Exceptional Creativity in Science and Technology: Individuals, Institutions, and Innovations

Exceptional Creativity in Science and Technology: Individuals, Institutions, and Innovations

by Andrew Robinson

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In the evolution of science and technology, laws governing exceptional creativity and innovation have yet to be discovered. The historian Thomas Kuhn, in his influential study The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, noted that the final stage in a scientific breakthrough such as Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity—that is, the most crucial


In the evolution of science and technology, laws governing exceptional creativity and innovation have yet to be discovered. The historian Thomas Kuhn, in his influential study The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, noted that the final stage in a scientific breakthrough such as Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity—that is, the most crucial stage—was “inscrutable.” The same is still true half a century later.
Yet, there has been considerable progress in understanding many of the stages and facets of exceptional creativity and innovation. In Exceptional Creativity in Science and Technology editor Andrew Robinson gathers together a diverse group of contributors to explore this progress. This new collection arises from a symposium with the same title held at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS), in Princeton. Organized by the John Templeton Foundation, the symposium had as its chair the late distinguished doctor and geneticist Baruch S. Blumberg, while its IAS host was the well-known physicist Freeman J. Dyson—both of whom have contributed chapters to the book. In addition to scientists, engineers, and an inventor, the book’s fifteen contributors include an economist, entrepreneurs, historians, and sociologists, all working at leading institutions, including Bell Laboratories, Microsoft Research, Oxford University, Princeton University, and Stanford University. Each contributor brings a unique perspective to the relationships between exceptional scientific creativity and innovation by individuals and institutions.
The diverse list of disciplines covered, the high-profile contributors (including two Nobel laureates), and their fascinating insights into this overarching question—how exactly do we make breakthroughs?will make this collection of interest to anyone involved with the creative process in any context, but it will be especially appealing to readers in scientific and technological fields.

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"Following a series of outstanding books on various aspects of the history of science, Andrew Robinson has now edited a fascinating work which explores the origins of some of the greatest scientific institutions in the world and their innovations which have changed all our lives and had a remarkable effect in boosting the economies of the countries in which they were developed.  While this fascinating story of the complex evolution of great science and its institutions will be of particular interest to the scientific community, given their great importance to all of us for the future it should attract a much broader audience in particular representing education, commerce, and politics.  I wish it all the success that it deserves."  —Sir David Weatherall, FRS, Regius Professor of Medicine Emeritus, Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine, University of Oxford

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Exceptional Creativity in Science and Technology

Individuals, Institutions, and Innovations

By Andrew Robinson

Templeton Press

Copyright © 2013 Templeton Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-59947-426-7


The Rise and Decline of Hegemonic Systems of Scientific Creativity


ADDRESSING CREATIVITY at the level of a society has a long tradition, whether it be the ancient Greek city-state, sixteenth-century Florence, France during the Enlightenment, the United Kingdom during the Industrial Revolution, or other societies. In order to gain a fresh perspective on creativity in the contemporary world, this chapter extends the tradition by focusing on the rise and decline of creativity at the level of the nation-state during the past 250 years. Despite our focus on the societal level, we recognize that most acts of creativity occur at the level of the individual. But by aggregating acts of creativity, it becomes possible to analyze creativity at the level of a society, at the level of an organization (e.g., Bell Labs in the United States, the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in the United Kingdom, the Max-Planck Institutes in Germany; Rockefeller University in the United States), and at the level of a university department (e.g., physics at the University of Göttingen in the 1920s; the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge during much of the twentieth century).

Since the mid-eighteenth century, the most highly creative systems of science have been embedded only in those societies that were hegemons (from the ancient Greek word hegemon, meaning "leader"). A hegemonic power is one that exercises political, economic, and military supremacy over all other powers during a particular historic period. It was a society's economic, political, and military hegemonic power that gave birth to the creative scientific hegemon.

A scientific hegemon dominates multiple scientific fields and establishes the standards of excellence in most scientific fields. Its language is the major one used in scientific communication, and its scientific elite is the one most prominent in the world of science. It attracts more foreign young people for training than any other country. Its scientific culture tends to reflect society's culture. Scientific hegemons are embedded in societies that are economic, political, and military hegemons—but not all political, economic, and military hegemonic powers develop a hegemonic scientific system. However, modern hegemonic scientific systems exist only in societies that are political, economic, and military hegemons.

The process by which scientific hegemons emerged as well as declined varied from society to society—although the underlying explanation was the same in each society. When their systems began to decline, the elites in scientific hegemons often failed to understand this fact; indeed, they tended to believe that their systems were continuing to perform extraordinarily well. Only as a result of a retrospective analysis was a hegemonic system of science observed to have been in relative decline.

Figure 1 is a representation of the rise and decline of four hegemonic systems of science since the middle of the eighteenth century: French, German, British, and American.


From around 1735 until the mid-nineteenth century, France led the world in scientific creativity—particularly in the fields of mathematics, physics, physiology, clinical medicine, zoology, and paleontology. A few of the most prominent French scientists of this period are listed in Table 1.

As France was a great power during the latter part of the eighteenth century, it is not surprising that it became a scientific hegemon. The world's leading scientific journals were published in France, the major scientific language was French, many of the world's most accomplished scientists were French, and large numbers of young people from all over Europe went to France for training. However, the turmoil brought about by the French Revolution and the military adventures of Napoleon Bonaparte had long-term negative effects on France's military, economic, and scientific influence. Of course, the decline of France's distinction in science did not occur all at once. Indeed, throughout the nineteenth century and even through the early years of the twentieth century, many of the world's most eminent scientists were French.

France's role as a scientific hegemon did not decline simply because of its relative decline in military, economic, and political power. There were inherent contradictions in French society that had profound implications for its science. Part of the problem was the centralization of French government. Before and somewhat after the French Revolution, the centralization of France was significant in accelerating the rapid growth of France's role in world affairs, including its system of science. But during the nineteenth and on into the twentieth century, centralization had an adverse effect on France's ability to adapt to many of the radical innovations occurring elsewhere in the world, especially in the rest of Europe.

This was, of course, not true of all aspects of French society. Indeed, in the first half of the nineteenth century, outstanding scientific research occurred in the Collège de France in Paris and in several of the grandes écoles. Moreover, even as basic science in France declined during the nineteenth century, the society excelled in the development of large-scale technological systems. Jean-Baptiste Colbert, late in the seventeenth century, led France in making it a world leader in this area, a tradition that continued into the twentieth century with the development of French trains and aircraft. Colbert was a pioneer in developing applied science through government activity. As a result, the French state developed an excellent system of schools to train technocrats: the École des Mines, the École des Ponts et Chaussées, the École de Génie Militaire, and the world-renowned École Polytechnique. At the École Polytechnique the dominant epistemology emphasized deductive reasoning, complemented by rigorous mathematics.

However, partly because of its heavy investment in technological training in the development of large-scale projects, the French state underinvested in the training of young scientists. For the past several centuries, French society has long admired highly achieving individuals, but has been miserly in investing in the development of individual creativity. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the celebration of great scientists and other intellectuals was an important part of French culture. But among the four societies discussed in this essay, none was more parsimonious and lacking in foresight than France in providing individual scientists with the financial and organizational resources they needed for outstanding research. From the middle of the nineteenth century, while German universities were providing the finest equipment for laboratories, some of France's greatest biomedical scientists—François Magendie, Claude Bernard, Charles-Édouard Brown-Séquard, Louis Pasteur, as well as Pierre Curie and Marie Curie—often had to work under abominable conditions. It is a tribute to the French system of education, with its emphasis on individual brilliance and creativity, that these scientists performed so well despite their inadequately developed and underfunded research organizations. Over the years, scientists in France, in comparison with those in Germany, Britain, or the United States, more often than not had to operate in crowded laboratories, rely on obsolete equipment, and endure periodically the deleterious effects of inflation.

Even when the French government provided ample funding for laboratories, the method of governance was highly centralized. While there was some variation in the type of state-run organizations dedicated to research—the universities, the Collège de France, hospitals, and the Musée de l'Histoire Naturelle (not a museum but a training and research center)—these different organizations enjoyed little autonomy or flexibility, which naturally hampered their capacity to make major discoveries.

Numerous accounts have described how the French university system has long been embedded in a highly centralized ministry of education that determined salaries and promotions. Letters of evaluation were often written largely by friends and mentors. Historically, an enormous amount of favoritism and organizational nepotism had been present. Some of France's most distinguished scientists expressed harsh criticism of the system: its lack of funds, the mediocrity of its science, its perpetuation of antiquated disciplines and its reluctance to develop new ones, and the incompetence of its administrative personnel. Pasteur, Bernard, and Adolphe Wurtz all wrote scathing reports on French science.

According to Terry Shinn, the files of applications of young people wishing to be trained as scientists became voluminous as the French government demanded information about the applicants' families. But the applications were then often filed away without any response to the applicant. In the meantime, buildings deteriorated: roofs leaked, floors flooded, and walls crumbled. There are many reports of insufficient light and lack of running water in laboratories; for lack of adequate storage facilities, equipment sometimes simply vanished. These conditions were obviously disincentives for young people thinking of becoming scientists, while many of those who had embarked on a career in science lost their ambition to conduct research.

In areas of creative activity with few expectations of funding by the state, such as in the arts, France excelled. One has only to think of French literature, painting, and sculpture in the nineteenth century. But in science, after the first third of the nineteenth century, the centralized state stifled individual creativity, except in the service of large-scale collective projects. Coupled with the decline of French political and economic hegemony on the world stage, France's capacity to remain a scientific hegemon was diminished.


From France the world's center of scientific creativity shifted to Germany, which became the world's scientific hegemon from about 1840 to the 1920s—a consequence of economic prosperity and a powerful political elite with a strong military organization. From the middle of the nineteenth century until the early twentieth century, twenty prominent German research universities emerged, and Germany had a far larger number of serious research universities than any other country. The new type of German university produced many of the world's most creative mathematicians, physicists, chemists, biochemists, and biologists. Germany had the world's best-equipped laboratories and scientific institutes—such as the Kaiser Wilhelm (later Max-Planck) Institutes—and growing science-based industries in pharmaceuticals, dyes, and vaccines. In the first eleven years of the Nobel Prizes, from 1901 onward, thirteen German scientists received awards in physics, chemistry, and physiology or medicine—many more than any other nationality.

From 1880 until 1920, German science dominated numerous fields and established new standards of excellence. The leading scientific journals of the day were based in Germany, making German the major language for scientific communication. Germany attracted more foreign young people to study in its universities than any other country. Tens of thousands of young Americans traveled to Germany in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries for advanced training—a factor that led to the transformation of research in the United States.

However, like France, fundamental contradictions were built into both the culture of Germany and its science system, particularly its high level of authoritarianism—a factor that would later place constraints on the creativity of German science. Respect for authority in society facilitated the rapid emergence of German universities, but would ultimately be a factor in their relative decline. Because most university departments had only one professor, senior professors tended to incur heavy responsibilities for teaching across all fields in their particular discipline, limiting their ability to specialize, and heavy administrative burdens, limiting their time for research. In due course, creative research in most scientific disciplines began to level off. The increasing inability of German universities to create new disciplines necessitated the creation of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes in 1911, resulting in a surge of creative research, at least for a while.

The first institutes were in Dahlem, a suburb of Berlin. They were established in physics, in various fields of chemistry, and in the biological sciences—all concentrated within a few hundred meters of each other—which contributed to Dahlem becoming one of the most creative centers of science anywhere (see Table 2).

Among the scientists appointed to these institutes were Albert Einstein, Richard Goldschmidt, Fritz Haber, Otto Hahn, Lise Meitner, Otto Warburg, and others of great distinction. One most important attraction and facilitator of interaction among scientists at the Dahlem institutes were the "Haber colloquia" held every Monday afternoon. Among those frequently in attendance were the scientists mentioned above; more occasional attendees included Niels Bohr, Peter Debye, Selig Hecht, Max von Laue, Max Planck, Walther Nernst, Erwin Schrödinger, and Arnold Sommerfeld. Soon there were Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes in various parts of Germany, though none as creative as those in Dahlem.

The institutes would not have been possible without the hegemonic power of the German empire. Then Germany's political elites and military powers overreached themselves, resulting in Germany's defeat in the First World War, the loss of considerable territory, and a disrupted economy. By the early 1920s, all of these factors, combined with poor economic policies, resulted in some of the most disastrous inflation ever experienced in a modern economy, leading to the relative decline of German scientific hegemony even before the Nazis came to power in 1933. Of course, Germany's loss of status as a major power contributed to the emergence of the Nazi Party in the 1920s.

Yet even in the midst of the decline of a national scientific hegemon, scientific creativity may still occur in particular centers, as was clearly the case at the University of Göttingen in the 1920s. (See Table 3.) In that decade Göttingen became one of the most creative universities in the natural sciences of the entire twentieth century, encouraged by a high degree of communication among excellent scientists in diverse fields. Working there at the time were the internationally distinguished mathematicians Richard Courant, Edward Landau, and David Hilbert, as well as chemists Walther Nernst, Adolf Windaus, and Richard Zsigmondy, all three of whom received Nobel Prizes for work done mostly at Göttingen. Others at Göttingen were considered to be among the world's most creative scientists in their fields during the 1920s: Heinrich Johann Tammann in physical chemistry, Wilhelm Stille in geology, Otto Mögge and Victor Moritz Goldschmidt in mineralogy, Hans Kienle in astronomy and astrophysics, and Ludwig Prandtl, the father of modern aerodynamic theory.


Excerpted from Exceptional Creativity in Science and Technology by Andrew Robinson. Copyright © 2013 Templeton Press. Excerpted by permission of Templeton Press.
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Meet the Author

Andrew Robinson is a former literary editor of the Times Higher Education Supplement in London. He is the author of some twenty-five books in the arts and sciences published by trade and academic publishers, which have been translated into fifteen languages. They include the biographies The Man Who Deciphered Linear B: The Story of Michael Ventris and Einstein: A Hundred Years of Relativity; and two studies of exceptional creativity in the arts and sciences: Sudden Genius? The Gradual Path to Creative Breakthroughs and Genius: A Very Short Introduction. His latest books are Cracking the Egyptian Code: The Revolutionary Life of Jean-François Champollion, and an edited collection, The Scientists: An Epic of Discovery, with contributions from scientists, historians of science, and science writers. A King’s Scholar of Eton College, he holds degrees from Oxford University and the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, and was a visiting fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge from 2006-10.

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