Creativity in Science

Creativity in Science

George W. Sledge, MD, FASCO

Oct 11, 2010

I love reading about creativity in science, in large part because creators give me so much hope for the future. Last week’s Nobel Prize in Physics was a particularly delightful example, and I refer you to the New York Times story, which said as much about the creative process as it did about modern physics.

This year’s prize went to two Russian émigrés living in Manchester, England. That is always a good starting point when we talk about creativity, as modern science owes a huge debt to immigrants. There is something about the mindset of those willing to pack up and move to another country that makes them more open to novel experiences. A fairly large proportion of American Nobel laureates, historically, are either immigrants or the children of immigrants.

These two immigrants won their prize for the study of graphene, with their first publication occurring only six years ago (truly hot science), work that has already been cited in thousands of other papers. Graphene is a hexagonal form of carbon that is a single atom thick; it is incredibly strong and is a better conductor of electricity than copper. That’s all you need to know for the purposes of this blog.

The investigators like to conduct what they call “Friday evening” experiments—crazy experiments on the cheap. The breakthrough experiment with graphene involve taking a sliver of graphite, placing it on Scotch tape, and then folding the tape over and over again, gradually thinning the graphite down to single atom thickness. Presto! Graphene is born. A scotch tape Nobel Prize six years later. How cool is that?

What is cooler? The same investigators won an Ig Nobel prize (a parody award that makes "people laugh and then think") a decade ago for levitating a frog in a magnetic field. They’ve also produced gecko tape, mimicking the way geckos walk on the ceiling. As Pericles of Athens said, ”the secret of happiness is freedom, and the secret of freedom is courage.” These two researchers are unafraid, free, and one assumes very happy.

I started this blog by saying that creativity stories give me hope for the future. Creativity is cheap, sometimes as cheap as a Scotch tape Nobel Prize. It comes from a willingness to let go of one’s scientific inhibitions, to bounce crazy ideas off one another on Friday evening. It is the great equalizer in human affairs.

“Friday evening” ideas fare poorly at study sections, which focus on incremental, safe science. I was speaking to my friend Lee Ellis of M. D. Anderson earlier today (we are both at our sister society ESMO’s meeting in Milan). Lee suggested to me that every review section should restrict at least 20% of their budget for wild and crazy ideas, particularly in diseases (he mentioned pancreatic cancer) where our “safe science” approaches have failed so miserably. It’s not a bad idea: let’s institutionalize “Friday evening” science, rather than calling investigators crazy.


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