Principles of Creativity

How revolutionary leaps of insight occur across disciplines—they're not always sudden
Illustration by Andy Martin
By Corydon Ireland

Breakthroughs? An apple falls on Isaac Newton’s head: gravity. Benjamin Franklin unfurls a kite, iron key dangling, during a rainstorm: transmissible electricity. Archimedes climbs into a bathtub: a way to measure volume. Eureka! 


Not exactly. It turns out that creative breakthroughs are not always leaps or jumps, despite the centrality of that idea in our shared cultural narrative of discovery. (Eureka means “I found it”—joyfully and fast.) In real life, these breakthroughs may have more languor than leap. They may take longer, involve more people, and even require years of unconscious preparation. Creativity does not come cheap—one of the lessons to emerge from a daylong workshop at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.

“Breakthroughs: Creativity Across Disciplines” was itself a kind
 of breakthrough: a gathering of breakneck verve for the eclectic. Its experts—in two panels, one musical interlude, and one keynote address—were a poet, an experimental writer, a music critic, an art historian, a science biographer, a particle physicist, a pastry chef, an architect, and 
a neuroscientist. There was also a composer, John Aylward RI ’12, who said with creative defiance, “I live in constant fear of not being misunderstood.”

The poet was David Ferry, a World War II veteran who translates Horace and Virgil. The music critic was Alex Ross of the New Yorker, whose The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (Picador, 2008) won a National Book Critics Circle Award. The particle physicist was Maria Spiropulu, who helped discover the Higgs boson. The pastry chef was Bill Yosses, a fan of scientific cooking whose workplace is the White House. The architect was the Harvard urban planner Rahul Mehrotra, whose inspirations are at street level.

Then there was the day’s varied, talkative audience, including a string theorist, a Wellesley professor of British romanticism, a biographer who writes novels, an artist working at the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute, and a Brandeis graduate student who is writing a canon-defying dissertation on Victorian science fiction. “We’re going for a seminar feel from 60 people,” said John Plotz RI ’12, a professor of English at Brandeis University. (He and the University of Toronto astrophysicist Ray Jayawardhana RI ’12 were the day’s moderators.) “We want this to be a free-floating conversation.” By the end of the day, Plotz hoped, a multidisciplinary sense of creative break-through might emerge.

The many voices at “Breakthroughs” whirled around the Knafel Center like comets, writing on the sky this taxonomy of creativity:

SCALE VARIES. Crafting a poem involves private discoveries, said Ferry. “Every new line, in a sense, feels like a breakthrough.” And those discoveries are often oblique—even removed from agency. “Creativity is what the work does while it is doing it,” he said. As the poet works with his pencil, Spiropulu analyzes data from a $10 billion Large Hadron Collider—thousands of bus-sized superconducting magnets in a ring 17 miles long.

RUPTURE HAPPENS. The prose-poet and literary critic Maureen McLane called poetry
 a tool for rupturing the everyday. “Poetic breakthroughs,” she said, “are not about progress.” The workshop’s humanists, including the Harvard art historian Maria Gough RI '12, liked the term “rupture.” Breakthroughs are not always “extremely positive,” Gough said, but may occasion the “break, breach, tear” of disruption. She offered as examples Andy Warhol’s break from advertising to art in 1960 and Picasso’s provocatively intimate Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in 1907.

RAPTURE HAPPENS TOO. Richard Wagner gave the world “a breakthrough in the language of music,” said music critic Alex Ross—one that in the following decades inspired French symbolist poets and pioneers of modernist prose such as Eliot and Joyce. (He called Wagner a genius, despite his political views and despite attracting “Hitler’s catastrophic love.”) Wagner’s 1850 Lohengrin was so radical that it “obliterated opera as it existed,” said Ross, and is so emotionally attuned that it still “activates the inner passion.” The science biographer Richard Holmes liked the notion of creative rupture but added Wagnerian “rapture” to the mix.

TOGETHERNESS CAN HELP. Poets may not exactly collaborate, but they maintain “communities of recognition,” said McLane, who ruminated on the storied Robert Lowell–Elizabeth Bishop correspondence. But sometimes, she admitted, this simply means “unitary geniuses agonizing with one another.” In science, however, breakthroughs may involve rupture and rapture, but they are collaborative, never solitary. Writing a science paper, said neuroscientist Gina Turrigiano, requires advice and insight from colleagues. Spiropulu was part of a team of 6,000 physicists at CERN—“chasing the dream of understanding nature to the core.” But everyone built on work starting in 1960, she said. She paraphrased a 1938 Nobel laureate: “Science is seldom born with a single parent.”

GEAR RULES. Scientists need apparatus (think $10 billion atom smashers). Apparatus can be less impressive, though—like the low-pressure-cooking Rocket evaporator that Yosses uses to make strawberry sauce.

STORIES LAST. Plotz said the story of the apple and the story of Archimedes’ bath are not true, but are nearly so. “Each of us wants these breakthrough moments to be dramatic,” he said. Our collective craving, he added, is for a “messianic moment.”

MOVEMENTS MATTER. Creative movements, with no single origin, can themselves be breakthroughs. For Gough, one such “artistic rupture” started in the 1860s, when painters turned away from traditional tonal modeling and 3-D perspective. It climaxed in 1906 with a flatly defiant 2-D The Joy of Life by Henri Matisse. In the 1970s, nouvelle cuisine was widely disparaged for its tiny, artistic portions, said Yosses. But it “inspired all the cooking that came after.” Because it brought the American conversation back to food, he added, “as chefs, we were happy to be scorned.”

SETTING INSPIRES. Mehrotra’s idea
 of “background architecture” is urban design that blends and does not dominate: an architecture of “adjustments,” not “grand gestures.” His practice in Mumbai (“a kinetic city,” he said) reveals the sterility of urban spaces that were designed as foreground only. Skylines for show are “the landscape of anxious capital,” said Mehrotra, places where “you can’t get a breakthrough.” His latest corporate building in Mumbai—trellised with misted vertical gardens—defies the convention of plate glass. Inspiration came from the streets: a water seller who cooled his thatch hut with mists.

Aylward, the composer, may live in fear of being understood, but a few lines from the Dean Young poem that inspired his composition make breakthroughs suddenly, creatively, understandable:

Everyone perfectly ok

With the vintage then boom
Your head’s knocked off

The Scientist Within

The literary biographer Richard Holmes delivered a keynote titled “The Scientist Within: Scientific Biography and the Creative Moment.” One of the workshop organizers, Anna Henchman, a literature scholar at Boston University, introduced Holmes as an early believer in the day’s leitmotifs: that creative moments arise from both “the solitary and the communal,” and that creativity, with its “crisscrossing patterns of inspiration,” defies disciplinary borders. Holmes demonstrated this in The Age of Wonder (Vintage, 2010), his study of the polymathic 18th-century science visionaries who observed like scientists and wrote like poets.

In his keynote, Holmes outlined the history of science biography, cautioned against celebrity science stories, and dispelled the myth of Newton’s apple. (It fell near him.) He also named today’s imperatives for science biography: For one, rediscover the lost women of Victorian science, such as the computing pioneer Ada Love and the science fiction writer Jane C. Loudon, who foresaw the internet. For another, write collective biographies of the collaborative teams modern science requires. That is, correct the notion that breakthrough science is the work of single dramatic personalities. And finally, write for children to “bring up a new generation of scientists.” “Biography is the most miraculous teaching tool,” said Holmes.

Behind Breakthroughs

Radcliffe’s workshop on creative breakthroughs was organized by four people in conjunction with the Institute’s Academic Ventures staff. Leah Price RI ’07, former senior advisor to the humanities program in Academic Ventures and a professor in the English department at Harvard, collaborated with Anna Henchman, Ray Jayawardhana RI ’12, and John Plotz RI ’12 to plan the day’s activities. The James Family Innovation Fund provided financial support.


CORYDON IRELAND is a staff writer for the Harvard Gazette.

Illustrations by Andy Martin

Search Year: 
2013