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‘Who invented penicillin?’ I was asked.  ‘Alexander Fleming, but,’ I corrected, ‘he didn’t invent it, he discovered it.’  Then, I began to wonder.  The idea, of course, is that something like penicillin, or the structure of HIV or even the moons of Neptune have been there all along, and it is up to us to dig deep and ‘discover’ them.  We can only ‘invent’ something if it did not previously exist, like Edison and his light bulb.

All this is patently true, but there is also another side to this story of discovery, that of imagination.  Scientific discovery, as well as being an act of excavation, is also a highly creative act.  We forge ideas that were not previously there, so we must have invented them.  We craft new hypotheses that had no former existence, and we imagine the solution before we ever discover it.  In practice, without an imagination working at full tilt, simple disconnected facts, however painfully gathered, will never amount to much.

Such talk of creativity brings the notions of craft and even artistry to the laboratory bench, where many believe they have no place.  They prefer to believe that science is cold and objective and mechanical, but they would be wrong.

Listen to Richard Feynman, the Nobel Laureate in Physics, and you will hear a man led by his sense of wonder and his imagination. Listen to Harry Kroto, the Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, describe his discoveries, and again you will see that creative leaps are as important as steady slog.  And, listen to any child talk of first finding frog spawn in a pond or of first hearing the waves in a seashell, and you will be left in no doubt of the importance our imagination plays in this business of discovery.

Sometimes, it is the spark that ignites our interest, and often it is the force that drives us on, but always it is our means of creating a new reality within which new and sometimes disparate facts reside.  We make sense of it all first with our imaginations, as we create our solutions, and only later do we discover objective truths.

Perhaps then Alexander Fleming could only discover penicillin because he could first imagine it.  Just as Francis Crick and James Watson imagined a majestic, yet simple, self-replicating structure for DNA before putting all the facts together, and Frederick Banting imagined a chemical messenger that would control blood sugar before he discovered insulin.  Every discovery must first be imagined for without this creative preparation there is nowhere for a discovery to fit.  And, even if we cannot imagine the reality of the discovery itself, perhaps we can, by exclusion, imagine the space within which it will fit.  Like a jigsaw missing a single piece, we can define the exact shape of the errant piece from those surrounding it.  When we stumble upon the missing piece we can then be sure it is the right one.

How does this work in reality?  You may have an idea and you design an experiment to test it.  The results do not show what you expect.  You check, and you do the experiment again, and again.  Every time the facts, as you have gathered them, fail to support your idea.  If you trust your work, you have only one inescapable conclusion, that your idea was wrong.  But, now you have more than an incorrect idea, you also have new facts and using these you have to let your imagination get to work.  What sort of new idea would fit these data and how can you go about proving this to yourself and to others? The input from your imagination is crucial, and without it science would merely be a series of blind alleys with failure and disappointment at the end of each.  Our imaginations allow us to find a way out of these dead ends and, ultimately, to walk down well-lit streets towards an answer.

However, these escape routes can only be formulated into new ideas through a creative process—one of invention, rather than discovery.  Louis Pasteur reminded us that chance favours the mind that is well prepared.  From this we might envision seeds of discovery falling on fertile ground, but this analogy only goes so far.  If we acknowledge the importance of creativity and imagination in scientific discovery, that ground, as well as being fertile and well tilled, must also be able to imagine the flower for it to be able to grow.

Scientists must learn to dream as well as measure.  They must allow their imaginations to soar, to believe in the impossible and see the beauty in the world, while striving for new truths.  In short, they must be able to invent in order to discover.

© Allan Gaw 2013