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.