[U]nlike artists or musicians, we do have competitors. Only van Gogh can paint like van Gogh and the uniqueness of Beethoven’s music is immediately recognizable. Their contributions are irreplaceable. But individual scientists are not irreplaceable. There are many, many examples of important discoveries being made simultaneously by several individuals or groups working independently. The social scientists have all manner of explanations for this “phenomenon” but the bottom line is this: If I am not the first to discover, almost certainly someone else will be. No wonder we are so desperate to publish. Add to that the perception of relatively short productive life span for those that work in certain fields like mathematics and theoretical physics. Wolfgang Pauli’s admonishment: “So young, and already so unknown” comes to mind in this context. Musicians and writers are thought to achieve greater depth in their work as they go through life, while we scientists lose our creativity and simply wear out.

Wut? (I’m sure I don’t know; you can read the rest at this Nature blog. . . )


  1. #1 commandax
    April 30, 2010

    Only Tesla could invent like Tesla. Only Einstein could think like Einstein. I posit that there are occasional genius minds like Beethoven’s and Van Gogh’s within any group of people thinking about any given field of study.

  2. #2 Colin
    April 30, 2010

    His argument is sound. Why? Reality is reality and it doesn’t care who comes along first to describe how it works. In fact, reality doesn’t give a flying hoot what you *think* it does: it just does. Many people have been wrong and many people have been right and many people have been half-right.

    Einstein may be associated with relativity but I guarantee you someone else would have thought of it. How do I know? GPS. To my knowledge Einstein’s work had nothing directly to do with us getting into space (as in if Einstein weren’t born we still would have gotten to space) but the moment we turned on GPS we would notice the daily drift of location and say, “Woah! This isn’t right. Something is awry here!” and someone would have solved it. [That is if not before then as there are many other discrepancies explained by relativity.] We would have created atomic clocks, put one in a plane, and noticed that the readout is different than the one that didn’t undergo acceleration. Einstein was brilliant but it. Would. Have. Happened. Anyway!

    Science is *not* a creative product like music because reality is reality and nothing you say, do, think, act, dream, wish, hope, or pray will change a damn thing about it.

    The first one to explain reality wins. That’s the game. If you don’t like it then take your beaker, go home, and write some music.

    Brilliant scientists merely move us along faster and the day we rely solely on genius to answer questions in science is the day we know 99.99999999% of everything.

  3. #3 Brian
    May 1, 2010

    What dosh. The reality is that the vast majority of artists are also interchangeable, no less than the scientists.

    Furthermore, you can argue that Beethoven’s music is unique until you’re blue in the face, but I rather expect a better musicologist than me could name some composers whose music is quite similar — similar enough that the average classical music fan would have trouble telling apart their less familiar works. And, I guarantee you that if Beethoven had never been born, someone else would have come along and composed music a lot like his.

  4. #4 commandax
    May 1, 2010

    You guys can be interchangeable cogs if you want to, I’ll stick with the visionaries.

  5. #5 John Danley
    May 1, 2010

    Science is about applying ingenuity and creativity to elucidate the natural world. Art is about applying ingenuity and creativity to facilitate symbolic communication. Neither one is more or less creative as they require entirely different skill sets and set out to accomplish different objectives. Nonetheless, these fields often merge and can intersect in highly significant ways (Oliver Sacks, Jessica Palmer, and Natalie Jeremijenko).

    The original position sets up a false dichotomy and further ignores the science that makes art possible in the first place.

  6. #6 Jessica Palmer
    May 1, 2010

    I sympathize with all the comments written so far, and I wonder if part of the disagreement here isn’t about whether to focus on process or final outcome.

    In the sciences, the final outcome must always converge on reality, because the whole purpose of the scientific endeavor is to describe and understand reality as well as possible. Art does not have that goal/constraint, so in art you end up with widely disparate final products. There are only so many ways to accurately represent gravity, but millions of ways to interpret, sculpt, or paint the human body. That makes it appear as if artists are more creative, perhaps, but it’s not necessarily so – they simply aren’t working toward a highly constrained goal.

    I think it’s more productive to look at the process by which we get to scientific innovations: flashes of insight and later development of the hypothesis, which can in fact be very idiosyncratic and creative. Many scientists supposedly have “eureka” flashes of insight: Kary Mullis had some sort of vision of PCR; Kerkule had a vision of benzene as a snake eating its own tail. Some such stories are probably apocryphal (Newton’s apple); they reflect an awe of creative genius as something unpredictable, inscrutable, even divine. There is definitely a tendency to over-ascribe scientific discoveries to individual genius, when in fact they were the product of long hours of labor by many people. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to the “flash of insight” concept. (I’ve had “flashes of insight” where I come up with the answer to a question without having a clue how i did it, so I’m certain Einstein/Newton/etc. could do it). I think that listening to your intuition is quite valuable for a scientist. Plus, science doesn’t end with an idea; you also have to flesh out the idea, and some scientists do so in ways that are more unusual, elegant, innovative, and creative. Einstein is famous for his thought experiments, for example.

    So I’d argue that, while the theory of relativity would have eventually been developed, the way Einstein got there could involve unique genius. His scientific process was visionary, even artistic. If you accept that, then I think the big question is, does having a visionary like Einstein in the mix change how science flows and develops? If we’re all converging on the same endpoint – a better approximation of reality – does it matter how we get there – the long way, the short way, or the creative way? My gut says yes, but it’s really hard to support such an assertion, and leads you down the path of philosophical argumentation.

  7. #7 Mike Olson
    May 1, 2010

    I tend to agree with the points being made about creative style being similar to the initial description of a physical reality. If Bach had composed it, if Monet hadn’t painted it, if Michelangelo hadn’t sculpted it…someone else would have done something really, really similar. I liked what Feynman had to say about discussing this sort of thing with an artist friend. Basically, the artist felt that as a scientist Feynman couldn’t appreciate the intrinsic beauty in the same fashion as an artist. The example used was a flower. A scientist would be too involved in analyzing how it worked and concerned with taking it apart to simply enjoy it as a thing of beauty. Feynman of course felt this was wrong, and that as a scientist he could not only enjoy the intrinsic beauty of it simply being a flower, but because of a greater depth of understanding could enjoy the flower on a much deeper level. Without going to far into it, as a young man in a small town I let a desire for popularity push me out of an interest in science. Later in life, after that sort of behavior got me what I deserved, I was in a position to realize just how much greater I could appreciate life with an understanding of Chem, math, bio…I am not an artist…I wish I had more talent in the area…but, most people fail to realize, because to them it just doesn’t make sense, understanding mathematical concepts and ideas and seeing how they apply to how our universe works, how our bodies work, how our ecological systems work…give them a grandeur far beyond a simple painting or photograph of the surface beauty of those systems….recognizing how math applies to music can do the same thing….

  8. #8 Comrade PhysioProf
    May 1, 2010

    My own impression is that we grossly overestimate the role of individual human “genius” and “creativity” in driving the progress of *all* fields. If there weren’t a Mozart, there’d have been some other composer from the 1700s whom everyone considered totes awesum. If there weren’t an Einstein, someone else would have been the first to explain the photoelectric effect and relativity. If there weren’t a Feynman, there would have been someone else to discover QED. if there weren’t a Picasso, someone else would have revolutionized art in the twentieth century.

    This is not to say that we shouldn’t strive for creativity and productivity in all our human pursuits, but rather that we shouldn’t aggrandize the individual for the accomplishments of human culture.

  9. #9 Jessica Palmer
    May 1, 2010

    LOL. I have been writing an essay dealing with that issue, PP!

  10. #10 Mike Olson
    May 1, 2010

    Another thing to consider is how many Mozarts, Einstiens, Galileo’s were there who spent their whole lives in a 2nd century A.D. South American jungle or on an island in the pacific. The mind and the curiousity might have been there but without the tools or the training(education) what could they have done? For that matter if these discoveries are due to a few highly gifted individuals appearing randomly through out human history, what might someone like Da Vinci or Newton be able to do today? Circumstance, random meetings, and culture would seem to greatly influence the ablitity of anyone human in any time or space to make a significant artistic or scientific contribution.

  11. #11 Jessica Palmer
    May 1, 2010

    And that is the standard argument for why women and minorities don’t make up a large number of famous scientists – or didn’t, until recently. One would assume that even today, many people with very creative minds are unable to become either artists or scientists, even if they want to.

  12. #12 Glendon Mellow
    May 2, 2010

    When I get hired for an art commission, I ask myself a similar question: is this person hiring me for my specific style (unique genius position) or are they hiring a crafts-person to achieve a proscribed image (interchangeable cog position).

    The answer to that question drastically changes the approach involved. I would suspect it’s similar with the difference between a lead researcher in charge of their own budget and with a person facilitating a known process.

  13. #13 DD
    May 2, 2010

    Domesticated permutated
    standardized homogenized

    interchangeable cloneable parts
    irreplaceable irreducible arts

    earth caves, quarries of flint/ochre/chalk
    the original art galleries, with echoes of talk

    firewarmed dome huts, ring around the wellspring,
    surrounded by a crown fence of rose & acacia thorns,
    keep safe, nighttime herd & hounds,
    daily wastes, put outside the bounds
    watership downs, before there were towns

    over time, over populated, fencelines tightened
    the domes got squeezed into roundhouses, uprighted

    which then became square block-houses and longhouses
    from trekways to trails to roads to straight streets
    sledges & rafts got wheels and sore horses feets
    and from there we know the rest, its all in the texts

    brief journey to yesterday

  14. #14 MPL
    May 2, 2010

    If Einstein hadn’t been, we still would have gotten relativity, since in fact others were making progress towards the idea as well (Poincare and Lorentz come to mind). Newton is essential, but Hooke, Wren, and others got to the inverse square law first. The first chapter of Origin of Species was given over to previous thinkers on the evolution of animals.

    On the other hand, everyone else coming up with the ideas were geniuses too.

    Conversely, without Picasso and Braque, we wouldn’t have had Cubism—but I suspect we would have had a shocking reworking of art anyway, reflecting the changes in society, technology, etc.

  15. #15 Comrade PhysioProf
    May 3, 2010

    Conversely, without Picasso and Braque, we wouldn’t have had Cubism—but I suspect we would have had a shocking reworking of art anyway, reflecting the changes in society, technology, etc.

    This is a very interesting issue, and different from the anallogue in science. As has been pointed out, in science the “creative” outcomes are nearly fully determined by the nature of objective physical reality.

    I know nothing about art, but is it possible that the historical progression of art is similarly highly determined by what art has come before? That is, is it possible that even without Picasso or that other dude, someone else would have come up with Cubism, because the history of art up to that point determined that Cubism was gonna happen?

    BTW, what a great motherfucking discussion your post has spurred, BioE!

  16. #16 Luna_the_cat
    May 3, 2010

    There’s also an issue of how soon or late we come to a scientific idea, and what the different “takes” on that idea are and what controversies they engender, which in many ways shape culture as much as art does. The different personalities and cognitive angles in science are no more as well as no less interchangeable than different artists; or are you saying that the Russian study of biology would be in exactly the same place now if there were no Lysenko?

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