CURIOSITY, CREATIVITY, INVENTIVENESS, AND INDIVIDUALISM IN SCIENCE

 

Edwin H. Land inspects an oversized Polaroid BLACK AND WHITE image of himself taken with one of his Polaroid cameras; recorded by an unknown photographer in the late 1940's.
Edwin H. Land inspects an oversized Polaroid black and white image of himself taken with one of his Polaroid cameras; recorded by an unknown photographer in the late 1940’s.

 

            Curiosity is the desire in some individuals to wonder about the whys and wherefores of something (e.g., how does a clock work, what causes headaches, why do humans get old and die, when will cars drive themselves, is a mouse just a little rat, where was copper mined for making the first ancient copper pots, etc.?).  Creativity is an inborn ability to think and act in new directions, and to make unrestrained or unconventional associations.  Inventiveness is an inborn ability to devise and develop new or better objects, and new ways of doing something;  inventions are new devices or processes, made and developed by an inventor (see my earlier post on “Inventors & Scientists” in the Basic Introductions category).  Individualism is found in people who readily assert their own personal characteristics of thought, interests, and demeanor, and, who are not afraid to have some of their own viewpoints be quite different from those of the general public.   Any one person, whether a scientist or a non-scientists, can potentionally excel with any of these characteristics.  Some of these features, but rarely all 4 of them, frequently are found in research scientists; when several are well-developed in one individual researcher, the results often are quite spectacular.  

 

Most scientists started out as youngsters with the natural curiosity and creativity found in almost all children.  Sometime later, during the course of their education and advanced training, they become molded into adult scientists who are more ready to think along certain channels, accept participation in group projects, and perform research with standardized experimental approaches; this process often results in very restrained individualism, diminished curiosity, near absence of  research creativity, and, redirection of activities into only tried and true pathways.  Although everyone has a distinct personality with individual likes and dislikes, most research scientists now are inhibited from thinking creatively, trying to prove that some established belief is wrong, questioning interpretations or conclusions coming from very famous other scientists, and expressing their individual  curiosity.  In the modern world, most of us, whether we are scientists or non-scientists, are expected to conform, not be very curious, and not ask too many questions (i.e., “do not rock the boat!”).  It really takes guts for any artist, musician, poet, or scientist to be a creative individual in today’s world. 

 

            In modern science, the current research grant system unforunately opposes creativity in scientists.  This is largely because a big push is given to being able to actually produce the anticipated results with the proposed experiments; grant applications proposing to conduct experiments and attack research questions with well-established experimental designs generally are favored by the grant system over those more exploratory studies seeking to use new approaches, ask unconventional questions, or, use innovative designs and new tools for analysis.  For truly creative scientists, results of their experiments often either cannot be anticipated at all or are likely to be very different from traditional expectations; this condition generally is not viewed with favor by the modern research grant system. Inventions are widely sought in modern science and research because they can produce financial gain and help provide touchable evidence that new practical devices are generated by publically-supported research grants; in other words, the granting agencies like to show the tax-paying public that research grant funds are indeed helping make daily life better or easier.  Although today’s scientists are very appreciative that the research grant system does provide considerable support for experimental science, they also are at least vaguely aware that it also tends to suppress expression of the several attributes found prominently in dedicated and innovative research scientists. 

 

            Exceptions to the above generalizations about repression of curiosity, creativity, inventiveness, and individualism in modern science are among the most fascinating of all people.   One particularly well-known example is Edwin H. Land (1909-1991), who had vigorous expression of all 4 of these characteristics.  He is most widely known as the inventor, developer, and manufacturer of the Polaroid Camera and Polaroid films [1-4].  These comprised the amazing invention of “instant photography”,  and occurred decades before the now-commonplace digital imaging cameras were born.  Land dropped out of Harvard College in order to conduct research studies, but later went on to obtain his bachelor’s degree; he succeeded in educating himself largely through self-study, similarly to what Thomas Edison did.  It now is obvious to all that Land didn’t need academic degrees in order to achieve renown, because he was supremely individualistic and a remarkably self-driven worker.  His open curiosity, creative ideas, energetic drive, and engineering insights led this researcher and inventor to develop new means to polarize photonic light, and also a new theory of color vision.  His special cameras and unique films both had multiple models and diverse varieties [3].  The Polaroid Corporation had multiple buidings and laboratories with over 10,000 employees; the research and development labs housed several talented co-researchers and engineers toiling to make very new technological advances in photography [4].  Land was a very self-motivated creator throughout his entire life.  He felt that everyone should havre direct experience in conducting experimental research as a very valuable part of getting a college education, so he established new programs for laboratory research by undergraduate students at several universities.  By the time he died, Land the physical scientist, inventor, and manufacturer had obtained over 500 patents [1,2]; this giant number stands as an objective testimonial to the inventiveness of this very creative human [3,4]. 

 

            Creativity is not essential for science, but is very useful and helpful in speeding up research progress by enabling breakthroughs and large jumps over the usual step-by-step progress in laboratory activities.  Quite often scientists have become famous largely because they invented some key device or process that enabled them to examine and study something that was unseen or unrecognized by other eager researchers.  Today, it is often believed that younger individuals are the major source for new concepts and new ideas in science.  All of these basic recognitions force the conclusion that both the agencies awarding research grants, and the academic institutions employing faculty researchers, should do more to encourage creativity, individualism, and inventiveness in scientists, instead of repressing these capabilities.  Any funding program that intentionally or unintentionally suppresses creativity and curiosity by demanding that a proposed project be almost guaranteed success, proceed only with some currently hot methodology, or follow strictly along well-known pathways of logic and analysis, is thereby retarding the progress of scientific research.  Society, schools and universities, and, granting agencies, all need to recognize the fact that the unknowns in research make good experimental studies always risky, not easily guaranteed, and very challenging; but, at the same time these conditions also make science investigations quite wonderful.  Encouraging curiosity, creativity, inventiveness, and individualism in scientists will promote better results in scientific research, and that will benefit everyone. 

    

[1]  McElheny, V. K. The National Academy Press, 2013.  Biographical Memoirs: Edwin Herbert Land, May 7, 1909 – March 1, 1991.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.nap.edu/html/biomems/eland.html

[2]   Linderman, M., 2010.  The story of Polaroid inventor Edwin Land, one of Steve Jobs’ biggest heroes.  Available on the internet at:  http://signalvnoise.com/posts/2666-the-story-of-polaroid-inventor-edwin-land-one-of-steve-jobs-biggest-heroes .

[3]  BBC News Magazine, 2013.  The Polaroid genius who re-imagined the way we take photos.  Video is available online at:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-21115581 .  

[4]  Polaroid Corporation, 1970.  Edwin H. Land in “The Long Walk” (directed by Bill Warriner).  Video is available online at:  http://film.linke.rs/domaci-filmovi/edwin-h-land-in-the-long-walk-1970-directed-by-bill-warriner-for-polaroid-corporation/ .

 

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