SELECTED READINGS FOR ESSAY 4 (II)
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Creativity and theoretical physics
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For more than fifty years, from the first psychometric experiments to contemporary contextualist approaches, creativity in science has been a growing topic of research interest. The outstanding achievements and lives of Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein have been the theme of innumerable psychological investigations. At the base of this interest in scientific creativity is the conviction that it entails mental processes that are common to other creative manifestations. As an introduction to the understanding of creativity as a collective endeavour, in this section I will review two common theories of the individualist perspective: the gifted child and the creative dream.
Albert Einstein is well-known for having been one of the greatest physicists of all time. His accomplishments, including his crucial contribution to the birth of quantum theory and his formulation of the theory of relativity, are highly celebrated by both the professional physicist and the non-expert. In the innumerable psychological descriptions that have been made of him, he is invariably presented as the archetype of the creative person. In the following paragraphs I will use Einstein’s renowned figure to reconsider the theories of the gifted child and the creative dream; afterwards, I will suggest a possible relationship, though subtle, between each of these widespread ideas and current beliefs concerning the production of string theory.
In the comprehensive Encyclopedia of Creativity edited by the psychologists Mark Runco and Steven Pritzker[source], there is, as expected, an entry to Albert Einstein. The article was written by Arthur I. Miller, a known biographer of Einstein. There, he writes: “For the most part, during his childhood Albert was a solitary child, preferring private games that required patience and perseverance ... .” (p. 643.) And, in the next page he quotes Einstein: “teachers in the elementary school seemed to me like sergeant and the teachers in the [Luitpold] Gymnasium the lieutenants.” (Note and italics in the original.) In the first passage, the youngster Einstein is depicted as an aloof and intelligent kid who abstained from participating in the dull games of other children of his age, favouring, instead, activities where he could use his intellect. His early rejection of social norms then extended, as stated in the second extract, to the school, which, it is implied, he saw as a disciplinary institution where he could not fully develop his talent. That is why he decided to teach himself physics, and mathematics: “... he knew integral and differential calculus, self-taught at about age 13.” (p. 644.) Years later, and despite his innumerable moves to escape from it, he had to pass a final sociability check: “Einstein’s independence of thought was not appreciated by the professors at the ETH [Eidgenoessische Technische Hochschule] ... .” (Note added.) According to this picture of Einstein’s early life – common to many of his biographies – he was an unsociable person inclined to meditate on fundamental questions since his early childhood. The idea to be communicated is that there was something special about Einstein the kid, as though he was already thinking about how to transform our old conceptions of space and time.
There is no indication that Einstein was an exceptional child. Indeed, his academic achievements and his teachers’ reports could point to exactly the contrary. But, while he was not what experts call a “prodigy,” it is currently believed that he was a “gifted child,” which is to say, he showed an unusual natural talent. The most famous story about Einstein’s giftedness is that of the pocket compass: “A wonder of such nature I experienced as a child of 4 or 5, when my father showed me a compass.”[source] The anecdote asseverates that since nothing visible moved the iron needle, the little boy concluded by pure intellect that there was a quality of the empty space that forced the needle to point in one specific direction. The child was impressed in such a profound manner that since then he could not stop reflecting on the physical attributes of the space ... and time. It is said that this infantile faculty of being constantly amazed by such simple phenomena was something that Einstein never lost. Even more, some claim that – following Einstein’s own avowals – he was a creative physicist precisely because he used to ask himself questions that were normally posed in childhood. In our case, he was just five when he first cogitated about the physical properties of the space-time; two decades later he found a solution to his childish inquiries. As the historian of physics Peter Galison writes referring to Einstein’s early mental picture where he sees himself travelling at the speed of light: “… Einstein asking a question that (as Einstein put it) was normally posed ‘only in early childhood,’ a matter that he, peculiarly, was still asking when he was ‘already grown up.’”[source]
That children are more creative than mature people is a regular idea about creativity. The assumption has been applied to many creative people, from Leonardo da Vinci to Albert Einstein. About Leonardo, Freud famously wrote: “Indeed, the great Leonardo remained like a child for the whole of his life in more than one way; it is said that all great men are bound to retain some infantile part. Even as an adult he continued to play, and this was another reason why he often appeared uncanny and incomprehensible to his contemporaries.”[source] This is not very different from Einstein’s judgment concerning physical research. According to him, the search for truth and beauty gives us consent to behave like little children our entire lives. Nevertheless, psychological research has established that there is no solid evidence to the claim that children are more creative than adults nor that childish attitudes trigger off creative processes. In fact, many contemporary psychologists are convinced that this is merely a myth. The myth initiated in the Romantic age, when it was widely thought that human beings were closer to nature at birth; the state of corruption being a condition of the social being. I suspect that most of Einstein’s biographers have been persuaded by this modern myth.
The previous discussion will allow us to fully grasp the meaning of the following assertions put forward by string theory’s supporters. My first example is by Steven Weinberg: “That series of why, why, why questions, like an unpleasant child, will come to an end in a final theory and then we will know. We will know the book of rules that govern everything.” David Gross made a similar statement in an interview to Nova’s The Elegant Universe:
Nova: So why should anybody care about string theory?
Gross: Well, for one thing, because it’s attempting to answer the “why” questions that children ask.[source]
In the same program, the allegory of the persistent child looking for fundamental truths was repeated by another string theorist: “We’re like excited little two-years-olds that are never satisfied to be told, ‘That’s just because I say it is.’ We want to know why.”[source]
But: where are these children that ask why the spacetime is the way it is or why there are four independent forces instead of one? Sincerely speaking, I know none of them, and I am sure nobody has ever met one. Compare what these physicists say with Saint Paul’s declaration in his first letter to the Corynthians: “When I was a child, I used to speak like a child; I used to think like a child; I used to reason like a child. When I became a man, I put an end to childish things.” This was the prevalent viewpoint on children’s creativity until very recently, that is to say, they were considered not to be especially creative. But in the Romantic period the idea that children had an unusual talent to see things where others could not was in vogue. Rousseau’s “état de nature” had a great impact in the conception of children as closer to nature than socialized adults. With Freud’s studies this myth rooted still further and the adult’s unconscious, a reservoir of the individual’s babyish experiences, began to be considered as possessing an exceptional ability to inquire and discover fundamental truths. Some still feel that a naive thinking can be adduced in support of a final theory of physics, i.e., string theory.
Let us now look at our second myth regarding creativity: the creative dream. As everyone knows, after Freud’s work the human mind and the dream are related. When the unconscious was discovered it was thought that the dream could give us the hint to another, maybe more pleasant and faithful, perception of reality. The Romantic composer Max Bruch once said: “My most beautiful melodies have come to me in dreams.”[source] Stories about creative dreams are many; for instance, Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday” was composed entirely while he was sleeping; in science, the story of Kekulé’s discovery of the benzene structure is famous.
Einstein has also been the subject of this creativity myth. One of these works of mythification was written by the physicist Banesh Hoffmann: “But the real key to the theory of relativity came to him unexpectedly, after years of bafflement, as he awoke one morning and sat up in bed. Suddenly the pieces of a majestic jigsaw puzzle fell into place with an ease and naturalness that gave him immediate confidence.”[source] Several pages later he continues: “What flashed on Einstein as he sat up in bed that momentous morning was that he would have to give up one of our most cherished notions about time.”[source] That is, Einstein’s flash of insight came to him in a dream – or more accurately after waking up. But, there is no evidence that this really happened, so I presume that Hoffmann was simply echoing a common idea of the early twentieth century: Freud’s psychoanalysis.
Since it first became popular, the theory of relativity has been associated with the state of dreaming. “One was the suggestion that the theory itself was just the product of a dream. This suggestion was made by Professor Poor in his first critical in the New York Times of 16 November 1919, and the same suggestion was made with a less critical tone in Current Opinion in June 1921. … When interest began to turn to Einstein himself, in 1920 and 1921, it was noted that as a youth Einstein had just been considered a dreamer [Current Opinion May 1920, 651-53], and his wife said that when he was inspired, he just dreamed and played the violin. [New York Times, 3 April 1921, 1.]”[source] (Both notes in the original.) This interpretation was possible thanks to the discovery of psychoanalysis. Subsequently, the social and cultural context has favoured this durable relationship between relativity and dream.
I was shocked once when I heard on Discovery Channel that Stephen Hawking – Einstein’s heir – had discovered “string theory” (!) in a dream. Now, I have a better understanding of why they said that.
The discussion of the next section is in frank opposition to the two preceding Romantic interpretations of scientific creativity. I do believe that an accurate study of the individual can shed light on creative thinking; however, in order to capture global factors a contextualist approach is required. We will discover that the social group intervening in the creative process is far broader than currently thought.
SELECTED READINGS FOR ESSAY 4 (II)