Science, a Field of Imagination
“I’m not creative, so I think I’ll probably end up going into science.” “Scientists are just robots.” “Science is one dimensional, two at best, it doesn’t require creativity.” “Scientists don’t have to think outside the box.”
The common misconception that science doesn’t require creativity or imagination is inaccurate. The word creativity often brings to mind artists and musicians, rather than scientists. Artists paint on a canvas and musicians play instruments in an orchestra, both of which are perceived as “beautiful,” a word society links to creativity, while scientists must follow the scientific method and use measurements, graphs and statistics, none of which are typically thought of as “beautiful.” However, while science and art may be different processes that produce different results, science does require the use of imagination and an ability to think outside the box.
A common argument people cite when making the point that scientists aren’t creative is that science is procedural and the scientist simply follows the steps. While this argument has some merit, it omits a very important piece: that the scientist chooses the procedure and the tools she’ll use to complete it. This decision of how to collect data that will provide the best possible answer to a scientific question is difficult and requires creativity, as each tool provides the opportunity to collect different results. It’s not unlike an artist who must choose whether deep, dark colors of oil paints or the monochrome, stark nature of rusted metal will best portray his message. For example, when Alfred Hershey and Martha Chase were working to determine whether DNA or protein was the heritable genetic material of life, they had to brainstorm the best methods to go about doing so. They used new tools, like bacteriophages and radioactive tagging, in a different way, transferring and tracking macromolecules. They tried various methods, and used blenders in unprecedented ways to separate results (Lee, 2013). They analyzed results, repeated the experiment and reanalyzed the results to ensure they were correct (Szybalski, 2001), and they found that DNA, not protein is the molecule of inheritance (Brown, 1970). This thorough search for a procedure to yield the desired data is typical in science, and coming up with each idea requires not only immense knowledge and research, but also plentiful imagination and creativity.
Once a scientist attains their results, the necessity for creativity continues--the message still needs to be communicated. Similar to choosing which tools to use in conducting research, there is a plethora of statistical analyses available, and deciding which to use and how to use them based on the data and the goal of the experiment requires serious consideration and thought. Continuing with the painting analogy, it’s like choosing which color oil paint to apply to the shadows of a woman’s face in order to bring out the sunshine lighting her icy-blue irises. Should the painter use a deep brown with a red tint or more of a purple so dark it’s almost black? In both the case of the artist and the scientist, the goal is to most successfully communicate one’s interpretation of the world. Analyzing data can be especially difficult if they go against what one hypothesized and believed. When a scientist’s experiment doesn’t come out as expected, first, the scientist looks into possible experimental errors, a process that requires one to be thorough and think of every possible error, usual and unusual. Second, a scientist must be open, and realize that, while their data may not be related to what they were expecting, it still tells them something important, not unlike an artist acknowledging that a slip of their brush may not have ruined their painting, but simply changed the meaning. This was the case with Griffith, when he was researching the possibility of creating a pneumonia vaccine using different strains of the bacteria. He found results that didn’t pertain to the focus of his research, but was able to extrapolate from them an important discovery for humanity: bacteria can transfer their DNA (Griffith’s Experiment, n.d.). Griffith had to be innovative and think outside of the box to interpret his unexpected results.
Finally, scientists, like artists, face limits. Whether these are a lack of tools available or a lack of funding, limits affect the ability of the scientist to complete his experiment as desired, and coming up with alternatives requires a great deal of imaginative thinking. Dr. Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University, a major scientist in STEM cell research, had a multitude of difficulties with funding and space when he first started as a STEM cell researcher at Osaka City University in 1996 because he was a mere assistant professor. He received next to no funding, was given a single seat in a shared laboratory to complete his research, and was not allowed to use embryonic cells in his work--the only way that anyone had conducted STEM cell research at that point. But, not unlike the starving artist, he made do with what he had and continued his work. Eventually, by being creative, Yamanaka worked around a lack of funding and materials and finally achieved a previously unfathomable goal: be able to conduct research of STEM cells without using embryos. He accomplished this by reprogramming adult cells to revert back to STEM cells (Fackler, 2007). While there is still much work to be done, as many of these reprogrammed cells turn cancerous, Yamanaka has taken the first step, and the rest can also be accomplished with further unbridled imagination and boundless hard work.
Science, traditionally thought of as rigid, is not so uninventive. Innovation and the ability to create are at a scientist’s core; without this mindset, science would not progress, just as art and music would not progress. Science is considered unoriginal is thus uncreative, because it follows rules and builds off of previous research, but, in effect, so do art and music. This is how humanity develops: by learning from mistakes and using and improving upon what works. The next time someone says that science does not require creativity or imagination, correct them. Help them learn that science, like art, requires full use of an innovative mind. Remind them, in the words of Albert Einstein, that “The greatest scientists are artists as well.”
Works Cited and Consulted:
Brown, T. A. (1970). The Human Genome. Retrieved December 16, 2016, from
Szybalski, W. (n.d.). Waclaw Szybalski on Martha Chase [Interview]. Retrieved May 11, 2001, from
Lee, R. J. (n.d.). Gender Bias in Science, Part IV: Martha Chase [Web log post]. Retrieved October 28,
2013, from http://www.themadscienceblog.com/2013/10/gender-bias-in-science-part-iv-martha.html
Griffith's Experiment. (n.d.). Retrieved December 16, 2016, from
Fackler, M. (2007). Risk Taking Is in His Genes. Retrieved December 18, 2016, from