I’ve been invited to speak with well-known writers, singers, and film producers about my new book, Extraterrestrial, during the last several months. Before our chats, I had been the recipient (and admirer) of their creative work, but suddenly they were interested in my scientific studies. These discussions prompted me to see parallels between art and sciences. In general, it appears that the art of building our most creative boundaries is not something that can be written down in a cookbook.
Creativity arises mysteriously as an unanticipated river of inspiration from the subconscious in both sciences and the arts. Its unusual material disrupts everyday thinking habits. It brings something new to the table that is different from what people are used to, and it frequently pushes people out of their comfort zones because it is ahead of its time. As a result, many inventors are mocked and denied the credit they deserve at precisely the wrong time. When the Greek philosopher Socrates interrogated individuals in public through dialogues and refused to recognize the gods worshipped by the democratic city-state of Athens, he was accused of corrupting the youth and sentenced to death by drinking poison. Socrates would have been obliterated from Athenian social media now. “A writer is someone who has taught [the] mind to misbehave,” Oscar Wilde once observed.
There are several examples of similar situations. Alfred Wegener’s groundbreaking hypothesis of continental drift, first proposed in 1912, was first dismissed by conventional geologists and only gained popularity once the mechanism of plate tectonics was discovered. Fritz Zwicky proposed the possibility of significant amounts of unseen material in the Coma galaxy cluster in 1933. Still, it took another four decades for the idea to gain momentum in the astronomical community. Cecilia Payne-PhD Gaposchkin’s thesis at Radcliffe-Harvard concluded in 1925 that the sun’s surface is primarily hydrogen. Still, Henry Norris Russell, the distinguished director of the Princeton University Observatory, denied this theory. He realized she was correct four years later. Otto Struve and Velta Zebergs rated Payne-work Gaposchkin’s as “undoubtedly the most outstanding Ph.D. thesis ever produced in astronomy” in their 1962 book Astronomy of the 20th Century.
Following his compass on another frontier, Otto Struve proposed searching for hot Jupiters surrounding other stars in 1952, four decades before Didier Queloz and Michel Mayor’s 1995 discovery of 51 Pegasi b, which earned them the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physics. In biology, Gregor Mendel’s principles of genetic inheritance were overlooked by the scientific world until they were rediscovered by Hugo de Vries and Carl Correns three decades later and then explained by DNA molecular chemistry over a century later.
Artists who are inventive face the same fate. Throughout his life, Vincent van Gogh was seen as a lunatic and a failure. Still, his reputation shifted to that of a misunderstood genius once expressionists integrated parts of his painting technique several decades after his death in 1890. Van Gogh’s paintings are now among the most valuable items ever auctioned. Samuel Beckett’s first novel was not accepted for publication, so he put it aside. The story was finally published in 1992, three years after Beckett’s death and 23 years after his Nobel Prize in Literature in 1969. “An idea that is not hazardous is unworthy of being called an idea at all,” Wilde said.
There are two methods to acquire goods in life. One approach is to develop pre-existing stuff, while the other is to create things that have never been before. While most products on store shelves are mass-produced, things made by artists or scientists are initially one-of-a-kind.
A result of creative endeavors, like aged wine, improves in quality over time. It is influenced by the audience’s reaction as well as imitations. The beginning conditions are suggestive of a sweet baby. It’s intriguing for a scientist or an artist to observe how their work interacts with the outside world, just as it is for parents to see their children.
Because the substance of the arts and sciences differs, they use diverse techniques to form their messages. They are complementary perspectives on reality that are not substitutes for one another. Scientific breakthroughs lead to new technical innovations, such as global positioning systems for navigation based on Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity. New cultural assets result from artistic creation, such as Pablo Picasso’s Cubism, which spurred similar music, literature, and architecture movements. In all areas of human ingenuity, the results of the creative process are first startling.
However, what appears to be inventiveness at first glance may be regarded as inevitable in retrospect. One may argue that reality exists before it is found in the physical sciences. Similarly, one may say the same thing regarding the arts. When asked how he created exquisite sculptures from a block of marble, Michelangelo explained, “The sculpture is already complete within the marble block before I start my work.” It’s already there; all I have to do now is chisel away the extraneous material.”
Both the arts and sciences benefit from iterations that are open-minded. Staying within established borders as an alternative discourages the exploration of new territory. “Consistency is the final refuge of the unimaginative,” Oscar Wilde once observed.
Recognizing the importance of imagination in advancing both the arts and sciences would lead to a society that encourages innovation by rewarding creativity. Traditional groupthink might be avoided by filling funding agency selection panels with innovative thinkers rather than conventional thinkers. Intersection places where scientists and artists meet would also promote a culture of creativity. Albert Einstein was influenced by the philosopher Ernst Mach in developing his theory of gravity, while Picasso’s paintings were influenced by Einstein’s new concepts of space and time.
Creativity in the arts and sciences provides a backdrop for human existence since the stuff it creates gives us joy and significance. The act of human creativity is an infinite-sum game in which we all profit. And we can all be part of the creative process if we follow Oscar Wilde’s advice: “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”