DECEMBER 30, 2013
OF ALL THE QUALITIES that make us human, exceptional creativity is one of the most heavily studied and valued — but also the least well understood. What makes a merely good idea a transformative one? Can exceptional creativity be attributed to just one person, or are the ideas that drive great thinkers and creative visionaries the product of collective social developments, historical circumstances and cultural mores? And, more practically: how can organizations be structured and resources be apportioned to best promote discovery and invention?
These are notoriously difficult questions to answer, not least because the most creative moments often come from unexpected directions. For example, consider two world-changing stories that happened almost simultaneously. During the fall of 1903, on a floating platform in the Potomac River, the distinguished astronomer Samuel Langley carried out two highly touted tests of what he hoped would be the first heavier-than-air flying machine. The US Army liberally funded these experiments and the Smithsonian Institution, which Langley directed, sanctioned them. But Langley’s device crashed into the river both times, so he abandoned the project. Nine days after the second failed test, in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, two obscure Ohio bicycle mechanics successfully flew their own machine, in front of only a handful of local witnesses. With none of the funding, prestige, and resources that Langley had enjoyed, Wilbur and Orville Wright inaugurated aviation history.
Or consider a second story. In 1904, the world-famous mathematical physicist Henri Poincaré, professor at the Sorbonne in Paris, was taking significant steps toward a new conception of time and space, and defending an idea he called “the principle of relativity.” But an obscure patent clerk in Bern, Switzerland scooped him. In a ridiculously short paper, published in 1905 just two months after receiving his PhD degree, this patent clerk, 26-year-old Albert Einstein, was able to frame these issues in a novel way, deriving several extraordinary new consequences. The principle of relativity proved to be just the starting point for Einstein’s revolutionary theory of relativity.
The history of creative innovation in science and technology is full of stories like these. How do we account for them? Are there patterns we can discern that reveal a bigger truth about human psychology and creative thought? Andrew Robinson, a prolific and well-regarded British science writer, has edited a welcome addition to scholarship on these questions. His book originated in a symposium held in the fall of 2008 at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. Chaired by the geneticist (and Nobel laureate) Baruch Blumberg, its local host was the eminent theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson. Speakers — Baruch, Dyson and Robinson among them — then went on to write most of the chapters of the book. Other writers of the 15 chapters include not just prominent scientists and engineers, but science writers, historians of science and technology, sociologists, entrepreneurs, and economists. The goal: to explore the nature of creative innovation, and to investigate the conditions that tend to favor (or inhibit) breakthroughs.
The diversity of the book’s perspectives on this topic is an obvious strength. It is also a weakness, however, in that this very diversity results in a certain loss of coherence in the book as a whole. The framing of the overall goal — a search for common factors for innovation in science and engineering — hides an inherent tension. While creative science and creative engineering have important common elements, they are also distinct endeavors in some ways. As chapter authors David Billington Sr. and Jr. put it, the essence of science is discovery, while the essence of engineering is functional design. In other words, whereas scientists attempt to understand why nature works the way it does, the measure of successful engineering is the achievement, by whatever means, of very practical goals.
Partly for this reason, some prolific discovery mills have been surprisingly bad at commercializing their products. Bell Labs in the postwar years was the incubator of extraordinary products: the transistor, masers and lasers, fiber optics, LEDs, communication satellites, and much else that resulted from the close association of science with technology. In his valuable chapter, the Nobel Prize–winning physicist Philip Anderson describes his participation in these major breakthroughs, as well as Bell Labs’s poor record of successfully commercializing them. Inter alia, Anderson blames “greed and executive suite hubris” for the later failure, but I wonder if part of the problem was that the entire organization was optimized for discovery, rather than for consumer-oriented design. In their chapter, Tony and Jonathan Hey address this issue. They point out, for instance, that the hyper-hyped Segway Personal Transporter incorporated brilliantly creative scientific technology, but proved impractical for most potential users.
As for the commonalities across scientific and engineering creativity, many of the conclusions reached by contributors will sound familiar: it is crucial for organizations to hire the right people, provide them the right tools, give them maximum freedom to develop their ideas, and ensure that their managers are equally flexible and creative (and not simply smart and hard-working). These conditions were fulfilled, just to name a few successes, at Niels Bohr’s Institute for Theoretical Physics in Copenhagen, Denmark in the interwar period (where much of early quantum mechanics was developed); in Enrico Fermi’s group at the University of Rome in the 1930s (where nuclear reactions leading to fission were explored); at the Institute for Advanced Study (graced by Einstein early on, later by Dyson and other luminaries); and, unmentioned in the book, at the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New York (notable especially for computer and IT breakthroughs).
Other conclusions may be mostly familiar to specialists, but cut against commonly held opinions. It turns out that there is no particular correlation between the high intelligence of individuals and their potential to innovate — brilliant people are not necessarily creative. Considering the emphasis that so many organizations are currently placing on interdisciplinary collaboration in group research, readers may also be surprised at how often the most important breakthroughs have come as the result of highly focused individual efforts, or from small-scale collaborations, such as those of Wilbur and Orville Wright, and of James Watson and Francis Crick. Einstein’s first article on relativity was famously devoid of footnotes, merely expressing gratitude to his close friend Michele Besso for helpful discussions. In the late 1950s, Jack Kilby and Robert Noyce nearly simultaneously but independently (and each while working alone) arrived at the insight that led to the integrated circuit.
One of the most provocative chapters, by editor Robinson, compares two breakthroughs, both in the same year (1953) but in very different fields: Watson and Crick’s discovery of the structure of DNA, and the decipherment of the enigmatic ancient “Minoan Linear Script B” by a brilliant amateur named Michael Ventris. In the author’s hands, this double case study suggests that there is little connection between institutional support and creativity, but it does point to the benefits of an informal and flexible climate, such as that at the Cavendish Laboratory where Watson and Crick worked. Robinson also concludes that the two men in these stories, whom he considers to be the most creative of the various people involved — Crick and Ventris — were the least institutionalized.
In his afterword, Robinson expands on what he means by this. The main question that most of the contributors to his volume have asked, he writes, is this: how should organizations be structured and run to foster innovation? Robinson believes that this may be the wrong question. “At least for some people at some times,” he argues, “organization is unnecessary and may even be harmful. In a wide range of circumstances, organization and creativity may be incompatible.” Many historical cases can be cited to support this conclusion: Antoine Lavoisier, John Dalton, Charles Darwin, Michael Faraday, Michael Ventris, and indeed, the examples with which we began, the Wright brothers and Einstein.
But this may be an overreach based on a legitimate insight. To innovators, institutions offer obvious advantages as well as potential hindrances, and as most of the contributors suggest, the trick is to figure out how to maximize the former and minimize the latter. In the broadest but most ineffable sense, and beyond any institution or organization, national cultures also work to foster or inhibit creative and entrepreneurial endeavors. Instances of “fostering” cultures include Britain in the 17th and 18th centuries, Germany in the middle and later decades of the 19th century, and the United States in much of the 20th century. There are just as many, and as just as obvious, examples of “inhibiting” ones. China’s failure to keep pace with the West during the early modern period, and France’s failure to keep pace with Germany towards the end of the 19th century, have been traced (at least partially) to the stifling effects of centralization. This insight may be considered a macro-corollary to one of the book’s themes, namely the favorable influence on creativity of freedom, flexibility, and competition within and between institutions.
As broad as its remit is, Exceptional Creativity in Science and Technology may, then, be missing a larger and more critical determinant of innovation, but one that is relatively inaccessible to remedial action by individuals or organizations. Still, the book is well worth reading, and its lessons well worth pondering, for anyone interested in the creative process in science and engineering.