14 Nov 2014

Struck by Lightning: Creative Insight in Chemistry

Chemical Heritage Foundation
[CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)],
via Wikimedia Commons
Struck by Lightning: Creative Insight in Chemistry
                   by Judy Wearing

Imagine your garden variety chemistry scientist at work. Did you conjure up a picture similar to mine? A man, in a white lab coat with several golden-brown stains on the front, or a ripped pocket. He’s well worn, and slightly careless with his appearance because he’s got better things to do with his time, i.e., make lots of precise measurements of mysterious powders and liquids, which he swirls in large beakers, very carefully because if anything splashes he’ll carry the scars of the resulting flesh wounds forever. He bends over a lot, paying close attention to his mixtures and balances, and hence has a hunched back. He is rather antisocial, or at least socially-stinted as he does not use words much in everyday life; his writing centres around equations and long names of compounds with unaesthetic suffixes like ene and ic. He is considerably less romantic than my imaginary physicist, and far more esoteric than my biologist. He is the first to leave the pub, never buys the beer, and is unlikely to believe in fairies.

I don’t know any chemists, and I cannot conjure a single scrap of remembrance of any of the half dozen undergraduate chemistry profs who tried to teach me their discipline, such was the impression they made. I am quite sure that my imagined, biased, and uninformed stereotype is false. In fact, I am ashamed that I possess it in the first place – it is wrong, and I know better, for lots of reasons, one of which is that I’ve spent a good chunk of time with scientists of many stripes. They are generally nice people of both sexes with active social lives and a range of talents and abilities. I’d be more embarrassed to admit such a stereotype if I was not convinced it is so common to possess it, and that many will recognize or appreciate aspects of the image portrayed.

This stereotype, like many others through which we unwittingly perceive the world and the people in
Friedrich August Kekule
it, affect our perception of creativity. Take the story of August Kekulé, arguably Europe’s most prominent chemist in the latter decades of the 19th century. It was Kekulé who theorized the concept of chemical structure – envisioning how atoms are arranged in molecules without any means of actually observing them. This insight was a leap forward that enabled organic chemistry to blossom. Kekulé described the moment of his best-known scientific breakthrough, the ring structure of benzene, as a daydream:

"I was sitting writing on my textbook, but the work did not progress; my thoughts were elsewhere. I turned my chair to the fire and dozed. Again the atoms were gamboling before my eyes. This time the smaller groups kept modestly in the background. My mental eye, rendered more acute by the repeated visions of the kind, could now distinguish larger structures of manifold conformation; long rows sometimes more closely fitted together all twining and twisting in snake-like motion. But look! What was that? One of the snakes had seized hold of its own tail, and the form whirled mockingly before my eyes. As if by a flash of lightning I awoke; and this time also I spent the rest of the night in working out the consequences of the hypothesis…Let us learn to dream, gentlemen."

Kekulé was not under the influence of drugs, hallucinogenic or otherwise. And his description of the
process of creative thinking is not so strange, though it does not fit with the stereotypical methodical, plodding scientist. For example, the mention of lightning figures in the descriptions of other chemists asked in a questionnaire in 1931, by two men named Platt and Baker, how they make scientific progress. “I decided to abandon the work and all thoughts relative to it, and then, on the following day, when occupied in work of an entirely different type, an idea came to my mind as suddenly as a flash of lightning and it was the solution.” Another chemist wrote, “One day all of a sudden the whole became as clear and comprehensible as if it were illuminated with a flash of light...” The mathematician Gauss described the moment when he solved a troublesome problem whose solution had eluded him for years, “like a sudden flash of lightning the riddle happened to be solved.”

These rational, scientific men are all evoking some external and sudden force to describe their creative insights. To avoid a new stereotype of chemists who stand out in the rain waiting to be struck by lightning in order to achieve scientific fame, here is how other scientists have described a moment of clarity:

“…as if from the clear sky above me – an idea popped into my head as emphatically as if a voice had shouted it.”

“in all directions…happy ideas came unexpectedly without effort like an inspiration.” Von Helmholtz, physicist

“Again and again the imaginary plan on which one attempts to build up order breaks down and then we must try another. This imaginative vision and faith in the ultimate success are indispensable. The pure rationalist has no place here.” Max Planck, physicist.

The experiences of these men and women are not reserved for the particularly fanciful or brilliant. In Platt and Baker survey of chemists, 33 % stated they received frequent assistance from intuition, while 50% occasionally experienced these insights. If you, like me, have a stereotype of the rational scientist, you will be mildly surprised by the more fanciful workings of their minds. These anecdotes suggest three conclusions:
  1. creativity is important for all sorts of mental processes, across disciplines - both science and art; 
  2. a person who is an excellent analytic thinker can also be an excellent creative thinker; and, 
  3. at least some common aspects of creativity happen in our brain without us being conscious of it, which gives the sensation of a vanilla shock. Or, being struck by lightning.

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