventionally considered not suitable for girls. I wonder if this gender stereotyping during childhood translates ten or fifteen years later into a denial of opportunity for women to compete with men in physics, mechanical engineering, etc.

D. eccentric

From reading biographies of famous scientists and musical composers, one common personality trait becomes clear: many of them are eccentric. Being eccentric does not imply that one is creative. Conversely, not all creative people are eccentric: some creative people have normal family lives and conventional values.

(Normally, I write about people in a gender neutral way, but most famous scientists, and all major composers of music, are male. While there are a few examples of famous women scientists, there are not enough to make any generalizations about their character traits. So the following paragraphs are limited to men.)

D.1. reclusive

Many creative men were a hermit, recluse, or loner. Only a few sought publicity (extroversion), which is contrary to what one would expect from ambitious men.

The percentage of men who never married, or never had children, is greater among creative scientists than in the general population. I see three reasons for this result:
  1. These men rarely met women, since women are rare in physics, mathematics, and engineering.
  2. Many creative scientists are reclusive. They have difficulty relating to people, either male or female. This difficulty might be expressed as shyness.
  3. It may also be that romance, erotic play, etc. were seen as ephemeral activities and a distraction from their real work.

It is not clear to me if the creative trait of being a recluse is either:
  1. something essential to creativity, because creativity is inherently solitary work, or
  2. something creative people learn, in order to avoid criticism, taunting, ridicule, and other abuse. During childhood, such abuse comes from teachers and school children. These early experiences are reinforced later in life by abuse from managers and "normal" (i.e., noncreative) colleagues. Alternatively, it may be less painful to be lonely, than to be among "normal" people who do not understand what it is like to be creative.

D.2. not religious

Returning to the discussion of eccentric traits in creative scientists, a larger percentage of scientists were either atheists or agnostics, compared to the general population. I suspect that these men simply applied the same objective standards of science to religion, and refused to believe dogma on faith alone. Further, a person who accepts dogma has the security of knowing that millions of other people believe the same dogma, which is something that gives comfort and assurance to many people. In contrast to the majority of the population, creative scientists are often skeptics, for whom belief is always tentative and subject to continuing inquiry and testing. Note that I did not say that religious beliefs are incompatible with being a good scientist. I only note that religious beliefs are less common among scientists than in many other groups of people.

D.3. monotonous routine life

Highly creative men often had a monotonous diet or wore the same kind of clothes every day. I suspect that these men saw routine details of life, such as eating and clothing, as unimportant and not worthy of thought. It may be that these men were unconsciously rebelling against conventional values and concerns that impeded them in their creative pursuits. In some extreme cases, creative men lived in cluttered, messy environments, because they did not take the time to clean house.

D.4. bipolar disorder

There seems to be a higher incidence of bipolar disorder (i.e., manic-depressive disease) in highly creative people than in the entire population. This disorder causes neither creativity nor intelligence, but it seems to enhance creativity, perhaps by removing inhibitions and barriers to radical or complex thoughts.

D.5. enjoy their work

Another reason that creative people are sometimes seen as eccentric is that creative people genuinely enjoy their work, instead of working only because they need an income. But creative people should enjoy their work, because it is significant and original.

E. conclusion

On reflection, one would expect innovative people to be unusual, even eccentric, when viewed by normal society. If innovative people were ordinary, they would work like ordinary people and achieve little of historical significance, because they are only executing routine assignments. Creative intellectuals are normal when compared to the population in which they belong.

Conventional people often put pejorative labels on creative people, to characterize their nonconventional (hence, different) personality traits. In addition to the "eccentric" label, which was discussed above, there are labels like "geek" and "nerd". Ordinary people often apply pejorative labels to intellectuals, who often do creative research, for example: "pointy headed intellectuals who can't park their bicycles straight" or "eggheads". Such pejorative labels may serve to identify individuals with unusually high intelligence or unusually great creativity, in effect making them an anomalous person, so that ordinary people have an excuse for not being able to compete with these anomalies. Further, this use of pejorative labels is a marginalization of creative people, by alleging that creative people are either defective or have a personality disorder.

One of the principal ways to be creative is to look for alternative ways to view a phenomena or for alternative ways to ask a question. Conventional society heaps pejorative terms on creative people (e.g., obsessive, monomania, stubborn, uncompromising, eccentric). It would be better to see the behavior that is identified by these pejorative labels in a positive light: these characteristics are common among creative people, and may be essential to creative success.

During the 1980's, Senator Proxmire in the USA held regular press conferences and identified a specific scientific research project as an example of government waste (i.e., his "Golden Fleece" award). Of course, the senator, the journalists, and most of the people reading the journalist's report would be unable to understand and fairly evaluate an esoteric research project. The Senator simply denigrated scientific research as a way of boosting his own public esteem. A rational society should encourage creativity, not denigrate it with pejorative labels, because creativity is valuable to society.

4. how creativity occurs

Conception of a new idea often occurs in an intuitive flash of insight, in which the more or less complete idea is revealed. Equations and logical analysis come later. Someone who is reading scholarly publications in a library sees the final result in a format that is quite different from its initial conception. The fact that the public presentation is different from the way the idea initially occurred can lead to misunderstandings about how science is actually accomplished.

One of the principal ways to be creative is to look for alternative ways to view a phenomena or for alternative ways to ask a question. It is easy to ask questions that are trivial to solve. It is easy to ask questions that require extraordinary effort (e.g., 50 man-years of effort and millions of dollars in expenses) to solve. It is surprisingly difficult to find questions that lie in between these two extremes, and also have a result that is worth knowing.

One often-cited example of creativity is George de Mestral's observation of how cockleburs attach to clothing, which led him to invent the hook-and-loop fastener known as Velcro®. He transformed a common nuisance to a useful product. When one looks backward in time to analyze how a creative act was made, one often finds that creators made a novel interpretation of a well-known fact or occurrence. Often the interpretation converted a disadvantage into an advantage.

Another commonly cited example of creativity is Art Fry's development of Post-It® removable notes at 3M Corporation in 1974. Dr. Spencer Silver, another 3M scientist, had developed a polymer adhesive that formed microscopic spheres instead of a uniform coating, and thus was a poor adhesive that took years to set. Fry wanted a better bookmark for his church hymnal, so he used Silver's adhesive. The conventional wisdom is that every adhesive must be strong. By ignoring the conventional wisdom, Fry developed a highly successful office product. However, not only did he need to develop the idea, but he also had to sell the idea to his management and marketing departments, which were resistant to his new idea. A creative manager, if there be such a person, would have redefined the problem to find a use for a weak adhesive, but the conventional wisdom that all adhesives must be strong is apparently overpowering. There is a second exception to the "all adhesives must be strong" rule: thread locking compounds that prevent machine screws and bolts from loosening during vibration must be weak enough to allow removal of the screw or bolt during repair.

Prof. David Swenson has posted a web page with a rich collection of examples of innovation.

creativity is solitary work

Creativity is essentially a solitary enterprise. Most landmark discoveries in science and all major musical compositions are the work of one person.

New ideas are often tentative, half-baked, and difficult to communicate in a persuasive way. On the receiving side, most scientists and engineers generally react to someone else's new idea by discouraging it: "It won't work.", "It's a waste of your time.", etc. Colleagues tend to reject unorthodox views, at least until those views are convincingly presented, in a complete form. But such a completed form occurs at the end of a research project, not at the beginning or middle. So, as a defensive measure, it is best to keep new ideas to one's self, until one reaches an unresolvable problem that requires someone else's assistance.

Further, creative work is inherently personal. Involvement of other people diverts the creator's unique vision of the final product and how to create it. When multiple people are involved, there are inevitably compromises and the final product is mostly a consensus view. As an aside, French law recognizes that the creator of a work expresses his/her personality in the work, so – while the creator may sell the copyright or object – the creator always retains the "droit moral" in his/her work. See my separate essay at my professional web site on moral rights of authors, which are not recognized in law in the USA.

Still further, the personality trait of stubborn and uncompromising makes it difficult for many creative people to work in groups, where compromises are routine practice.

There are certainly large projects that require too many man-hours and too many different technical skills for one person to do all the work. Examples of such projects are particle accelerators used by nuclear physicists, optical and radio telescopes, design of aircraft, etc. However, in practice, these large projects are broken down into many small tasks, with a few people (perhaps only one person) having the responsibility for each task. If multiple people work together on one task, or different people supervise and approve the work on one task, the approach will tend away from innovation and tend toward a consensus view that uses proven ideas. While this approach may increase reliability, it also thwarts creativity.

Sometimes a scientist working on a problem is frustrated and discusses the problem with a colleague, who suggests a way of solving the difficulty. In this way, the final work may be published as a multiple-author paper, but each part of the solution was the responsibility of one person. The colleague may contribute a mathematical or experimental technique, or knowledge of some fact, that was not known to the first scientist.

Another way to get multiple-author papers on innovative topics is for a professor to have more good ideas than the professor can personally develop. So the professor gives good idea(s) to a graduate student, and the student does the work to develop the idea into a publishable paper. It is traditional for both the student's and professor's name to appear on the final paper: the student did nearly all of the work, the professor contributed the initial idea, equipment and resources, and helped the student with difficulties along the way. This process is more than merely preparing the student's doctoral dissertation: it is teaching in a Master-Apprentice style. Besides benefits to the student, it also increases the productivity of the professor and, by increasing the professor's reputation, makes it easier for the professor to obtain future financial support. Carried to an extreme, the professor will become a manager who writes proposals for financial support, generates new ideas, and allocates resources, but is no longer personally involved in scientific research. In the long-run, removing the professor from personal involvement in doing experimental or theoretical work could decrease the rate at which the professor generates significant new ideas, and make the professor less familiar with techniques for solving problems.

5. management of creativity

In a later section of this essay, I discuss management of creative employees. Here I want to make a critical point: one of the worst things a manager can do to creative employees is have the employees adhere to a rigid schedule of delivery dates for assignments. Naturally, the manager will, in addition to the rigid schedule, insist that all of the employee's time be spent on projects that the manager has approved. Such a rigid policy of assignments and schedules kills creativity.

History teaches that many important discoveries were made accidentally. If the discoverer had some "spare time", he could investigate this unexpected curiosity. But if the discoverer was working diligently on a tight schedule, then there was no time to follow this detail that was not essential to the completion of the assigned project, and the discovery was forgotten.

People who are highly organized express their love of schedules with various clichés, such as:
"If you do not know where you are going, you will not know when you arrive."
"If you do not know where you are going, you will be lost when you get there."
There is much truth in these clichés. Little good can come from truly aimless work. My point is that when something unexpected and interesting happens, there should be some time available to explore this serendipity. People who are intelligent and creative, and who are familiar with the subject matter, generally have good intuition for when some unexpected occurrence is worth exploring further. Making them ask for permission only slows the discovery process, it does not produce better results. If the unexpected result is, with hindsight, seen to be a mistake, at least it was an interesting mistake from which one learned something.

There is another cliché that is popular amongst some scientists who I have known:
"If I knew what I was doing, it would not be research."
For the kind of research that involves discovery of facts that were previously unknown, this cliché is correct: the results are unpredictable and many of the methods will fail, before there is any success. The kind of research done by physicists and chemists in universities often falls in this category. For lack of a better name, this is conventionally called "pure research".

However, there is another kind of research – called applied research – in which the goal might be (1) to design a new product to meet certain specifications or (2) evaluate a product, perhaps a drug, for safety and efficacy. Applied research can be managed successfully. The scientists and engineers who work in applied research definitely know what they are doing and they frequently almost meet their deadlines. <grin> I discuss applied research more in the section on industrial management, later in this essay. The point to be made here is that scientists and engineers who are doing applied research also can have unexpected results, in addition to simply doing their assignment. If they have some spare time, the unexpected results can be investigated and might become more significant than the original assignment. Commonly there is no time and the unexpected results are forgotten.

I have come to believe that it is not rational to attempt to manage pure scientific research. True research involves a quest for the unknown that is inherently unpredictable. Even the people doing the research, who are experts in their field, have difficulty predicting the applications and consequences of their discoveries. If the experts can not see the consequences, there is no reasonable hope that a manager without technical expertise can see the consequences. Some "insignificant" projects might become significant many years after they are published, when someone else recognizes a use for the result of the old work. The most famous example of this was Einstein's use of non-Euclidian geometry in his gravitational theory – before Einstein, non-Euclidian geometry had been pure mathematics without any practical application.

Research is often highly personal. Researchers do not like to ask permission to explore ideas that may be tentative, intuitive, and difficult to communicate. Many good ideas begin as a mistake or error, which produced an unexpected result, and few people like to mention their mistakes or errors to their supervisor!

Finally, I observe that pure research is inherently wasteful: one often spends money on projects that fails to give any really useful information. One must simply accept such dross as part of the price of progress. If the results were predictable, then it wouldn't be pure research. Diamond mines also produce lots of worthless rock, but are still profitable enterprises. When we look back on the history of the Bell Telephone Laboratories in the USA, we remember the invention of the transistor, the invention of the laser, the discovery of cosmic background noise remaining from the Big Bang, not to mention the development of a highly reliable telephone network. Who cares about the dross that was produced in that Laboratory? Research should be supported because it is the engine that fuels modern economies (by creating new products and new ways of working), as well as improving the quality of life, and because men's spirits are lifted by discovery of knowledge, just as putting a man on the moon made everyone in the USA proud.

Many people whose familiarity with science comes from reading a book will wonder why scientists do not go into a laboratory and emerge with an important results, such as a cure (or vaccine) for some dreadful disease. Progress in science is generally slow. Each scientists makes small incremental steps of progress, building on the published results of others, as well as their own experience. Rarely – and only rarely – will a scientist have an inspired, novel thought that is truly revolutionary. These people often get a Nobel prize for their achievement.

In looking at biographies of Nobel-prizewinners and other famous scientists, I see two classes of innovation:
  1. competent scientists who were in the right place at the right time. Some of these people apparently do not make any other truly great achievement during the remainder of their career. Perhaps this kind of significant innovation is a random event.

  2. true genius, who is able to repeatedly develop significant innovative ideas (e.g. Einstein)
It appears that very few scientists are blessed with one great moment, even fewer are blessed with several great moments. It is the same in music: some composers (J.S. Bach, F.J. Haydn, W.A. Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert) wrote large quantities of outstanding music at a frantic pace, while other composers produced only a few outstanding compositions during their lifetime. How can we, as professors, leaders, managers, encourage great discoveries to occur more frequently?

History shows us that many important discoveries are made by young scientists, during their time in graduate school or in the few years after they receive their doctoral degree. The conventional interpretation is that the time between ages 20 and 30 years are the "best" years of a scientist's life. The reason for this phenomena seems to be that young scientist have learned the basic skills (e.g., calculus, differential equations, statistics, computer programming, scientific theories) but are inexperienced. In this way they are like a child in a new environment: the child is naturally curious and almost everything is unfamiliar. But, unlike a child, a young scientist is articulate, knows how to observe and record facts, and knows how to interpret the facts.

When someone has worked or lived in an environment for more than about ten years, they tend to be less observant and less curious, because they are familiar with the environment. With this interpretation, the solution to increasing creativity is clear: scientists should change fields approximately every ten years, so they continue to seek big, new challenges, instead of becoming comfortable experts. I do not necessarily mean radical changes, such as from nuclear physics to collecting butterflies in a rain forest, although a nuclear physicist would bring a rich collection of new techniques to taxonomy. <grin> Linus Pauling is an outstanding example of a person who changed fields and was productive in each field where he worked. Of course, changing fields periodically will stop the production of wise, old men who have 40 years of experience in a field. Exactly! Many of these "wise" old men know that something can not be done, whereas an inexperienced person simply does it and is rewarded. Many of these "wise" old men know that something is not worth doing, whereas a less experienced person puts facts together in a new way and makes an important discovery. I am not against the wisdom that comes with experience, but I would prefer to see experience in many different areas instead of 40 years of experience in one narrow area. There is also a valuable cross-fertilization between areas: techniques that are well-known in one field can enrich another field.

We can also encourage creativity by changing the way that schools are operated, which I discuss in the next session of this essay. If schools produce more creative people, our government must give financial support for creative activities, not just scientific research, but composition of music, and other forms of creativity.

6. issues in education
of creative students

My observation is that many instructors, from elementary school through undergraduate college courses, have a standard, orthodox, only "one right way" approach to the material. A student who does it differently from the instructor is labeled "wrong". I believe that such an approach is often the result of the limited intellectual ability of the instructor, who only knows one reliable technique.

Conventional instructors ask students to recite on an examination information from lectures or the textbook. This is a difficult task for creative students, because creative people naturally add something new to what ordinary people consider a straightforward problem.

As a simple example of rigidity, when I was a pupil in elementary school, the textbook and instructor taught that the definition of a noun was "the name of a person, place, or thing." But I had read my mother's old college grammar book, which said that a noun was "the name of anything". I liked the latter definition better, because it was logically simpler: any name is a noun. But I was marked wrong for not using the official definition, although the definition I gave on the examination was equivalent.

A more serious example of rigidity in education was given in a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine. The author had attended medical school in the late 1800's, when patients with bacterial infections often died. During bacteriology class, he had carelessly allowed his culture dish to become contaminated with mold, which killed the bacteria. His professor berated him for his sloppiness in allowing the contamination. Looking backwards from the antibiotic era, this example of education seems stubbornly rigid. Because of the focus was on obtaining the "correct" result, neither the professor nor the student asked the proper question, namely "Can the property of molds to kill bacteria in vitro be used to cure bacterial infections in vivo?" In 1928, Alexander Fleming isolated penicillin, the first of the antibiotics, from the common mold Penicillium, an achievement for which he received the Nobel prize in medicine in 1945. Fleming's discovery of penicillin came from asking the proper question, which instructors of bacteriology in medical school could have (but did not) asked fifty years earlier.

I remember a test question from my wife's medical journal in the early 1980s, along the following lines. You are a physician in an emergency room. Joan, who is known to you as a diabetic who uses insulin, arrives by ambulance and is comatose. Her husband says she was vomiting earlier in the evening. What do you do immediately?
  1. Administer glucose intravenously.
  2. Administer insulin intravenously.
  3. Draw blood and measure serum glucose level.
  4. Check airway, breathing, and heart rate.
The correct answer, according to the medical journal, is D, because the physician must always check airway, breathing, and circulation when initially examining a patient under emergency circumstances. When my wife gave me the question and I chose B, her comment was that I knew too much about biochemistry. Medicine, or at least medical education, is about following rules, not about thinking. My reaction is that a paramedic with no knowledge of physiology or endocrinology would do better than a scientist on this examination. When I was a law student during 1995-98, I saw the same rule-following behavior that rewarded memorization and penalized creative thinking. In my view, law and medical schools should post yellow warning signs at every entrance, marked NO THINKING ZONE.

Students who are both intelligent and highly creative often make mediocre grades in school, because these creative students see issues and ambiguity in examination problems that the instructor did not intend. Creative students "misread the question", according to the view of the conventional instructor. This problem is particularly severe on multiple choice examinations where a creative student can quickly find situations in which either all or none of the answers are correct, whereas a noncreative student who knows the material in a conventional way simply selects the best answer and gets marked correct. On an essay or problem-solving examination where the student is expected to explain the student's answer, the student has an opportunity to show the instructor other ways to interpret the problem. However, conventional instructors are often intolerant of such creative interpretations.

Moreover, many creative students are bored by pedestrian classes that are pitched at the intellectual level of the middle of the class (or, worse, pitched at a low level so that everyone passes), so the creative students devote more of their time to their personal creative projects and neglect their regular classes, which often leads to a grade average between C and B. I am concerned that many intelligent and creative students may prematurely abandon their education, because of boredom with the curriculum and teaching methods.

Around 1960, it was the custom in the USA for elementary schools to spend the first half of each school year repeating material that had been taught during the previous year. This repetition is not only a waste of time for pupils who learned it the first time, but those pupils become bored with school.

Many graduate students with high grades (i.e., nearly all A grades) are unable to do research, in which their assigned problem had no known solution. I saw this phenomenon when I was in graduate school during the 1970's and many of my fellow students dropped out of school. I saw this phenomena again during the 1980's when I was supervising graduate students' research work. On the other hand, I could find students with B grades in regular classes, and even C grades, who not only could do research work, but also seemed to enjoy the challenges of doing research work. Classes prepared students to take more classes, not to do original thinking, a conclusion that shows that schools and universities are failing in their basic mission. I think the concept of grades is sound, because grades provide a short-term motivation to study diligently. The real problem is not grades, but curricula and examinations that are filled with arbitrary textbook problems with little relevance to success in the actual practice of science or engineering, such as research or design of a new product.

In teaching electrical engineering to undergraduate students, it is conventional to give them a circuit diagram with the values of all of the components (e.g., resistance, capacitance, inductance, independent voltage source, etc.) and ask the students to calculate either the output voltage or the current in some branch of the circuit. Engineering textbooks are filled with such problems, but (1) the circuits are arbitrary and without practical utility and (2) learning how to solve such problems does not produce better engineers. However, it is relatively easy to teach students to solve these problems and it is easy for the instructor to grade their work, since there is only one correct answer. In contrast, I invented my own homework problems that asked a student to design a circuit having certain properties (e.g., input impedance, specified relationship between input voltage and output voltage, etc.). To make the exercise more realistic, I penalized the students slightly for using more components than my design: this emphasized that simple designs were better. The amount of my grade penalty was proportional to the cost of the extra component(s), but I would waive the penalty if the student's circuit had some feature that was better than my straightforward solution. The reaction of the students to these problems was interesting to me. Most of the students found my homework frustratingly difficult, because they had never done such problems before, although they had attended 12 years of education in public schools plus at least 2 years of college before I taught them. Many of the students who had received A grades in most of their previous science, mathematics, and engineering classes were struggling hard to earn a C grade in my class. More surprisingly, some of the nominal C students were earning an A grade in my class, and they suddenly came alive for the first time in many years of school.

Among physics teachers, there is a famous story of a student who does not give the expected answer to a straightforward examination question. If you have not already read this story about determining the height of a building with a barometer, now you have the opportunity. <grin> Many physics professors see this story as illustrating adolescent rebellion or mere scholasticism. However, I am very sympathetic to the student's boredom and defiance: physics is about more than pendula, balls rolling down inclined planes, and measurements of mass and distance. Physics is about understanding the universe – space, time, energy, symmetry –   and discovering new knowledge. Learning to solve boring textbook problems is a poor preparation for a career in scientific research.

Students need to see more homework problems in school that require creative solutions:
I have posted some comments on the value of attending a small liberal arts college for the bachelor's degree, then a large research-oriented university for a doctoral degree. That essay also has some comments on the value of colleges for women only.

Children seem to have an innate sense of curiosity, enthusiasm, and imagination. Mature adults generally lack these qualities. Where did these qualities get lost? I believe that teachers and industrial managers beat these qualities out of people, in order to make them easier to control and manage. In my experience, both as a student and professor, organized education – as a bureaucracy – actively discourages creativity. I believe that creativity can be taught and encouraged in a master-apprentice setting, such as a student working in a research laboratory. It is much more difficult to teach and encourage creativity in a classroom with more than twenty students, but I believe it can be done in a small way, if the instructor makes a great effort. Of course, there is no reward for the instructor who makes that effort, and with the many other demands on the instructor's time in American universities, it is unlikely that the instructor will make the effort.

A related problem is the intellectual egalitarianism in the USA: it is ok to select athletes with unusual abilities and train them hard, but the same process with intellect is seen as snobbish. That is a recipe for disaster in an economy that depends on technological innovation. And yet that is exactly the route taken by public elementary schools and high schools in the USA, as well as by most state colleges and universities in the USA.


Aside from the insidious effects of formal education on creativity, I am concerned with the effect of television. When one reads a book, one forms a mental image of what is happening. When one listens to the radio (e.g., a baseball game), one also forms a mental image of what is happening (i.e., remember the positions of the players and imagine how they are moving). But television explicitly shows the correct image, so there is nothing left to the imagination. I believe that reading books, and listening to the radio, stimulate the imagination, which is a very valuable skill for creative people. The ubiquitousness of television after the mid-1950's may be depriving children, and adults too, of opportunities to expand their ability to imagine.

The insipid content of television programs in the USA is a separate problem that is not relevant here.

7. industrial management of research

If an industrial manager finds out about an unauthorized project by a creative engineer, the engineer will generally be ordered not to do it. There are a variety of reasons for this heavy-handed control of creative engineers by management. First, managers believe "good ideas" come from the top manager down to the workers, "good ideas" can not possibly originate from mere workers. Second, "it's not in the budget." – it would be horrible if an industrial group did more than it was assigned and paid to do! Third, people in positions of power and authority see creative people who are enthusiastic about their new ideas as loose cannons, who are dangerous and need to be controlled. Creative people often have their own vision of the future, which disagrees with the manager's direction. Managers want everything under control and on schedule, creative people are generally disorganized and unpredictable. One can neither schedule nor predict a brilliant idea.

My cynicism in the previous paragraph is based on my personal experience working in a major American corporation (Xerox), augmented by tales from many of my associates who continue to work in industry, despite their frustrations. The popularity of the Dilbert comic strip is testimony to how common nonsensical management is in the USA.

The fundamental organization of a business day into work from 8 AM to 5 PM, Monday through Friday, disrupts the way many creative people work. For example, when I program computers, I tend to work continuously for about 14 hours, then collapse in bed and sleep for 8 hours, then go back to work on my program. I repeat this cycle until the program is finished, even if it means working on Saturday and Sunday. If I were to break up my work into shorter blocks of time, I would be much less productive, because I would need to spend more time picking up the thread of my previous thoughts. When I talk to other programmers among university faculty, I find that my binge behavior is typical. Similarly, some composers retreated from society and worked continuously until their musical composition was completed.

As effort becomes more routine, it also become less creative. For example, a bank manager would not want a creative bank teller, instead, a manager would want to treat tellers as generic, interchangeable commodities, who do their work in the same way. Indeed, "creative bank teller" or "creative accountant" sounds like a euphemism for fraud! <grin>

Creativity is essentially a solitary enterprise. Most landmark discoveries in science and all major musical compositions are the work of one person. However, teamwork, not individualism, is the standard pattern in industry. There is a funny experiment of mine that you can reproduce. Engage a businessman or industrial manager in a discussion about creativity. Then ask:
         "Would Beethoven have been more productive if he had been working in a team?"
The question is absolutely ludicrous to anyone who understands either the art of musical composition or Beethoven's personality. I have difficulty asking this question without giggling, because it is such an outrageous suggestion! But, astoundingly, industrial managers tend to say:
         "Yes, I would have put Beethoven in a team and increased his productivity."
My conclusion is that such industrial managers do not understand the first thing about either creativity or development of art. I see close parallels in composing music and making scientific discoveries, and the personality of Beethoven is close to the personality of many creative professors of science, despite the differences in subject matter and methods. Aside from issues of management of creative people, I think attempting to increase Beethoven's productivity by putting him in a team is akin to killing the Goose that laid the golden egg. Beethoven was incredibly productive without any management or teamwork: during 33 years of work, he composed more than 50 major works that bridged the Classical and Romantic periods, and introduced numerous innovations. All this without a consistent patron or employer, and with deafness during the last years of his life, particularly when he composed the Ninth Symphony.

8. bibliography


journal articles

Kenneth R. Hardy, "Social Origins of American Scientists and Scholars," Science, Vol. 185, pp. 497-506, 9 Aug 1974.
Reports that membership in Unitarian church, Society of Friends (Quaker), or secularized Jewish religions were highly overrepresented among scholars when compared to the entire U.S. population.

Sternberg's Theory of Creativity

In my reading of psychological literature, there are numerous hypotheses and theories of creativity that conflict with what I have observed in creative colleagues and what I have read in biographies of creative scientists and composers of music. However, the following theory of creativity, put forth by Prof. Sternberg at Yale University, makes sense to me. Sternberg says that all of the following are essential: a lack of any one item in the list precludes creativity. I think he is correct, except for the last item: it is not necessary to have a favorable environment, although such an environment certainly makes life easier for creative people.
  1. Intelligence
    1. synthetic intelligence. The ability to combine existing information in a new way.

    2. analytic intelligence. The ability to distinguish between new ideas that have potential, and new ideas that are not worth further work. This ability is essential to an effective allocation of resources, by evaluating the quality of new ideas.

    3. practical intelligence. The ability to sell one's ideas to funding agencies, managers, editors, reviewers, etc. Without "practical intelligence" the creative person will not be allocated resources to develop their ideas, and the creative person may achieve recognition only posthumously.

  2. Knowledge gives the ability to recognize what is genuinely new. The history of science shows that many good ideas are discovered independently by more than one person. Scientists and engineers must be familiar with the technical literature, in order to avoid "reinventing the wheel". On the other hand, too much knowledge might block creativity, by immediately providing reasons why a new idea is not worth pursuing and by encouraging a person to be rigid in their thinking.

    Knowledge is also important to provide skills necessary to design experiments, to design new products, to analyze the results of experiments, do computations, etc.

  3. Thinking Styles. Creative people question conventional wisdom, instead of passively accepting that wisdom. Creative people question common assumptions and rules, instead of mindlessly follow them. This style brings creative people into conflict with society around them, so it is also essential to have a personality that tolerates this conflict, as explained in the next item in this list.

  4. Personality. Creative people take the risk to defy conventional wisdom and to be a nonconformist. Creative people have the courage to persist, even when the people around them provide objections, criticism, ridicule, and other obstacles. Most people are too timid to be really creative.

  5. Motivation
    1. intrinsic or personal. Creative people genuinely enjoy their work and set their own goals.

    2. extrinsic. There are a number of extrinsic motivators: money, promotions, prizes, praise, fame, etc. Extrinsic motivators mostly focus on an end result, not the process of discovery or creativity. In highly creative people, extrinsic motivators appear to be less important than intrinsic motivators.

  6. Environmental Context. Many environments (particularly managers and bureaucracy) discourage creativity. A creative individual who could flourish in one environment can become a routine, ordinary worker in another environment. The optimum environment for creative people is where they can be paid to do their creative work, so creativity is a full-time job, not a spare-time hobby.
Permit me to explain my disagreement with Prof. Sternberg on the last item: a favorable environment. Many types of creative work (e.g., research in theoretical physics, writing books, composing music, etc.) require minimal physical resources, so such creative activities can be accomplished in one's personal time at nights, weekends, and holidays. If one is employed in an environment that discourages creativity, one can still be creative on one's personal time. In this sense, a favorable environment is not necessary for creativity.

On the other hand, other types of creative work (e.g., experiments in physics, chemistry, engineering, etc.) can require expensive laboratory apparatus. A scientist without access to such laboratory facilities is prohibited from doing creative work in experimental science. So, in this sense, I agree with Prof. Sternberg that a favorable environment can be necessary for creative work.

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begun 25 May 1997, revised 25 Dec 2002

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