shirou: (Default)
[personal profile] shirou
I noticed on CNN a link for an article titled "Will right-brainers will rule this century." I thought to myself that some right-brained person was certainly creative with his grammar, and out of amusement I clicked the link. Fortunately the typo was on the main page only, and the actual article was titled "Why right-brainers will rule this century." It turned out to be a transcript of a conversation between Oprah and the author of a book with the same title as this article.

In this interview, Oprah describes a left-brained person as a "linear, logical number cruncher." I hate that. I get the impression that most of the world has no idea what it takes to do well in logical disciplines like physics and mathematics. Certainly it does require a facility with numbers, but that's just the starting point. That's arithmetic. Success in a quantitative field requires the ability to think abstractly; simple linear progression won't get you there.

Research requires an enormous amount of creativity. Creativity is not an "artistic" trait. Of course a good artist needs to be creative, but creativity is not confined to the artistic realm. There is no single method for solving logical puzzles; as new problems are encountered one needs to be creative and invent new techniques.

Take, for example, the theorem of Pythagoras which everybody learns in grade school. According to Wikipedia, the theorem was known by the Babylonians and the Indians, but it was not until Pythagoras (and/or one of his students) that a proof was constructed. The proof is trivial; even without trigonometry, one can use dimensional analysis to write it in just a few lines. The Babylonians and the Indians had the mathematical tools to find the proof, and they surely would have understood it had it been presented to them, but they didn't find it because it took a spark of creativity.

Today we are trying to prove theorems that are much more complicated than anything Pythagoras encountered, and we are trying to develop an understanding of systems far more complex than triangles in flat space. The answers we seek will not come to us by virtue of computational power alone. If that were the case, we could put up our heels, have a drink and let computers do the work for us (nevermind who is going to program those computers, which also takes creativity!). The rules of logic constrain what is possible, but they will not guide us on a linear course toward the solutions we desire. It takes innovation, imagination and inspiration to explore the space of possibilities -- many of which haven't even been thought of yet! -- and make progress in our understanding of the world.

on 2009-05-08 11:16 am (UTC)
niqaeli: cat with arizona flag in the background (my kitty brethren)
Posted by [personal profile] niqaeli
I have an artistic streak but I've never thought my creativity was tied to it; maybe my father was just an excellent example, maybe I would've grown up with that delusion if not for him. If so, thank god I had my father to show me the truth.

You see, when he was growing up, he thought he wanted to be a physicist. Then he got a BS in physics from CalTech and decided he simply wasn't smart enough (something I believe to be debatable, to be honest, but that is the conclusion he came to); he later went instead into computers and programming. And anyone who thinks that programming isn't a creative endeavour has never programmed, has never met a gifted programmer. He would dream about problems and wake up with a piece of the puzzle he hadn't had before.

Me, I'm a biologist at heart. Biology first and then the interstitial sciences where everything overlaps. But I do also love mathematics; I find physics beautiful and fascinating if often behind me. And I can say that I firmly believe all of the sciences require a great deal of creativity. It takes a great deal of it to be able to see the world as it is, and not as you thought it would be -- because, after all, our brains are pattern matchers, and so often do only see what they expect to.

And for that matter: synthesising widely different data into a coherent whole -- that's pretty near a definition of creativity, by some lights. And that's practically the definition of science as well.

I wonder, sometimes, if people who have such a skewed sense of creativity and science, have ever met a real scientist; they seem to be rare among teachers (I certainly have few good memories of my pre-college science teachersy). And so few people pursue the sciences past what high school requires.


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November 2011


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