Is science creative?

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The Bundanon Trust on the banks of the Shoalhaven River, New South Wales.

This post begins with a short story: A couple of months ago I was looking for a venue with a desk and a view for a writing retreat. I rang up the Bundanon Trust on the banks of the Shoalhaven River. The Trust was set up in 1993 when the Australian artist Arthur Boyd gifted 1100 hectares of beautiful land and property to the Australian Government. The place had a profound influence on Arthur’s thinking and artwork. His gift was motivated by his desire to keep something, which he believed the only way to do was to give it away. Since then, the Trust has supported many artists and thinkers from all disciplines, whose creative endeavours have been stimulated by visiting the property and enjoying the rich natural and cultural environment.

When I explained to the person who answered the phone what I was working on, they responded that their focus is on artists who do creative work (which seemed to exclude scientists with a passion for the coast). I began to explain the creative beauty of an equation that concisely expresses a coastal process in a landscape. It was suggested that I write my thoughts down in an application to become an artist in residence. As I hung up the phone, I was troubled by the questioning of something that I have taken for granted throughout my research career. Is science a creative pursuit?

I was in Cambridge recently, where I visited Dr Ruth Reef, a Marie Curie fellow at the Cambridge Coastal Research Unit. Ruth showed me the experiments she has designed to investigate the effects of climate change on salt marshes. On one of the record-breakingly hottest days of the year, we trudged down to the Cambridge Botanical Gardens where Ruth has set up her experiments: a series of trays containing squares of saltmarsh turf dug up by members of the Unit (apparently between them, they had hauled over a tonne of the stuff from the Norfolk coastline to Cambridge!). Each tray was placed inside a plastic dome and treated to a different level of CO2 and salinity. Within the turf, different stems of the plants had been tagged so that their growth rates and responses to the different treatments could be monitored. After their stay in the Botanic gardens, the saltmarsh turf squares were destined for a dip in a water flume, where the flow of water through them would be monitored. This would help Ruth and her team work out the implications of climate change for saltmarsh hydrodynamics. This is an important question given the role of saltmarsh as a natural protector of coastlines against the increased frequency and intensity of storms that have been seen in the UK over the last few years.

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Dr Ruth Reef’s experiment in the Cambridge Botanical Gardens to assess the implications of climate change for saltmarshes.

I stood there in the scorching sun as Ruth explained the various components of her experiment (and also described how her children had actively participated in putting building the domes!). It seemed to me to be an excellent example of somebody using their imagination to put together an original experiment that sheds insight on an important question. Isn’t this the definition of creativity?!

An interviewer recently asked me whether science could solve the world’s problems. I thought about it and responded that scientists have established the best philosophical framework I can think of for producing knowledge. When a research question pops up, it is the job of a scientist to pose a hypothesis which can then be tested and subjected to scrutiny over the course of time. A hypothesis might lie at the centre of a model or experiment that seeks to explain or predict something useful in relation to the research question. Only the hypotheses that resist attempts at falsification have the honour of being considered the best available account for the time being. As the philosopher Karl Popper pointed out, the essence of science is a growing body of theory that has resisted attempts at falsification, rather than a definitive and proven set of laws or rules.

By adopting this framework, scientists position themselves well to solve the world’s problems. They also happen to be lucky people, often with access to state of the art instruments (e.g. fieldwork and laboratory equipment) which, when combined with an analytical, informed mind and some careful critical thinking, produces an excellent foundation for problem solving. Does creativity have a role to play here? Could it be an essential ingredient that holds it all together?

Aldous Huxley once wrote that ‘science is a matter of disinterested observation, unprejudiced insight and experimentation within some system of logically correlated concepts’. But the suggestion that scientific thought is accountable to reason doesn’t mean it has to be sterile, or unimaginative. Surely creativity characterizes the minds of those women and men whose work has underpinned scientific revolutions (evolution? the structure of the atom or DNA? the birth of the environmental movement?). This will be the argument I make in my application to become an artist in residence. Wish me luck…

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