Earlier this month, Samuel Arbesman argued in Wired that the world needs more generalists, dabblers and polymaths. He notes (and he’s certainly not the first to note) that the body of scientific and technical knowledge has grown so large that no one person can know everything. And as a consequence, people tend to specialize in one field or another. This is a problem, he writes, because “the most exciting inventions occur at the boundaries of disciplines, among those who can bring different ideas from different fields together.”
To foster polymaths, Arbesman argues that more people should “embrace the machines.” In particular, by learning to code. Learning to code, Arbesman argues, “through code, and the recognition that algorithmic similarity occurs over and over, we can see the similarities between different spheres of knowledge.”
While I certainly appreciate Arbesman’s argument, his approach to creativity is fundamentally flawed. Learning to code is certainly a useful skill, if your profession is coding. It can also be a rewarding hobby – I’ve learned several different languages over the years. But for most people, learning to code just isn’t worth it. Technology changes so fast that to stay on top of coding means being focused on coding – thus opening yourself up to being caught in the very specialization rut that Arbesman is worried about.
The key to being creative, in any field, be it scientific, technical, or business, in the 21st century definitely requires a certain comfort level in technology. But the best way to harness the power of computers doesn’t reside in coding – it resides in letting computers do the grunt computational work that humans are bad at, so that humans can focus on the creative, problem solving work that computers are bad at.
And if you want to foster those creative, problem solving skills, the solution isn’t learning to code – it’s learning to paint. Or play an instrument. Or write poetry. Or sculpt. The field doesn’t matter: the key thing is that if you want to foster your own innovative creativity, the best way to do it is to seriously pursue an artistic endeavor.
In the history of the Nobel Prize, nearly every Laureate has pursued the arts. According to research by psychologists Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein, “almost all Nobel laureates in the sciences actively engage in arts as adults. They are twenty-five times as likely as the average scientist to sing, dance, or act; seventeen times as likely to be a visual artist; twelve times more likely to write poetry and literature; eight times more likely to do woodworking or some other craft; four times as likely to be a musician; and twice as likely to be a photographer.”
Physicist Max Planck, who both wrote operas and composed symphonies, once wrote that scientists “must have a vivid intuitive imagination, for new ideas are not generated by deduction, but by artistically creative imagination.”
History seems to agree with him. Many of the world’s greatest scientists, in eras both ancient and modern, were also artists. Da Vinci, of course, is famous for his talents both artistic and scientific. Robert Fulton, the inventor of the modern steam engine, was a painter. The actress Hedy Lamarr was the co-inventor of the patent that underlies cell phones, wi-fi and GPS. Her partner in that invention? George Antheil, a composer and musician.
One possible reason for this connection between the arts and the sciences is that they are actually rather similar in practice. An artist might sketch and tweak and tweak and sketch before finalizing the drawing that will become the basis of a painting. A novelist might produce a number of rough drafts before finding the one that works. Similarly, the essence of the scientific method is hypothesizing, testing, tweaking the hypothesis, forming new hypotheses, testing again, etc. Engineers design, test, toss out drafts, test, toss out more drafts, etc. So even in the practice of one’s chosen art, a scientist or engineer is still practicing the essential skills she needs to be successful in her primary profession.
Albert Einstein once said that “If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music.” To reach our own creative potentials, we’d do well to live by his example.