Creativity and intellect: when great minds meet

31 March 2010

Arthur I Miller talks about interdisciplinarity and the creative process.


At the City College of New York, Arthur I Miller took large doses of philosophy in addition to physics. This was the start of a path that would lead him to become a well known historian of science and acclaimed author. He earned a PhD in physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and went on to do research in theoretical particle physics. He soon became fascinated with the history of ideas and the role of visual thinking in highly creative research.

In 1991 Miller moved to England where he became professor of history and philosophy of science at University College London. Three years later he founded the Department of Science and Technology Studies, which grew out of the original Department of History and Philosophy of Science. He has lectured and written extensively about his research into the history and philosophy of 19th- and 20th-century science and technology, as well as about cognitive science, scientific creativity and the relationship between art and science.

He is the author not only of academic books but also of several widely acclaimed books meant for a wider audience, including Einstein, Picasso: space, time and the beauty that causes havoc (2001), nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, and Empire of the Stars: friendship, obsession and betrayal in the quest for black holes (2005). In December he visited CERN to give a colloquium on his latest book, Deciphering the Cosmic Number: the strange friendship of Wolfgang Pauli and Carl Jung (2009).

When did your interest in interdisciplinary studies start?

Even though physics was what I focused on at university, my passion has always been those pesky “what is the nature of” questions, such as “what is the nature of charge, of mass, of space, of time, of the mind, and so on”. I wanted to understand how scientists made discoveries and how the mind works. Looking into the original German-language papers written by giants of 20th-century physics such as Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg and Wolfgang Pauli, I came to understand the important role of visual imagery in scientific discovery. I decided to look into this further. I became curious as to how images were generated and stored in the mind, to be called out and used in thinking. I turned to cognitive science, which gave me the means to structure my ideas. This led to my investigation into concepts such as aesthetics, beauty, intuition and symmetry, and how they are used in science and art.

What intrigued you about the lives of Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso?

The most important scientist of the 20th century, Albert Einstein, and its most important artist, Pablo Picasso, went through their period of greatest creativity and achievements around the same time, and in similar circumstances. In 1905 Einstein discovered his theory of relativity and in 1907 Picasso discovered Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, the painting that brought art into the 20th century and that contains the seeds of cubism. Even though they did not know about each other, they were both – each in his own way – identifying connections across the so-called “two cultures” of science and art, and striving to find a solution to the question of how to represent the nature of space and time in a more satisfying manner.

At the beginning of the 20th century, it was in the air that revolutionary changes were about to occur in many fields. Yet some of the greatest thinkers of the period bucked this tide. The great French philosopher-scientist Henri Poincaré was one of them. To my surprise, he turned out to be a common denominator between Einstein and Picasso. Both men were inspired by his book, Science and Hypothesis. Poincaré failed because he was unable to rid himself of the notion that time was an absolute and not a relative quantity. Just the opposite of what Einstein found when he combined space and time into a single continuum – space–time – and what Picasso did in his cubism, when he represented multiple perspectives all at once on a single canvas. Einstein studied temporal simultaneity, Picasso spatial simultaneity.

Is there a relationship between historical periods and people’s achievements?

Definitely. At that time, people were responding, with different degrees of success, to the mysterious synchronous effects of the Zeitgeist – the avant-garde, the intellectual tidal wave that swept across Europe. In fact, it was not an accident that Einstein and Picasso worked on the same problem – the nature of space and time. It was the principal problem of the avant-garde. In 1902, two years after his graduation from the ETH, Einstein was employed at the Swiss Federal Patent Office, in Bern, and was out of the academic mainstream. Picasso, on the other hand, was in Paris, in the centre of things. Most scientists thought that Poincaré would make major breakthroughs in physics, although of a sort that supported the claims of Newtonian science regarding space and time. Most artists in Paris considered that André Derain, Henri Matisse’s star student, was the one who would make the breakthrough to a radically new conceptual art.

Just as Poincaré could not break away from classical thought, Derain did not take seriously the dazzling developments in science, technology and mathematics. Only Picasso and Einstein were in resonance with the drum beat of the avant-garde. To accomplish their breakthroughs both men realized that they had to discover a new aesthetic: for Picasso it was the reduction of forms to geometry; for Einstein it was a minimalist aesthetic, which allowed him to remove “asymmetries that do not appear to be inherent in the phenomena”, as he wrote in the first sentence of his 1905 relativity paper. At their creative moment boundaries between disciplines dissolved and aesthetics became paramount for both of them.

What criteria do you use to compare people in your books?

I look for parallelisms in the working and private lives of highly creative thinkers (Einstein and Picasso). Pairs in opposition are of interest to me in what they say about the human element in science (Chandrasekhar and Eddington) or in a situation in which each learns from the other (Pauli and Jung). For example, Pauli was able to understand the forces that drove his personal life as well as his creative verve. In fact, an important discovery of his – CPT symmetry – stemmed from a dream that he and Jung analysed using Jungian psychoanalysis. Jung learnt enough quantum physics from Pauli to bring to fruition one of his greatest ideas – synchronism.

What can you say about high creativity?

Highly creative researchers are not deterred by mistakes and failures. Rather, they learn from them and turn the situation to their advantage. J Robert Oppenheimer once gave a particularly interesting definition of an expert as “a person who has made all possible mistakes”. Some other hallmarks of high creativity are that early in life the highly creative person realizes the field in which he or she is most competent and then mines it. They also exhibit an almost frighteningly focused mind when they work on a problem, to the exclusion of all else. Such was the case with Einstein and Picasso.

Is intuition part of creativity and the intellectual process?

I think that it is in both. There is nothing mysterious about intuition. It comes about mainly through an accumulation of knowledge. People can make an evaluation within a fraction of a second just because they have a lot of experience behind them. Having an intuition for what to do, solving a problem, judging a work of art, means having made a lot of errors and judgements along the way. Intuition is an achievement, albeit with a bit of the irrational mixed in – just like in scientific discovery. I think that there is not much difference between artistic thinking and scientific thinking, even if sometimes scientists want to appear less emotional and artists less rational.

Of course, an objective truth exists – on this every scientist would agree, even in this era of multiverses. There is a real external world “out there” beyond appearances and science is a way of getting a glimpse of it. Today, scientists have only begun to explore concepts like consciousness. One of the reasons I wrote my book about Jung and Pauli was to bring to everyone’s attention the high level of their discussions about issues that spanned physics, psychology, biology, religion, ESP, UFOs and Armageddon. They realized that neither physics nor psychology alone could reply to such deep questions such as: “What is the nature of consciousness?” Only an interdisciplinary approach could succeed.

What can you say about interdisciplinary research today?

Beginning in about the 1980s it became evident that, for example, biology needed various forms of technology – and also mathematics and physics. The need for interdisciplinarity soon became evident for physics as well, especially with the advent of health physics, computing physics, nanotechnology and then developments in biology. Nevertheless, most universities maintain a departmental structure and consequently a lack of complete interdisciplinarity. Moreover, there are too many instances where students with a PhD in an interdisciplinary topic have problems in obtaining a job.

One of the stumbling blocks here is the need for a common language across different domains. This lack of communication makes people afraid of an outsider interfering in their field. When I was writing my book on Einstein and Picasso I found that, whereas in most cases artists were easy to deal with, not so for historians of art. Their post-modernistic jargon necessarily closes them off from an interdisciplinary approach. Most of them still consider Picasso’s discovery of cubism to have been rooted in African art and the art of Cézanne, ignoring the essential role of science, technology and mathematics in his thinking. Picasso’s stunning discovery of cubism formalized the formerly informal language of art and brought it back into contact with science, where it has been ever since.

• For the video of the colloquium by Arthur I Miller, “The strange friendship of Pauli and Jung – when physics met philosophy”, see


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