On the Cusp of Innovation and Creativity


The conjunction of three events must be noted. The confluence — or syzygy — for me this week is my noting the fiftieth anniversary of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn (1962), Bruce Alberts’ recent editorial on ‘Creativity at the Interface" in Science, and my reading of Jonah Lehrer’s recent book Imagine (2012). Most would be ecstatic to be a Kuhnian paradigm shifter, to be considered a creative thinker and researcher by their peers, or to be an innovator, the Steve Jobs of a given field. After the daydreams drift away, what can we carry back to our laboratories or desks from these three publications?

In his editorial, Alberts, the Editor of Science, sees, in addition to the integration of different expertise into biological endeavors, the ability to choose the most important questions (quoting from Poincaré: “invention is discernment, choice”) and getting beyond data to (quoting Alberts) “deep understanding . . . that benefit[s] humanity”. This is reminiscent of Francis Bacon’s claim that knowledge, used properly, is “for the benefit and use of life”. Alberts stresses the importance of increasing the breadth of knowledge in the life sciences by recruiting engineers and those with strong quantitative backgrounds as essential for continued progress.

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Kuhn’s seminal publication, his analysis of progress in science will be reviewed, as commented upon by David Kaiser in Nature . Kuhn suggested that anomalies arise during the maturation of a science that challenge the order of a discipline; these anomalies are not resolved by assimilation into the science but by a revolutionary change, and the “paradigm shift” that occurs when new theories develop. Once there is a new way of perceiving the world, there is less emphasis on the old. I will reread Kuhn this year, but I’m afraid I don’t know how he will influence my work today, other than that I’m adding more items to my list of unanswered questions and underlining the “anomalies”. From our commenters I anticipate learning how Kuhnian analysis influences their research.

Much longer than these very brief essays is the book by Lehrer, number three on the 29 April New York Times non-fiction best seller list. Lehrer’s examples are drawn from popular culture, new products in business (e.g., “post-its”), and science. It makes for a good read and is most provocative when the reader can extrapolate from Bob Dylan or WH Auden to their own creative conundrums. Auden was an extensive user of intranasal amphetamines (Benzadrine). I can’t recommend that; while insights from dreams and psychedelic drugs might be useful, the latter may be dangerous and illegal, while dreams are not predictable in providing creative answers. Although it is difficult to have your laboratory group-sniffing the mind-expanding drug of the moment while remaining fit for work, two examples emphasize group efforts in creativity and can be applied to the scientific endeavor.

Broadway musicals require a large number of highly talented, high-maintenance, creative artists and their financial backers. Many financially and artistically successful shows have arisen from collaborations that have been successful previously, with the addition of some key new people: not too many and not too few (the Goldilocks effect, or looking for the “sweet spot”). Consider laboratories, where post-docs and junior faculty leave, and new personnel simultaneously arrive: a successful and useful model in the sciences, which may be a model for bringing people with new scientific expertise into the biological sciences. One might say this is a no-brainer, and many in Science know how to do this.

PIXAR requires a large number of people with highly specialized skills to work together to create new, technically-driven films (e.g., “Toy Story” and “Finding Nemo”). Its leaders established a PIXAR university, where potential employees learn the highly technical skills and diverse expertise required to make their product. (Some at NIH will remember institution-wide courses, not for credit but for knowledge.) PIXAR organized the physical environment of their university to drive individuals together: all the bathrooms, food, and libation are located at a central core. Random (and planned) meetings are encouraged.

I remember, in Walter Bodmer’s lab at Oxford from 1978-9, tea time in the morning and the afternoon were close-to-command performances. Everyone was there, and instant messaging (face-to-face) was perfected before email.

PIXAR holds frequent meetings, with frank, public discussion of work in progress. These are not typical “brainstorming sessions”, with everything ending up on the whiteboard. There are techniques to decrease brutality and hurt egos, and we should be thinking about how our working groups are handled and whether we are getting the maximum input from and education for those involved. Different group leaders employ different styles, and one size may not fit every group of individuals. Think about your group and all the possible models.

Lehrer presents some models that can help groups to be more creative — but what about the individual? For the creative individual, Lehrer suggests keeping a problem churning around all the time in the intuitive and analytical portions of one’s mind while seeking lots of random input, walking the streets, talking with everyone about everything, allowing cerebral interconnections to percolate, and waiting for the “moment”.

Our scientific societies and their leadership should consider how to integrate those with primary mathematical and engineering expertise as full-fledged members of our meetings and journals, scientifically, socially, and administratively. We have a model in the interactions of epidemiologists and their European Dermato-Epidemiology Network (EDEN) — no doubt there are others.

I’m sure our creative readers have numerous suggestions for increasing innovation and creativity; all your comments are appreciated.


Alberts, B. Creativity at the Interface. Science 336: 131, 2012

Kaiser, D. In retrospect: “The structure of scientific revolutions”. Nature 484:164-6, 2012

Kuhn, T. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 1st. ed., Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Pr., 1962, Chicago.

Lehrer, J. Imagine: How creativity works.Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012, New York.

Image by sjorsvb (via Flickr) used under the Creative Commons License, can be found at http://www.flickr.com/photos/sjorsvb/4660677164/.