Deepmala 18 – Springs of Scientific Creativity

What are the key ingredients in scientific creativity? It is the ability to recognise and pose, rather than merely solve, high-level problems. For example, James Watson felt sure that it was going to be possible to discover the molecular nature of the gene and worked hard at it- even to such an extent that he was fired from the Rockefeller Fellowship that he had. Einstein has been quoted as saying that, when he was 15 years old, he asked himself what would the world look like if [he] were moving with the velocity of light.

Complexity and heterogeneity are also major barriers to recognising problems. The genius of Newton was in recognizing that a ball thrown in the air and a planet circling the sun are “the same” with respect to gravity. He made the further crucial abstraction of treating his objects as point masses, reducing the complexity to a minimum. These abstractions and simplifications of Newton are, in reality, simple, but only after the fact. As we look back on great scientific discoveries, many of them seem childishly simple to us. The great innovation of Galileo was to avoid trying to explain why objects fall (as Aristotle had) in favor of quantifying how they fall.

There are many hurdles in India today, which hamper scientific creativity. One of them is overemphasis on becoming an expert. The expert is many times in the danger of developing the small cage habit. Zoo animals, when moved to a larger cage, may continue to pace about an area the size and shape of their old smaller cage. The danger in becoming an expert is that one tends to build one’s own cage out of the certainties and facts which one gradually comes to know. Dogmatism builds cages in which the dogmatic then live and expect everyone else to live also.

Most people can learn to be far more creative than they are. Our Indian school system emphasizes single correct answers and provides few opportunities for exploratory learning, problem solving, or innovation. Science becomes a textbook exercise of learning definitions rather than one of discovery. All this must change if we wish to bring the very best of scientific creativity in Indian science.

The ability to see what everyone else sees but thinks of what no one else thinks is the hallmark of a great scientist. Everyone saw that the sea was blue, but only Sir C.V. Raman thought of what no one else thought.

This ability brought Sir C.V. Raman the distinction of becoming the only Indian scientist to win a Nobel Prize in the twentieth century for work done in India. We hope that we will recapture that spirit of inquiry, which we had in the millennia that have gone by, and create several Ramans in the twenty first century.