Sunday, December 11, 2005

Beautiful Minds: Creativity in Science and the Arts

Yesterday's post must be the most boring blog ever - why would anyone want to know what I did in the British Library? However, I am about to embark on its sequel: 'What I did at the British Library day 2'. This is even more exciting than day 1, because, dear blog-reader (if you exist) rather remarkably I read some books! Also I took some notes, but mainly I longed to the end I longed to sleep so much I thought I would try and walk around to wake myself up, had some coffee in the attractive little restaurant and it was there that I noticed that the British Museum had a new exhibition to replace their excellent Hans Andersen one.

This one, BEAUTIFUL MINDS: Capture the Spirit of Nobel Achievement, was presented in an unusual way - some of which I thought worked very well, and some I thought was interesting but also slightly perplexing. The entrance contains glass cases each devoted to this year's laureates, then there is a series of displays around the lower room with objects loosely associated with the prize which was quirky and interesting, and a few stands devoted to the life of Alfred Nobel himself. Apparently he had literary aspirations before he went on to make his fortune making dynamite and he could never believe that dynamite could be used for non-peaceful purposes. At the end of his life, having no descendants, he left his money for his annual prize - for people who had made a great contribution to physics, medicine or physiology, chemistry, peace and literature. Economics was added later. The perplexing part of the exhibition was in the middle of the room - an elaborate display of moving posters, one for each prize winner, with lots of interesting-looking information, but I can only say it was 'interesting-looking' since it kept moving and was too far away to properly see. Beneath this carousel was a table with places set for the Nobel prize-winning ceremony and a cube showing moving images from previous ceremonies on all four sides. Still, it was eye-catching and intriguing and might well entice some people to learn more about the Nobel Prize and its history and winners.

Once, long ago, when I was a young research chemist I was having a discussion with an Italian Chemist at a conference about his many successes in the preparation of certain molecules when he suddenly went quiet and then alarmingly modest. Startled by the change in character I looked around and saw a pale fragile-looking man with glasses listening to the two of us. He nodded to the Italian and then smiled and winked at me then went on his way. 'Who was that?' I asked the Italian who looked shaken. Professor Jean-Marie Lehn,' he managed to say. It was as if we had been visited by a saint. In fact we had been visited by a future Nobel Laureate. One of my colleagues went to work for this man but came back a few months later - 'They work hard and play hard,' he reported back. He looked exhausted.

This idea of working and playing hard was a theme repeated in the part of the exhibition I found the most fascinating: a series of short films on places that have been particularly fruitful in producing Nobel Prize winners in science asking the question 'WHAT SORT OF ENVIRONMENT CAUSES CREATIVITY IN SCIENCE?'. The films were evocative and unusual using the three screens to excellent effect including a section on Budapest featuring the chemist George Olah who was awarded the Nobel prize for his work on carbocations. It is remarkable how many Nobel Prize winners have had to escape dreadful working conditions. Usually this has involved some escape from Nazi Germany (Roald Hoffmann, another Nobel prize-winning chemist and poet is a good example) but George Olah escaped from Bulgaria in the 1950s and so was able to continue his very important work in the states thereafter. Other places mentioned were Cold Spring Harbour in the US, the Niels Bohr Institute Copenhagen, the Basel Insitute for Immunology in Switzerland, Cambridge in the UK, and Santiniketan - a school established in India. The films were all made independently but it was surprising that there was a clear theme common to all of them which answered the question posed above and that was THE SORT OF ENVIRONMENT CONDUCIVE TO CREATIVITY IN SCIENCE IS ONE IN WHICH DIFFERENT DISCIPLINES ARE ENCOURAGED TO COME TOGETHER AND TALK.

So creativity in the sciences seems to have similarities to creativity in the arts. It is the linking together of seemingly unrelated ideas in new and fabulous ways. It is something I have heard called 'defamiliaristation' in terms of creative writing but it can also be applied to science as well. It is the taking of the ordinary and making it weird, new and different.


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