Employing Creativity and Imagination in Scientific Fields

One of my great joys is visiting high school classes in the UK to give general studies sessions on the history and philosophy of science. I am often impressed by the students’ critical abilities and intelligence, but also wonder why some of the really smart ones do not choose to study science at this level (it is possible in the UK’s very narrow educational system to drop all science after age 16). Far too often I get answers along the lines of, “I didn’t see any role for my own creativity or imagination.” At this point I know that something has gone terribly wrong with science education—giving the impression that it is a set of known questions with right answers. Yet working scientists know that without imagination there can be no progress in science at all. Formulating the right questions, not answers, is the central and critical step in our inspirational calling to “re-imagine the universe.”

Listening to Stories of Creativity

I determined to explore where the threads that bind science to the creative imagination had become unraveled. This led to a long journey into its history, philosophy and theology. I decided to begin simply by asking colleagues the story behind their most cherished idea or discovery—not the polished results, but the unvarnished truth—the rocky road to them. They gave fascinating accounts of curiosity, initial trials, repeated frustrations. Then in fortunate cases, illuminations that seemed to come effortlessly, as “gifts.” I felt encouraged to reflect more deeply on my own experiences of seeking scientific ideas in the imagination—the macromolecular picture that began as a dance in my mind’s eye; the long-sought structural geometry of a two-phase fluid that came once in a dream.

I also asked the same questions, as a sort of “control” of artists, composers, poets and writers.  Would their stories of creativity differ markedly from those of the scientists? Creativity is the force of the imagination being formed into something true and beautiful by the world’s constraints. You can see it is a sufficient generalisation of both science and art.

Three Creative Modes of Imagination

A new book, The Poetry and Music of Science, began to take shape. I thought at first that it would begin with an account of scientific creation, followed by material from conversations with artists, composers and writers, motivating a final discussion of the similarities and differences. Yet this structure proved impossible to impose. Dividing scientific and artistic creativity along the “Two Cultures” lines just wasn’t faithful to the experiences I was hearing and reading about. Instead, science and art seem to share three “imaginative modes,” which I have called the visual, the textual and the abstract.

a fountain pen writing on lined paper

The first is the realm of visual art and of visual conception in science. Visual thinking is so powerful that it endows us with our normal metaphor for understanding itself—”I see!” Theoretical science creates internal vision in our “mind’s eye” into the smallest biological cells or out into the processes at the heart of distant galaxies. Experiment enhances our vision directly with microscopes and telescopes. There are close parallels between scientific imagination and expressionist art. The viewer’s plane of focus is perpetually redirected between the two “planes” of the canvas and the world behind it.

The second mode of imagination employs words and text, rather than image. The story here begins with the simultaneous historical origin of the experimental method and the literary novel. We find Daniel Defoe writing Robinson Crusoe in the same mode as Robert Boyle’s new style of scientific writing, even claiming that the novel was an authentic record of events. The mutual entanglement of imaginative writing and science continues from Newton and Milton, via Goethe and Humboldt, to Coleridge and Davy. Wordsworth glimpses a possible future in which science grows to inspire great poetry.

The third imaginative domain is the miracle of the wordless, pictureless worlds of music and mathematics.  A connection between music and mathematics has become commonplace. The the family relationship becomes clearer, not in their shared numeracy, but at the deeper level of harmonic patterns and sequences of music, and at the partially resolved architectures of mathematical reasoning.

person playing violin with sheet music in the background

The Emotions of Thought

Examination of the three modes also uncovered a truth that may be uncomfortable: thought and emotion are inseparable in creativity. In our late modern world, we pretend that cognition and rationality can be divorced from the affective currents in our minds. Modern psychology now knows differently, but medievals like Anselm, Grosseteste and Aquinas also knew that emotions are not just pinned to the start (desire) and end (joy) of the creative process. They weave their way throughout the stages of conception, trial, retreat, incubation, inspiration, and refinement.

That very structure to the creative process leads to the dawning of another realisation. In the human miracle that brings structure and beauty into existence where there was nothing before—there is a great narrative. Christopher Booker is one of those writers who have attempted a categorisation of the “great plots” of all human stories. He lists the love story, the great battle of good and evil, the journey home among other ur-stories of literature and experience. But the human story of creation seems to be another, although omitted from such lists. I did not expect to have to read my way into the literature of narrative analysis, or of left and right brain lateralisation, but it turns out that an account of creativity is impossible without them.

Creativity and Purpose

The final surprise for me was the suggestion of a new task—account for the deeply-felt human purpose in bringing the new into being, in creativity. The discipline of theology is unique in bringing its critical tools to illuminating what we mean by “purpose”. The drive to bring order out of chaos and to seek beauty and understanding where dullness and ignorance lay before draws on deep roots within Christian tradition. The study of creativity is another way to explain that asking how one reconciles science and religion, is profoundly the wrong question. I was led once more to sources such as the book of Job, found buried in the central pages of the Old Testament. It contains such jewels as the “Hymn to Wisdom” in which human insight into the deep material structures of the world is compared to the unique vision of the miner into the underground structures of the Earth. The “visual mode” of scientific imagination turns out to possess very old roots. Job links knowledge of the world to the heart of wisdom itself, and the ability of humans to see deeply into the structures of the world as an aspect of sharing in the divine. There is insight here into the Biblical mystery of the Imago Dei—the idea that human beings are made in the image of God.

Thinking about creativity in this way leads to serious consequences for how we teach science, or share it in public, and how we train our researchers, even in entirely secular contexts. I cannot recall a single discussion during my own formation as a scientist of what practices, disciplines, rhythms of work and relaxation, types of reading or directions of thought might encourage that vital visit from the scientific muse. When challenged about this, many colleagues expressed doubt that anything can be said. As formulated, the scientific method describes only the second phase of the process—testing ideas. There is no method, it is claimed, for having ideas. But this does not imply that there is an absence of any possible advice. We know that innovation rarely emerges from exposure to narrowly conventional thinking. This is why interdisciplinary conversation is so important. Furthermore, those “aha” moments—which more than one scientist has told me are what they live for—will never come unless we give them the space to do so. Hence the need to alternate hard work with experiencing liminal moments of changing mental space in rest and relaxation.

We need to talk more openly about the creative process in science—its groping in darkness as much as its illumination, its contemplative practice as much as its generation of understanding, its way to wisdom as much as its path to knowledge.

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About the Author

Tom McLeish

Tom McLeish, FRS, is Professor of Natural Philosophy in the Department of Physics at the University of York, England, and is also affiliated to the University’s Centre for Medieval Studies and Humanities Research Centre. His scientific research in soft matter and biological physics, draws on collaboration with chemists, engineers, and biologists to study relationships between molecular structure and emergent material properties, and was recognized by major awards in the USA and Europe. He currently leads the UK ‘Physics of Life’ network, and holds a 5-year personal research fellowship focusing on the physics of protein signaling and the self-assembly of silk fibres. Other academic interests include the framing of science, theology, society and history, and the theory of creativity in art and science, leading to the recent book The Poetry and Music of Science (OUP 2019).
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