Saturday, March 12, 2016

A Case for Creativity in Physics: Imagination. Innovation. Invention. Improvisation...

Yes, you read that right. Creativity. It's the same word people use to describe artists, musicians, poets... Physicists need to be creative too. That doesn't mean that every physicist should take up the violin, ballroom dance or start sculpting with clay (though I know many physicists who would, and do), but it does mean that we need to hone that skill to take our practice to the next level.

Creativity is the skill of generating unique ideas. It is the ability to look at a system from multiple perspectives. It is considering new possibilities and alternatives, especially ones that no one else has thought of before. Imagination. Innovation. Invention. Improvisation...

Creativity is celebrated in physics. Consider Albert Einstein (who did play the violin, by the way), a creative physicist who thought up strange yet profound ideas (Special and General Relativity, among other unprecedented fundamental discoveries) that would for decades confound people. And still, to this day, physics students all over the world utter words like, "What?! That's crazy!" when they learn the basics of the theory of relativity. Yet, without Einstein's big ideas, we would not have made some great advances in science and technology (for example, the accuracy of the Global Positioning System (GPS), which requires relativistic corrections).

Are you an "idea person?" Are you a person who comes up with new ideas and unique alternatives? Great, I'm recruiting you for physics!

Physics is about solving problems. So are a lot of other things. Problem solving takes creativity. What can a chef do when they don't have all the ingredients called for in a recipe? What can a parent do when the trip to the zoo is rained out? What can an actor do when their co-star misses an important line?

On a bigger scale, what did the Apollo 13 astronauts and NASA mission team do when an exposed wire caused a spacecraft oxygen tank to explode and lose power in Odyssey?


The next generation is faced with big problems that are interdisciplinary in nature, like reigning in climate change or the energy crisis, or providing clean water to all the world's people, controlling pollution, bridging tense cultural divides, taking care of and empowering the weak, staying ahead of disease outbreaks, and many more. Generations before us have tackled many problems and I am optimistic that we are up for the next challenge too (being a physics professor has made me optimistic, because I get to see limitless potential in our bright future scientists). These problems will require experts from many disciplines to creatively work together. We need creative scientists and others to come up with solutions that are "outside the box," solutions that no one else has thought of yet. We need creative minds, able to listen intelligently to each other, stay open to new perspectives and to think up novel alternatives to the way things have been done in the past.

How is creativity important in physics? Physics is not just memorizing equations and following procedures. It is modeling complex systems, noticing patterns, breaking phenomena into fundamental pieces, applying known laws of nature to new situations and searching for new truths. When a student feels defeated by a challenging physics problem, I sometimes say to them that the first step to solving a physics problem is panic. I am mostly joking when I say this because what I really mean is that when you see a problem that you have never seen before (which happens all the time in physics, even for professors), you might feel panicked because you first have to come up with an idea. Feeling that way is totally normal. As you practice the skill of problem-solving, you begin to notice categories of similar behaviors, you learn to break complex situations into solvable simpler puzzles. You piece those solved parts together, sometimes reaching road blocks that force you to consider other alternatives. You listen, collaborate and communicate with others about the problem. You learn to keep working until you have solved the problem. That is the reputation of a physicist. And that takes creativity.

So how can physicists become more creative? There are physics education researchers who could answer this question better than I can, but I will offer a few suggestions.
Think of creativity in physics as a set of skills that you can train yourself to acquire. For example, I think that two important creative skills used in problem-solving are:
1. generating unique ideas, and
2. considering alternatives.

To work on the first skill, generating unique ideas, you could take a problem, any puzzle, it doesn't have to be a physics problem, and think up all the possible ways to proceed in solving that puzzle. You could list them out, draw a diagram or make a mind map (a series of bubbles connecting related ideas). To stretch your mind further, you could even make it a game. Given the same scenario, you and your friends could compare your lists to see who comes up with the most unique ideas. Keep practicing ways to think of things that others won't think of. Give yourself time.

To practice the second skill, considering alternatives, one indirect strategy may be to work on listening and communicating effectively. Listening to people with different perspectives and experiences outside of your own may help you to imagine possibilities that perhaps weren't obvious to you before. Practice learning new material and ideas that expand on concepts you already understand. Work in groups to solve problems and when a group member comes up with a unique idea, ask them what motivated their idea (How did they think that up?). It might inform your own problem-solving approach.

Another direct approach to develop creativity is to learn a new skill, like painting, piano, photography, dancing... Learn from experts, practice, talk to others who enjoy these creative activities. And hey, you never know, maybe you'll find a new hobby, outlet or passion! Get creative!