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The Column icon The Column: Issue 37

The Library > The Column Archive > The Column 037

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The Column is a monthly feature that explores the world of creativity and aesthetics.

Science and Creativity
Mike de Sousa, Director, AbleStable

Science is often viewed of as a "cooler" discipline than the arts in that it is perceived primarily as "factual" rather than metaphorical and is not generally presented with the purpose of evoking an emotional response - although it can and often does. Science seeks to help us understand and manipulate the world through rational reasoning, experimentation, and production, and yet creativity which is far from a purely rational process, is of profound importance in all scientific endeavour.

A Map of Our Times

Paul Rothemund together with his colleagues from the California Institute of Technology have manipulated strands of DNA in a more elegant and faster way than previously achieved to produce incredibly tiny familiar shapes.

DNA (Deoxyribonucleic acid) is the material inside the nucleus of cells that carries genetic information that encodes proteins and enables cells to reproduce and perform their functions. Paul and his colleagues work in the field of nanotechnology and manipulate matter on an ultra-small scale. One nanometre is one-millionth of a millimetre, a single human hair is around 80,000 nanometres in width.

Map: Image: Paul Rothemund

A powerful microscope allows us to view the DNA molecules that make up this map of the Americas which is just under a hundred nanometres across. The techniques used to create this miniature new world might also be used at a molecular-level to build smaller, faster computers and many other devices.

Image reproduced by permission of Paul Rothemund

   

Nano Pictures: Paul Rothemund and Nick Papadakis

The smilies, snowflakes, and hexagon shown on the left are playful, easily recognizable shapes. They not only present a simple non-abstract story for the media to tell when reporting the new nano-techniques, but are also indicators of how the creative process is inextricably linked with discovery.

Images: Paul Rothemund and Nick Papadakis

When Paul Rothemund's work was published in the international journal Nature, many scientific observers remarked on how the images were incidental to the techniques used that could transform the burgeoning field of nanotechnology. Indeed on his website Paul states the images are "...somewhat silly DNA artwork..." and he understandably focuses on the potential practical applications of the techniques he has used.

The choices Paul made to communicate the effectiveness of his new techniques in manipulating DNA are however very interesting. A map, a smilie face, some snow flakes, and what my eight year old son thinks might be a gem or crystal may not have been intentional in their metaphorical message, but they can certainly be read as such.

The Creative Experience

The scientists who exchange ideas about the world that provide new ways of understanding and manipulating matter make "creative leaps" in exactly the same way as an artist, composer, or writer. They are met with a challenge and seek a solution. I am not referring here to the challenges that can easily be solved by following a path from A to B, but the challenges that have no obvious or simple solution. Creative leaps often occur in the most unexpected moments precisely because they require we touch a place unconstrained by purely rational thought. Creativity is at its most intense when we are at our most open.

The Flash movie by Jared Tarbell below illustrates how we make creative choices. Go ahead and make a choice now by clicking one of the shapes toward the centre - the first time you do this you will need to click once to focus your mouse on the Flash movie, and then again to make the selection. Note that each time you refresh this page the elements in the Flash movie will change. This is not unlike the process that occurs in our minds as new paths and connections are made when we return to a task after a short break.

As you make your first choice you will notice there are several consequences to your actions. Observe how as you seek to recognize patterns according to your actions, perhaps your eyes scatter from one visual element to another. Observe how rational or articulate your thoughts are at this stage. Be aware how making choices makes you feel: physically, intellectually, and emotionally. Much like feeling, I believe our creativity results out of a combination of the sum of our experience, skills, and knowledge. Being self aware and open to this process makes us more effective in our creative activities.

Building Blocks

Building blocks are among the first toys children play with and as we grow, some of us continue to play with "adult blocks" that are associated with the fields of scientific invention and discovery. Scientists like Paul Rothemund help not only to progress our understanding and manipulation of the world, but also act as examples of how creativity defines us as a species.

Jared Tarbell has also created a series of elements arranged in a rotating double helix (below). Our DNA, another double helix, is a pair of molecules that are organized as two complementary strands. Paul has observed the animated double-helix below is left-handed in that it twists in the opposite direction from our DNA and is thus its mirror-image. For Paul, it is like looking at the face of a friend in the mirror: similar, but difficult to look at.

Be you scientist or artist, let your eyes do the walking, and your mouse the talking. To play or not to play, that is the question. Click to make your choice...



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Authors background
Mike de Sousa is the Director of AbleStable®. Mike has been commissioned as an artist, music composer, photographer, print and web site designer, and author. Mike is also the Creative Director of 2BrightSparks, a software company.

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