The creativity that comes from being a ‘Renaissance person’

by Itai Yanai

When we meet each other, we ask ‘what do you do?’ I’m a landscape architect, you might answer; I’m a molecular biologist, I’m a jazz musician, I’m a painter, I’m an entrepreneur, I’m a ballet dancer. We present our identity as experts and we need to be one – it seems – to be successful though it requires long years of training to become one.

And so you would think that the more of an expert you are, the more likely you are to make the best scientific discoveries, the best artistic contributions, the most creative music. But if you look at who makes the best contributions – they are often people whose background surprises you.

My contention for you today is this: our personal education – in the broadest sense – may not be complete if we direct ourselves to becoming an expert in just one field. And this is because an important part of making a discovery – or any creative contribution for that matter – is to transcend the field. The most exciting aspects of any field are its unknown unknowns, the things for which we’re not even aware of because of our ignorance – and these are naturally unpredictable. An extremely powerful way towards creativity, then, is to be exposed to many different fields – to be interdisciplinary. Feeling comfortable in multiple fields (or multiple genres) and being a so-called renaissance person – is not a sign of weakness or of a distracted mind – rather it allows you to make new associations, to be open to more inspirations, to draw upon more diverse analogies.

Consider my career so far, as an example. I am a biologist today, but I didn’t start out as one. When I was growing up, I saw myself as a computer engineer. My dad is a computer engineer; with a very mathematical mind – as you might expect. He always loves solving puzzles and on long car rides he taught me how to solve them, too. After a while, I got the hang of it. Sometimes I would go with him to his work during the weekends. I would see the big computers he was building with his team. I also saw how all of those riddles that he told me were similar to the problems he would solve to build the computers.

When I was 9, my dad bought me a personal computer – it was an Apple IIc – and I loved it. I began spending lots of time on it and learned to code in Basic. I would spend my after-school hours working on code that didn’t do what it was supposed to, and when my father came home from work he would easily fix it for me. Learning about programming, I learned that to figure out a dynamic system, you need to think about how its different parts come together.

When I went to college, though, a whole other world opened up to me. My friends were studying literature, philosophy, sociology, and science. I was doing well in my computer engineering studies, but I found myself becoming more and more interested in what they were studying. In particular, I became very curious about how philosophers address the meaning of life. After all, why are we here?

Once, when I was exploring this topic in the library, I came upon a book that changed everything for me. It was “The Selfish Gene” by Richard Dawkins. The book amazed me by how it synthesized the science of the evolution of life from the point of view of the genes. It argued that while us individuals come and go, the genes are effectively immortal by continuously making almost identical copies of themselves. Those genes that were not good at being replicators are not around anymore; and those that remain, but are also continuously tested. These ideas immediately infected me with a passion for evolution and for understanding how it works. I thought there could be nothing more interesting for me to do in life than understanding these big questions.

And so after my graduation as a computer engineer, I decided to switch fields to biology and – as fast as I could – I began learning the basics of biology, in particular genetics and molecular biology. My goal was to become a research biologist and to make important discoveries. In some respects, it was difficult for me to integrate as a biologist because my training as a computer engineer left an indelible mark on the way I thought; there were a lot of things that any “true” biologist knew but I didn’t, and I still tackled problems with the mind of a computer person. This made me lose some credibility with the expert biologists, who saw me as a kind of outsider. Having an atypical background, though, did give me a valuable perspective on things. In particular, I increasingly felt that it helped with the creative process involved in science.

Martin Lercher – my friend and colleague – and I have been thinking lately about the creative process in science. We think that science works very differently from the way we were taught. The standard narrative of science is this: you start with a problem and you find a hypothesis to solve it; you use the hypothesis to make predictions; you test those by comparing them to data; and you throw out or modify the hypothesis if predictions and data disagree. That’s what our teachers taught us. And it’s not wrong. But this description really hides the workings of the most exciting part of science – and of any creative process, really.

François Jacob has something to say about this. This Nobel Prize winning scientist made a distinction between what he called “day science” and “night science”. Day science is structured, it is the rational testing of hypotheses through experiments, or the acquisition of data by following established protocols. When you have a hypothesis to test, you can marshal all of the tools of day science: controlled experiments, statistics, etc. But where did the hypothesis – the idea – come from?

It is in night science that we create hypotheses, and where we explore the unstructured realm of the adjacent possible, of hypotheses not previously dreamed of, of ideas not yet fully fleshed out. In night science, not every step needs to follow logically from the previous, we follow our intuition, jump from idea to idea, until we hit upon something that we feel is worth being dragged into the day to be examined with rigor.

The distinction between the rational day phases and creative night phases is not limited to science, and may be general to all enterprises that require creativity. In the visual arts, one might distinguish between day art and night art. Day art executes an idea in the studio. Night art is the phase that comes before, where the artist develops the idea of what to create – the composition of a painting or a sculpture, for example. By the time the artist knows what she wants to paint, a majority of the creative process may already have happened. In the same way, there may be day music, the act of producing sound or of working out the details of an arrangement, and night music, where musical ideas take shape. In all these fields – science, art, music – the contribution of the creative, night time activity to the success of the whole project is obvious.

So how does night science find a possible solution to a problem? The single greatest misunderstanding about science may be that scientists solve problems; in reality scientists are primarily concerned with identifying them. Indeed, it is the discovery of a new problem that is so crucial in science and other fields. Reflect for a moment on how Leonard Susskind described Stephan Hawking’s insight: “Hawking made an extremely deep and important observation in 1976 which is known as the information paradox” he said “Hawking didn’t get the right answer; but he asked the right question.”

But finding a new problem is more difficult than it seems. This is because we often mistakenly think of knowledge as a kind of wall of information: where individual pieces of knowledge fit together like bricks within the wall. To find a new problem, you might think to look for a hole in the wall – a kind of knowledge gap. But as it turns out, filling in such gaps is not where the great discoveries originate. For example, if you compare a list of the great discoveries in the life sciences over the 25 years leading up to 2015 with a list of major open questions provided early on in this period, you notice very little overlap.

The nature of discoveries then is that they are unexpected: although our research may be originally motivated by a perceived knowledge gap, the knowledge gained may lead to the construction of a completely new and unexpected area of science.

Though discoveries are not predictable there is still a method to the madness. Day science is compartmentalized and operates within the confines of a particular scientific field. But night science is not confined and can find inspiration wherever it is hiding. Night science, then, is truly interdisciplinary. After all, the borders between scientific fields and disciplines after all are not natural boundaries; really, there are no boundaries. Disciplines, fields, and subfields are just one way of clustering together knowledge on increasingly fine-grained levels.

Working within the confines of a field may help us to structure insights and ideas, but – similar to a musician’s fixation on a certain genre or an artist’s use of a specific medium – the boundaries can also impede our creativity and restrict our advances to a small number of directions. During our most creative night science moments, we are better off if our mind is free to transcend the fields and disciplines to come up with potential solutions for problems and to dream up hypotheses by making new and unexpected connections. In night science, borders between disciplines are obstacles – after all, if there were no boxes, we wouldn’t have to think outside of them.

There are two general routes in which night science bridges across disciplines may facilitate new, creative insights. You may realize that a concept or a method, or maybe even just an analogy, from another field can help in developing an answer to an existing question in your home field. Conversely, a concept or method from your home field may help in answering an open question in another field.

Indeed, meta-research – research on how people do research – is showing that interdisciplinarity can help us produce work of higher impact. Combining multiple fields in one scientific project has a positive effect on the creation of knowledge. Interestingly, this research on research has also revealed that interdisciplinary work often faces increased resistance from the scientific audience, perhaps because such works are too groundbreaking or too challenging.

Looking back on some of my own projects, it is clear that they were shaped by my identity as a computer engineer. One important aspect of that was that I was never too interested in the minute details of any particular system – which are admittedly important – but I wanted to find general rules, I wanted to understand how complete systems functioned. I worked in the field of genomics, studying how genes jump around from species to species of bacteria, by borrowing notions from network theory. I then became very interested in the problem of development – how an organism builds itself; and so I started working with the tiny worm known as C. elegans. I studied the embryo as a dynamic system using large-scale gene expression measurements that required specialized algorithms for their analysis. More recently, I’ve started to work on bacterial infection and cancer. I realized that the tools we created for development could also be applied for studying these two fields.

From the point of view of an academic biologist, these fields are vastly different – most people are experts either in bacterial genomics, embryonic development, infection biology, or cancer biology. Not too many people have done research in any two of those, let alone all four.

In this process, I have come to see myself as a bit of a scientific renaissance person – moving from field to field in the life sciences, not randomly, but following the evolution of my interests. It may not be obvious at first sight, but there are many other renaissance thinkers like me. Many of us started out as working in a completely different field than the one in which we studied. My colleagues in biology include people who come from computer science, like me, but also from physics, mathematics, and English and music as well, believe it or not. There is a great advantage to being able to think differently from your colleagues. We need the experts to do expert things; but being interdisciplinary gives us a different kind of creativity.

Even if you are a true expert in a field, studies have shown that our creativity is boosted by cultivating a wide range of interests – or sheer exposure to different ideas. Simply living in a city rather than a remote cave gives you a lot of that exposure, and visiting a coffee house where diverse but similarly interested people gather creates a melting pot of ideas, as described in the book by Steven Johnson, ‘Where good ideas come from’.

And so when we meet each other, we should encourage each other to show off the indirect paths that make us unique. We should not hide how we came to our special interests. We should say, ‘I am computer engineer turn systems biologist’. ‘I am a painter turn architect’. ‘I am trained in both physics and chemistry’. If we reward being a renaissance person, we will have more amazing contributions to science, to art, to music – and anywhere creativity may be applied by the borderless human mind.

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