Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Science needs a different creativity than arts

...and in some sense, its goal is to tame this creativity and render it unnecessary...

An essay titled
Does modern science discourage creativity?
displays a deeply emotional, anti-scientific sentiment that I am encountering almost every day. Many people like the author seem to hate what science in general and theoretical physics in particular – and especially theoretical physics of the recent 40 years or so – actually is and means.

It seems to me that many people like her who are employed as scientists suffer because they don't really like it. They don't like the "true identity of science" and the features by which it differs from other occupations or belief systems. And it seems to me that the affirmative action is not only harming the efficiency of many fields but it is also reducing the happiness of the people whom it superficially helps because it often forces them to spend their lives with something they don't intrinsically like.

She starts by saying that she has just read a new novel by Neil Gaiman and she feels "jealous of the freedom that a fantasy writer enjoys while turning ideas into products". Be sure, I love arts, movies, music, and visual arts. I've been trained as a piano player for some years and like many genres, I have inherited no genes from my grandfather who was an academic painter, OK... let me stop with that rubbish.

But as the author realizes, science has different rules and even if we talk about creativity in science, it is a different creativity than one that is helpful in arts.

Every meaningful result in science is "incremental" to a certain extent. Assuming a sufficiently inclusive definition of the adjectives, every important enough insight is "ingenious and revolutionary", too. The separation is mostly subjective and claims that some advances "totally and qualitatively differ from others" are just some hype for the laymen. Some of the recent insights that I found most ingenious, shockingly enough simple, original, and creative – like the ER-EPR correspondence – lead to a minimal interest of the folks who otherwise love to blabber on creativity.

The only conclusion I am able to make out of this situation is that they don't actually give a damn about the genuine scientific creativity, one that may exist and exists in the real world. They refer to creativity in order to vent their personal dissatisfaction with science – and all the evidence that I can see suggests that the dissatisfaction proves a problem on their side, not a problem on the side of science.

It seems clear to me that many such people would prefer to be artists but they weren't sufficiently talented for arts so they became scientists. A part of the institutionalized science has apparently become a dumping ground for failed artists.

I have never shared any of these negative sentiments and "jealousy" because the types of creativity behind arts and science are different in some important respects and I have always preferred the scientific type of creativity. I have always found it more spiritually fulfilling.

In particular, theoretical physics has a vision of unification and simplification of everything there is. I've been fascinated by this vision – and by the successes that physics has already achieved while turning this vision into reality – since my childhood. There is some sense in which this unification is the "opposite thing" than creativity as understood in arts.

What do I mean?

Lukáš Kmiť (the Slovak viola player in an orthodox Jewish synagogue in Eastern Slovakia) needed some special creativity and sense of humor to respond to the Nokia ringtone in this way although, as Gordon (who sent me the video) points out, most musicians at this level can improvise like that.

Joanne Rowling is apparently a great writer. She's hugely successful but I think it isn't just some worthless fad; she probably deserves a Nobel prize in literature, too. But she's been spitting out all these Harry Potters and Rubeuses Hagrids and Lord Voldemorts and other half-giants, dark wizards, and their random fantastic abilities and features and stories that have impressed millions – and this is what is behind the creativity of fiction writers.

While I often enjoy a good movie (or, much less often, a book) of this kind, I've been always discouraged by the fact that there's so much of it – so many random heroes in books and tons of other things that people have already created and keep on creating. I feel that we are lost in this giant pile of stuff – or to say the least, I feel lost in this giant pile of stuff that may grow arbitrarily large.

Science in general and physics in particular, like religion, provides us with a loophole. It organizes everything. It shows us that there are general laws. It places all these laws and patterns at the tip of the pile. It tells us how we can overlook the details and see the important things – where the importance is quantified according to the scientific perspective. In this way, it cleans everything.

Sorry, fat man. One of your pals had to become a symbol of the stuff that physics renders non-fundamental and redundant.

By downgrading Rubeus Hagrid to a fat component of the noise that you may overlook (but that's still safely implied and governed by both the Standard Model and string theory), science gives us a new type of satisfaction, cures the uncomfortable feeling of surfeit, and makes some of us happy. It's important to notice that these changes of our view of the world act pretty much in the opposite way than creativity of writers of fiction.

Of course that science has involved the discovery of new things, and I mean both theoretical and experimental discovery. In this sense, science was often "growing extensively". But there is a sense in which even the extensive growth of the science is just an intermediate phase in the struggle for the ultimate goal which is to develop an ever more rigid, more compact, more accurate, more universal, and more unified understanding of Nature.

New features of Nature that humans observed for the first time at some point ultimately have a purpose. It is not a purpose in the anthropomorphic, teleological sense. It is their ability to make a more far-reaching theory of the future consistent. At some moment, magnetism was new but it had to be there because electricity exists and relativity would be broken if there were no magnetism at the same moment. Physicists have only learned about this "purpose" much later. We don't know when the unification of concepts will occur, when some random features of Nature will find their meaning, and we're not even sure about the existence of a meaning of each subtle feature of Nature we have learned. But we know about the general trend of theoretical physics to give us ever deeper and more solid understanding of the Universe.

Does this progress in science require creativity as understood by artists? Or by the critic of science who wrote the essay I started with? Does it support creativity? I don't know and I don't really care because "creativity" isn't the purpose of science. The purpose of science is to learn the truth about Nature. So someone who puts the ill-defined notion of "creativity" at the top doesn't really like science and its defining goal.

Surprise me, but not too much

Does the progress in theoretical physics "encourage" big leaps or just "incremental work"? Has the research become "more revolutionary" or "more incremental"? I don't know how such questions could be meaningfully answered. Perhaps, we could compare the research at two institutions or in two nations and say which of them is doing "more incremental" work and which of them is doing "more creative or revolutionary" work.

But how could we possibly quantify the "incremental status" of the research in the whole physics? We don't have anything to compare this quantity to. It is meaningless. You may find the research "too incremental" but this feeling says much more about you than it says about physics. And if you're not able to convert this desire (and it's just a desire) to valuable physics, you're just blabbering.

Can we compare two eras and say which of them was more creative or more incremental? I don't think so. Different eras are solving different questions. The existing knowledge and other initial conditions are different, too. Different questions combined with different circumstances require different strategies. Creativity may always be redefined by a multiplicative factor that depends on "which questions we are solving".

Quite generally, I think that the ideas that Albert Einstein was a "more creative" or "less conventional" physicist than some of the best physicists of the contemporary world to be just laymen's myths. They're not just myths – they're deliberately fabricated tools of propaganda whose ultimate agenda is to sling mud on modern physics.

Albert Einstein was a highly conservative physicist. He learned the true fundamentals of the 19th century physics extremely well and extremely carefully and his success mostly boiled down to the fact that he took the existing physics and its principles more seriously than everyone else. His conservative character (in physics) arguably became excessive after he completed GR and it may be interpreted as the reason why he failed to embrace quantum mechanics and do top research in the last 30 years of his life.

But Einstein never talked about himself as about a revolutionary. He was always interpreting relativity as some refinement of the existing insights – and indeed, it is a legitimate way to interpret his most famous theory. It's also untrue that he was an outsider – he was trained at one of the best universities in Europe. His paper on special relativity was quickly accepted for publication because the reviewer (Max Planck) could instantly understand its value and its validity. Many others would be able to do the same thing. Lorentz and Poincaré were pretty close to finding special relativity by themselves. Einstein was no warrior who would be standing against the whole scientific community for years. All these ideas are myths.

In fact, we could say that Einstein, a man who became a celebrity well during his lifetime, was the opposite of the folks who had to face the hostile group think of their environment. Perhaps, he wasn't so much ahead of his time. And when it comes to quantum mechanics, its pioneers were clearly at least 30 years ahead of him because he just couldn't "get" their great points until the end of his life.

On the other hand, it's equally untrue that the best researchers today fail to have the revolutionary X-factor or that they're just working within a straitjacket of group think. Numerous top string theorists are and have been genuine heroes of science. They're the ultimate solitaires, too. You have a few string theorists per 10 million people. If you spread string theorists uniformly over the globe, each of them would have to walk for hundreds of miles to find the nearest other string theorist.

They're not just rare. They're actively opposed by mobs, by millions of the stupid people. There exists a whole movement of worthless yet aggressive folks who try to sling mud at string theorists and often harm them personally. Some spoiled brats from Nazi families – yes, I mean the superannuated teaching assistant at Columbia University – have made a living of organizing this community. The comparison to Galileo might be apt – maybe, Galileo faced a weaker backlash by the bigoted intellectual dwarfs than the string theorists do. Fortunately, most of them are hiding in ivory towers so they haven't yet noticed how much hostile people there are outside these towers.

So the suggestion that the revolutionary character of the top researchers has decreased is just a piece of anti-science propaganda.

The author mentioned a paper in Science that revealed that the most influential papers combine scientific concepts in the most widespread ways. She uses this result to criticize the low level of creativity in science. Well, the percentage of papers that use unusual combination of concepts according to some precise measure is a very artificial quantity invented by the soft scientists and the purpose of science is certainly not to maximize this quantity. If this were the purpose, it would also be extremely easy to become the leader; just ask Uncle Al how he does it.

There is a good reason why highly unusual combinations of concepts aren't likely to result in influential papers. Most people who are trying to combine concepts in bizarre ways are just confused about basic science. They're Uncle Als who wouldn't pass a Turing test. They're random generators who confuse science and poetry.

Science is learning about new phenomena, new relationships, but it is also getting more certain about many questions that have been uncertain so far. Science isn't doing the "exact same thing" as it was doing 50 or 100 years ago. So if a soft scientist invents a quantity X, the percentage of papers combining concepts in unusual combinations, or something like that, there is absolutely no reason to expect that this quantity should be constant after 50 or 100 years.

Yet, social sciences and other pseudosciences are implicitly making such assumptions all the time. That's how they differ from hard sciences. They use unjustifiable feelings and arbitrary guesses as if they were on par with established scientific insights. The critic of physics is buying this approach, too.

So the idea that something is wrong with science because the quantity X defined above was increasing or decreasing is just idiotic. Moreover, as I have already mentioned in a related context, when unusual combinations of concepts do occur, like the combination "entanglement" and "non-traversable wormhole", the people who love to praise the unusual combinations remain calm and uninterested even though the paper is clearly correct. Once again, in my eyes, this proves that they don't really care about papers capable of combining concepts in creative combinations. What they care about is to invent demagogic excuses to sling mud at science – or at least the genuine, unbounded part of science that doesn't agree with their preconceived quotas (and sometimes even preconceived results).

The comments in the essay I started with are designed to sound "superficially sensible" but I smell a rat behind most of her sentences. For example, we hear:
But secondly, and more importantly, the mechanism of combining existing ideas is a necessary, but not a sufficient, creative process for sustainable progress in science.
Well, we've been surely used to hearing about a completely new concepts. Radioactivity. A new lepton. A new phenomenon, and so on. Quantum mechanics was arguably the "most novel" development in the history of physics. But it's not guaranteed that in fundamental physics, we will never run out of the new concepts. Indeed, the ultimate "finish line" is a possible final outcome. It's an outcome that many believe to ultimately materialize, it's an outcome that actually motivates many researchers.

(I have already mentioned in the context of the Amplituhedron that some connection to existing concepts – like the spacetime – is an advantage that makes a new concept or theory more important. By itself, the inability to directly link a new concept to spacetime physics is a disadvantage, not an advantage. If one creates a new concept, it is a liability, a debt, and this debt is only repaid when some previously unanswered known questions are answered or previously unknown connections between known concepts and phenomena are unmasked!)

Once all the building blocks are found, there may still be a period in which they are being combined in all the overlooked ways. And even this activity may slow down or stop. It doesn't depend exclusively on us and our skills, desires, and character; it depends on the way how Nature actually works. If a subdiscipline of science finds everything there is, it is a fact we must embrace. The purpose of science isn't to have a "sustainable progress" in each discipline (despite the popularity of the word "sustainable" among Marxists who currently call themselves "environmentalists"). The purpose of science is to find the truth about Nature. The truth may sometimes become complete, too. If that's so, some jobs may become redundant. But the purpose of science is not to preserve the jobs, either.

So the obsession with "sustainable progress" is as misplaced as the obsession with "creativity". These things are just emotional baggage that some people pour onto science and that they want to upgrade to the rulers of science. But these principles aren't leading principles of science. And they can't be leading principles of science as long as it is science.

To summarize, yes, I am annoyed by the constant exposure to people who are frustrated about science, who think and say that science is something else than what they would like science to be, who find it more creative, less creative, more automatic, less automatic, too fast, too slow, too aggressive, too conventional, who think that it combines concepts too chaotically or who think that the combinations are too restricted, and so on, and so on. I love science the way She is, I choose to enjoy (and focus on) the things that are true, that work, that are convincing, that have a deep wisdom and I feel sorry for those who don't enjoy science. But there's no way how I can help them – on the other hand, I think it is possible for them to shut their mouth and stop annoying people who are not handicapped in the same way as they are.

And that's the memo.


  1. Science, at it's heart, is record-keeping and creating templates for such records (theory). One cannot accuse the records of not conforming with one's expectations. As an amateur pianist and writer (making me a little in touch with my artistic side) with an interest in mathematical physics, I think that science is best done by those with no emotional expectations or demands of it. If a physicist feels dissatisfied and frustrated that no 'magic carpets' have been observed in the sky, then he/she should probably find another occupation.

    This is slightly off topic, but I will say it anyway. The institutionalization of science has lead people to develop all kinds of misconceptions about science. They think science will always be around like finger-painting or origami. This is not necessarily true. The discovery of newer things is never certain. Who knows, maybe if strings are observed in the future, physics might achieve closure? If they are, physics will surely lose steam as an occupation. Scientists should never forget that their career contains far more uncertainty than tap dancing.

  2. Right. "Templates for records" sounds boring and it understates the immense diversity and inner wisdom of the templates that have already been found (and will be found) but some people get so focused on emotional interpretations of the templates that they forget that the "templates for records" is the ultimate job of the scientists-theorists.

    Exactly, I made the same point that the "sustainability" is just a myth. There's no reason for scientific progress (especially in a discipline or subdiscipline) to be uniform or sustainable or any adjectives like that. I also agree that this myth is probably a creation of the institutionalization of science because people look at science as at an economy (if not planned economy) which should produce a uniform and sustainable growth. But even if one institutionalizes science, special enough subfields may easily reject any attempts to "plan them" because the number of insights is ultimately dictated by Nature and She loves to introduce the non-uniformity and finish lines She likes, regardless of people's preconceptions.

  3. Nice article, and as far as I understand it I like the ER-EPR correspondance and think it is very cute :-)

    What many wannabe new Einsteins, and other admirors of "cool" surfer or biker dudes not get is that to see and discover new valid insights and relationship, one has first of all to learn about and understand the established knowledge deep and broad enough (including the maths!). Crackpots alway want to skip this step...

    I blame TRF, Lenny Susskind, David McMohan, Tony Zee, Nima, etc for the fact that I am hopelessly addicted to learning more and deeper about fundemental physics (as defined by Yuri Milner and his FFP) whenever I find time for it :-P


  4. 1. "I've been fascinating by this vision.." - you meant "fascinated".

    2. " I don't know how such answers could be meaningfully answered" - you meant "questions".

    Sorry for the nitpicking, great article.

  5. Really good article, thanks!

    I think the "dumping ground for artists" explains why there are so many quacks in Physics...

  6. BlueScreenOfDeathNov 19, 2013, 5:55:00 PM

    I thought modern AKA "Post-Normal" science - particularly the Cliamte McScience variant - was red hot on creativity AKA "Making Stuff Up".

    Look at the new "tools" that are available, Bayes' theorem, Kriging, the creative possibilities are endless.

    Some of the more advanced practitioners in fields such as cognitive psychology are even able to extract statistically significant results from empty sets, you can't get more creative than that!

  7. Really interesting post! Love the comments, too. Some art tries to respect science as in some science fiction writing that gets creative (non-scientific) on the fringes of established scientific knowledge. I was wondering about when early painting began incorporating perspective into compositions and later reflected light off water, etc.., did the artists help discover properties of the world, or just make use of these features? Either way, it seems that art is about values, human-based meaning and emotions, not about how nature actually works.

  8. Luboš, I have no issue with your demanded professional standards...but Newton was wrong and could not have been fixed by right-thinking people. Oliver Heaviside was a horrible man, but proper people he crushed were real world wrong. Creativity is necessary but not sufficient - you must be empirically correct. When rigorous theory is fraudulent, there are deeply fundamental problems with theory and you are not taking out the garbage as it rots. These people have physics PhDs,

    arXiv: 1304.0038, 1201.4147, 1201.1368, 1201.1322, 1112.2689, 1112.1299, 1112.1222, 1112.0815, 1112.0527, 1112.0353, 1112.0300, 1111.7268, 1111.7181, 1111.7050, 1111.6579, 1111.6330, 1111.6330, 1111.4931, 1111.4532, 1111.3888, 1111.2271, 1111.1574, 1110.6697, 1110.6673, 1110.6577, 1110.6571, 1110.6408, 1111.0805, 1111.0733, 1111.0502, 1111.0286, 1111.0093, 1110.4754, 1110.3763, 1110.3540, 1110.3581, 1110.3266, 1110.3071, 1110.2463, 1110.2236, 1110.2219, 1110.2170, 1110.2146, 1110.2060, 1110.2015, 1110.1943, 1110.1875, 1110.1790, 1110.1330, 1110.1253, 1110.0969, 1110.0931, 1110.0889, 1110.0813, 1110.0762, 1110.0755, 1110.0697, 1110.0644, 1110.0456, 1110.0451, 1110.0449, 1110.0245, 1110.0239, 1110.0234, 1109.6930, 1109.6667, 1109.6631, 1109.6624, 1109.6354, 1109.6312, 1109.6296, 1109.6282, 1109.6170, 1109.6160, 1109.6121, 1109.6055, 1109.6005, 1109.5721, 1109.5671, 1109.5651, 1109.5357, 1109.5172

    It was a loose fiberoptic connector in the timing circuit. It was a bombastic success of creative maths excreting empirical crap - and barely five peers dissented.

    [1] Phys. Rev. 104(1) 254 (1956),
    Crackpots. Don't look.
    [2] Phys. Rev. 105(4) 1413 (1957),
    Particle physics is rewritten
    [3] Phys. Rev. 105(4) 1415 (1957),
    Particle physics is rewritten for sure
    [4] PNAS 14(7) 544 (1928),
    Particle physics should have been rewritten 28 years earlier.
    Crackpot. Don't look. Vacuum symmetries for massless bosons and massed fermions are exactly universally identical - just like nowhere else in physics. (and how do we suppress the picture being displayed rather than just being clickable?)

  9. Tiddlywinks is a game of chance, not skill. I would play but I've lost my marbles. Only The Shadow knows what evil lurks in the heart of men. The slide rule taught me to respect the logarithm. What's in Room 135 at SANDIA Laboratories? How many anagrams can you form from ecriture automatique? The key... I have the formula but I won't tell you, it would spoil the surprise. Elemental logic (not elementary, dear Watson). Go back past the pre-Socratics. It's in a sheaf of papyrus at the British Museum. You can thank me later.

  10. Enthralling!
    It seems to me that art follows from classical physics only.

  11. You forgot a long list of references on arXiv, starting with: quant-ph/9911085

  12. 1) Sandia in Albuquerque or in Livermore? 2) Persephone Throckmorton. 3) Absent a falsifying experiment there is no believable theory, Tommy Aquinas' scholarship versus a lens grinder rigorously deriving nothing. Don't pick your Spinoza in public.

    I deal in Pyrex, buster. A hectare of carbon black on cellulose is no match for one aspirin tablet delivered.

  13. A very interesting comment, Ann! Perspective was pioneered mostly by Giotto, an Italian 13th-14th painter, not to be confused with Davide Gaiotto. ;-)

    We wouldn't credit him and others as "mathematicians" or even "physicists" because they were writing no formulae and wer creating no machines. But I do think that the recognition that what we see through our eyes is "transformed" in some way, and learning how this transformation works, did help the scientists even though they wouldn't refer to those insights.

    Well, it's a pure geometry. In some sense, it's hard to understand why the ancient Greeks and Romans would fail to understand perspective - some simply projection along straight lines etc. Well, it seems that many Greeks knew this before Christ but they were using it for illusions only because they were probably not good enough artists. ;-) Giotto was probably the first one who could decently paint *and* who could understand the lessons of the geometers.

  14. Exactly, Dilaton. Even a revolution in science is only meaningful and important if one realizes the magnitude and strength of the system that is being superseded or thrown away. If someone comes just with some random "new talk" that is discontinuous, he is not a revolutionary. He is ignorant about science.

  15. I can not fault this article about the difference between scientific and artistic creativity except that the subheading of it is such an amazingly concise conclusion (or answer to the question) that it should really have been its coda! :-)

  16. What Sabine is missing is that creativity in math and physics is very difficult to achieve. One must absorb and be adept at manipulating complex structures and rules. Truly creative ideas are circumscribed by logic and experiment, intelligence, intuition, and talent.

    This is similar to say, classical music composition---in say, Haydn's time-- you had to first learn fairly complex rules of harmony and composition before you could write creatively and then produce new rules. Not any educated person was capable of doing it. It is very much easier to write a creative or experimental novel or paint something (though, again, the masters still had to apprentice and learn basic skills, unlike today, when a blank white canvas qualifies...)

  17. disqus_xb5Xk1t5f1Nov 21, 2013, 5:07:00 AM

    Hey Luboš,

    Great essay, very interesting (though the rhetoric seems a bit vitriolic at times!)

    Don't have anything substantive to add, just a small grammar correction: "many people like hers" in paragraph 1 should instead be "many people like her."

  18. Absolutely. I have taken Lenny and Lubos to so much lately that I shall need a - 1/12 step program.
    Time to head to bed. Susskind lecture videos on string theory ...

  19. Anyway, let’s not fight about words. (from the article)
    I thinking fighting about words is very important. It is interesting to note that the article makes very vague references to what we mean by creativity. So called "small innovations" should not be discounted. It is a beef I have with some scientists who leave me with the impression that the small innovations are not that important. Wake up, those small innovations, like the technological application of new theories and ideas, are wonderful examples of the creative spirit that greatly improves our lives.
    Of course the "mundane" joining of pre-existing ideas is creative and important. How many scientific papers did the author of the linked piece read? I see that creativity everywhere in science. Sure it is often wrong but that is often how we proceed, by winnowing out the bad ideas. It makes those coming after that much more likely to strike upon the right ideas because they aren't making the same mistakes.
    It is absurd to think that we must always be engaged in "meta-creativity". The novel co-joining of information, if it provides us with new and interesting ways, and especially practical ways, to think about various phenomena then more glory to that level of creativity.
    There is no contradiction between creative thinking and being grounded in data and reality. In fact that is the most demanding form of creativity because it places strong constraints on how to be creative. It is easy to make things up, it is near impossible to do that and be right when your creative benchmark is: is it consistent with our observations.
    I know what you're getting at Lubos, I've seen these types of arguments from the arts community before and it really pisses me off. They can shove their facile, supercilious, pusillanimous pontificating pretentiousness where the sun don't shine.