This is something I’ve been thinking about for a while. Given my background (a practising musician and scientist), I’ve often thought about ways to bridge these seemingly disparate disciplines. A lot of scientists were amateur musicians (such as Albert Einstein, Richard Feynmann, and the late Prof. Lipscomb (Harvard Univ.)). Similarly, a lot of Carnatic musicians also happen to have degrees in Chemistry, such as S. Sowmya, K. Arun Prakash, Delhi Sunder Rajan, and Trichur V. Ramachandran. But what is the common ground?
What research scientists and practising musicians have in common is the strive for innovation. The synthesis of new ideas, new forms of presentation, new methods, and new concepts is central to both areas. In The Synthetic Organic Chemist’s Companion, Michael Pirrung mentions in the foreword that “Synthesis is an intrinsically creative activity, and a chemist who does it well is often also creative in another area, be it music or cooking“. What I have recently come to understand, however, is that there are different types of creativity, as defined by their timescales. I am not making a judgment here that one type is necessarily superior to the other; it is simply my realization that there are two different modes of creativity, each being its own paradigm, operating like I said under different timescales.
The first type is slower, operating under time domain of minutes to years. I will define this as deliberate creativity. This involves careful planning, thought, checking and rechecking, and conscientious execution. Examples of this type of creative impulse are in visual arts (painting, drawing, sculpture), the process of composing a musical piece, the planning of a total synthesis, writing a novel, play or scientific paper, designing a new research proposal, or even an engineer designing a new vehicle, appliance, processor, or tool. All of these require an investment of time. This can be thought of as simply the planning phase when doing something new, but it also covers the entire process, from conception to execution.
The other I define as implusive creativity. The timescale for this is milliseconds to a few seconds. Most people encounter this when making “snap” judgements – Malcom Gladwell discusses this topic extensively in his book Blink. I most encounter this type of creativity when performing Carnatic music. Other musicians who perform highly improvisational types of music will also be familiar with this. Creating new rhythmic patterns or sequences of kalpana swarams on the spot is not easy. This type of creativity is the pinnacle of an improvisational art form like Carnatic music. However, while the timescale of the involved thought process may be very quick, the foundation required to reach the level where this becomes inherently instinctive is enormous. Years to decades of instruction and diligent practice are required.
The impulsive creativity also comes into play in science most commonly when making snap judgements as I mentioned earlier. For example, when working up a reaction one might find that there is very little of the desired organic product in the organic layer – what to do then? There are multiple options open at this point. One can directly evaporate the water from the aqueous extracts or try “salting-out” the compound. Another possibility is the realization that the product is actually water soluble and a water-compatible purification method may be required, such as reverse-phase chromatography. Which one is appropriate depends on the system at hand and the chemist’s ability to improvise and adapt.