The Process of Discovery

[Introductory contribution to the panel discussion "Compelled to Create: Artists and Scientists Discuss the Process of Discovery", Sept. 11, 2003.

This panel discussion will take up the question of inspiration and the mental "leaps" that lead to new art and science. Panelists will reflect on their own creative process and examine the similarities and differences between artistic and scientific modes of discovery.

Moderated by Robert Root-Bernstein, professor, Department of Physiology, MSU.

Panelists: Anita Skeen, professor, Department of English, MSU; Peter Glendinning, professor, Department of Art & Art History, MSU; Wolfgang Bauer, chairperson and professor, Department of Physics and Astronomy, MSU; Jose Cibelli, professor, Department of Animal Science, MSU; Mark Sullivan, associate professor, School of Music, MSU]

What constitutes discovery? As a physicist I could perhaps claim that it means finding a new law of nature, to reduce processes and matter itself to more basic constituents. The quest for the elementary and objective!

But one has to admit that physicists also apply criteria usually associated with art to their theories. Simplicity, symmetry, elegance, and beauty enter our search criteria for truth and our evaluation for what has to be considered fundamental.

Being able to find a mathematical formulation for a law of nature alone is not enough, measuring and quantifying certain parts of nature is not enough. True discovery also entails the aforementioned abstract criteria, and from that standpoint the sciences and arts are not all that different.

Of course I do not want to overstretch the similarities. Above all else, a new measurement needs to state its bounds of validity and certainty (often also called "error bars"), it needs to be reproducible and be able to be verified. Perhaps even more importantly, a new theory needs to present us with the information on what it would take to falsify it. I would claim that this attempt to find the absolute and the methods we have developed to approach it is what makes the scientific method of discovery different from all other human endeavors.

But the rush you experience once you get there is just the same as that the artist feels once the piece is completed. And the fever with which one works in the final stages near completion is also similar. Both are terrifically echoed in the book we all read as our common assignment.

When I first was approached about participating in this panel and heard about the "one book, one community" project, I was thrilled with the basic concept, but puzzled by the selection of the book. Frankenstein was a distant scary memory of black-and-white movies on Saturday night TV. The monster was walking around robotically and uttering creepy grunts that followed me into my dreams in my pre-teenage years.

Reading the book, however, made me realize the wisdom of this pick. Here is the key phrase, in my eyes. On p.37 Mary Shelley has Victor Frankenstein proclaim: "Wealth was an inferior object; but what glory would attend the discovery, if I could banish disease from the human frame, and render man invulnerable to any but a violent death!"

This resonates! Let me give you a couple of facts: Our life expectancy today is an average of 77 years. In 1850, it was only 39 years. During ancient Roman times, people lived to an average age of a mere 25 years. This means that it took 2000 years to add 50% to the average life span, and then it only took another 150 years to double the average life expectancy. So we are not only living ever longer, but in addition the rate at which we add to the length of the average life is accelerating. That is an astounding fact. It is perhaps the most direct proof that science has tangible benefits for all of us.

However, in the words of Sir Winston Churchill, "This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But, it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning." Molecular biologists and geneticists are now dreaming of the elimination of the physical causes of aging. Aubrey de Grey, the Cambridge geneticist, bravely predicts that our mean life expectancy will reach 5000 years by the year 2100. Immortality may be just around the corner!

So, now that we have established that science, creativity, progress, discovery, and invention can lead to positive results, we have to face the other side of the tale that Mary Shelley has spun for us. I assume that we have all read "Frankenstein", and so I do not need to point out the obvious. But let me summarize a modern version of this story, one described in the book "Prey" by Michael Creighton. Here an updated Frankenstein's monster is a rapidly evolving swarm of organic nano-particles, a new synthetic life form with emergent behavior that actually enters a symbiotic relationship with its creator, making her stronger, smarter, better looking.

What both books have in common is that the scientists, during the process of discovery and creation, neglected to think about the consequences of their invention.

In the secondary literature one finds discussions of how Mary Shelley's pregnancy and reflections on motherhood may have influenced her story and how she illuminates the relationship between Frankenstein and his "wretched creature". But I think that this points to a deeper and more general aspect of discovery: one tends to adopt ones constructions, develops parental feelings for them, protects them like kids, thus easily forgives and perhaps forgets their shortcomings, and one suffers more from their imperfections.

Is this rush to discovery without pondering of the possible downsides only relegated to science fiction? I am afraid not. One example: Monsanto has patented a corn hybrid that sterilizes itself after one reproduction cycle. This is a perpetual cash-cow for the company, because it will force all farmers to buy new seeds every year. They cannot create seeds themselves any more, because their corn, once grown, is sterile. (The equivalent Holy Grail for the textbook publishing industry would be the elimination of the used-book market.)

But what assurances do we have that the "sterility gene" (I am going to call it that for a lack of a better term.) does not cross species boundaries? In several instances it has already been shown that artificially introduced genes have migrated between species. Interestingly in our context, the Europeans call genetically modified food "Frankenfood".

One more book and a moral to extract from it: Die Physiker by Friedrich Dürrenmatt. Here is the basic cliff-note version of what this theater play is about: The nuclear physicist Möbius has discovered the "world formula" of universal knowledge and with it the ultimate weapon that can lead to the domination of the entire world. He knows only one way to prevent this new knowledge from getting into the wrong hands: checking himself into an insane asylum, where he can freely think about his ideas without fear of causing catastrophic consequences, all under the protective disguise of insanity. He chooses this over a brilliant career and worldwide fame out of a deeply felt moral obligation. Alas, in the end it turns out that the asylum is run be a person who knew the truth about him and thus was able to steal his discovery. The author annotates: "The more people plan ahead, the more effective they can be hit by random chance."

There is a clear risk that our ability to manipulate nature is getting out of our control, a theme straight from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. On the eve of the first test of the atomic bomb, for example, the scientists in the Manhattan Project suddenly had the worry that this explosion would cause all of the nitrogen in our atmosphere to burn in a chain reaction. Obviously, this did not happen, but it was still one of many potentially close calls to follow. With our current rapid progress in the life sciences and their great profit potentials, we are clearly at risk that our pace of scientific discovery is going to exceed our societal evolution. And, to quote Dürrenmatt's Möbius: "What once has been thought, cannot be taken back."

In my little introductory collection, I have tried to show you some of the upside and some of the downside of the process of scientific discovery.

Once the genie is out of the bottle, of course you cannot stuff it back in. But what are the alternatives? Should we all stop rubbing?