Fire in the Crucible: Understanding the Process of Creative Genius

Fire in the Crucible: Understanding the Process of Creative Genius

by John Briggs

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What makes geniuses different from the rest of us? What is the difference between a prodigy and a genius? Are geniuses born or made? What is creative vision and where does it come from? What are the secrets of talent? And why do great creators seem to have so many oppositions in their personalities?

In this mind-expanding investigation of creativity, John Briggs


What makes geniuses different from the rest of us? What is the difference between a prodigy and a genius? Are geniuses born or made? What is creative vision and where does it come from? What are the secrets of talent? And why do great creators seem to have so many oppositions in their personalities?

In this mind-expanding investigation of creativity, John Briggs reveals that there is no special trait of genius. Geniuses are not necessarily smarter or more talented than other people, but they give their attention to subtle nuances, contradictory feelings, and perceptions that others experience and ignore. By focusing on sensory nuances, geniuses create themselves.

Fire in the Crucible offers a compelling exploration of the roots of creativity and genius. Drawing on the lives and work of extraordinary scientists, artists, writers, composers, and inventors, Briggs shows how creative individuals exploit doubt and uncertainty, and the mental strategies and tactics they employ when they work. "In asking about creativity," he writes, "we are really asking about what is best, what is deepest in life." Fire in the Crucible draws the reader into an eyeopening journey through the inner workings of some of the greatest creative minds of all times -- and allows us to more deeply understand the nature of the creativity in our own lives and work.

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Understanding the Process of Creative Genius


Phanes Press

Copyright © 2000 John Briggs
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60925-657-9


Qualities of Mind


Say the word "genius" and the name most likely to spring to mind is Albert Einstein. Einstein has become the modern symbol of genius. For good reason. By discovering the limitations or "relativity" of the venerated concepts of Newton and Descartes, he changed our perception of the structure of the universe. At age twenty-six, an obscure technician in the Swiss Patent Office, he wrote a paper that won him a Nobel prize and fired a crucial shot that brought in the quantum revolution and the atomic age. In accomplishments and aura Einstein seems Olympian, supernatural, a man of the future. Curious, then, that he should have said in 1953:

I know quite certainly that I myself have no special talent. Curiosity, obsession, and dogged endurance, combined with self-criti-cism, have brought me to my ideas. Especially strong thinking powers ("brain muscles") I do not have, or only to a modest degree. Many have far more of those than I without producing anything surprising.

Is this an example of Einstein's famous humility or is he pointing to something significant about the properties of high level creativity? What lies at the bottom of Einstein's obviously extraordinary mental powers? Consider several biographical facts which demonstrate Einstein's "curiosity, obsession, and dogged endurance." Such data as this has led one creativity researcher to discern a vital secret of genius.

• When Einstein was five years old and ill in bed, his father brought him a magnetic compass. It was a momentous gift. Years later he remembered that he had gazed bewitched by the iron needle drawn toward north no matter which way the compass case was turned. It was "a wonder," he declared, referring to the power of this unseen field or force. "Young as I was," he said, "the remembrance of this occurrence never left me." On his seventy-fourth birthday Einstein was asked if he really thought the compass could have so strongly affected him and he replied, "I myself think so, and I believe that these outside influences had a considerable influence on my development." Then he added, "But a man has little insight into what goes on within him. When a young puppy sees a compass for the first time it may have no similar influence, nor on many a child. What does, in fact, determine the particular reaction of an individual?" In his Autobiographical Notes written a few years earlier he had said, "I can still remember—or at least I believe I can remember—that this experience made a deep and lasting impression on me. Something deeply hidden had to be behind things."

• When Einstein was sixteen he sent a copy of a paper on ether in the magnetic field to his uncle in Stuttgart. A short time later the boy stumbled upon a rather extraordinary paradox which carried his fascination with magnetic fields into puzzling territory.

Scientists in the early days of this century believed that electromagnetic waves such as light and radio waves traveled through the vacuum of space in an invisible elastic medium, the ether, something akin to the way sound waves travel through air. It was also assumed that a stationary observer measuring the speed of a passing wave of light would get one value, while an observer in motion would get a different value. For example, an observer moving along in the same direction as the light wave should find the measured speed of light is slower than the speed measured by an observer traveling in the opposite direction from the light ray. What would happen, the sixteen-year-old Einstein wondered, if the observer were going the same speed as the light ray and in the same direction? Wouldn't the light appear to this observer as a frozen wave in the ether? The absurdity of this convinced him there was something wrong with the contemporary ideas. Thereafter the problem never left him until he'd solved it—a solution that came to be called the theory of relativity.

Shortly after he had become a world-famous scientist, Einstein fell into a dispute with the group of physicists, which included Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg and Max Born, who were developing the ideas of quantum mechanics. Quantum theorists had figured out that at the microscopic level of existence, particles jump around from energy level to energy level discontinuously, that is, without following continuous paths. Bohr and Heisenberg theorized there is no way to predict exactly when any particular particle will jump; the best that can be done is to devise equations to predict accurately the statistical movement of particles. Though Einstein had contributed mightily to the founding of quantum theory with his 1905 paper on the photoelectric effect, he considered the Bohr-Heisenberg-Born formulation "incomplete" and refused to believe that there weren't some "hidden variables" that would explain away the discontinuous quantum behavior.

Einstein's stubborn resistance to an idea that nearly all other prominent physicists had come to accept as true, turned into one of the most remarkable quarrels in scientific history. Relentlessly, in international meetings of physicists and journal papers, he posed brilliant "thought experiments" to challenge the logic of quantum mechanical tenets. Each time, the opposition, usually led by Bohr, beat Einstein back.

In the late 1920s, when Erwin Schrodinger had proposed an alternative to the quantum-mechanical ideas—an alternative that seemed to give a picture of continuous movement inside the atom—Einstein wrote him enthusiastically "I am convinced that you have made a decisive advance with your formulation of the quantum condition, just as I am equally convinced that the Heisenberg-Born route is off the track." At this point Heisenberg, who had said he found the Schrödinger theory "disgusting," made a valiant effort to persuade Einstein to quantum mechanics. He reported: "It was a very nice afternoon I spent with Einstein, but still when it came to the interpretation of quantum mechanics I could not convince him and he could not convince me. He always said, 'Well, I agree that any experiment the results of which can be calculated by means of quantum mechanics will come out as you say, but such a scheme cannot be a final description of Nature.'" Heisenberg added, "I doubt whether the unwillingness of Einstein, Planck, von Laue, and Schrödinger to accept [quantum-mechanical ideas as basic] should be reduced simply to prejudices. The word 'prejudice' is too negative in this context and does not cover the situation." It later turned out that Schrödinger's alternative, apparently continuous view was really a variation of Heisenberg's quantum mechanics and it left the new discontinuous and statistical conception of atomic activity intact. Schrödinger was forced to more or less side with the opposition. Einstein continued to hold out.

The debate had unhappy personal consequences for Einstein. When he'd first met Niels Bohr in the 1920s he'd felt an incredible closeness to the Danish scientist, almost, he said, as if they were brothers. Bohr had felt it too. But eventually the two men were no longer speaking. Bohr and other physicists came to treat Einstein as an eccentric, over the hill, a man lost in his fantasies and no longer really practicing physics. For his part, Einstein said bitterly: "The Heisenberg-Bohr tranquilizing philosophy—or religion?—is so delicately contrived that, for the time being, it provides a gentle pillow for the true believer from which he cannot very easily be aroused. So let him lie there." Einstein told a colleague that as far as the quantum revolution went, "I may have started it, but I always regarded these ideas as temporary. I never thought that others would take them so much more seriously than I did."

• In the last decades of his life Einstein retreated from the mainstream scientific scene and while working on refinements of relativity, tried to formulate an answer to those aspects of quantum theory he found repugnant. He called his proposal the "unified field theory." In it he hoped to show that all atomic particles and forces such as electricity and magnetism are embedded in space-time like vortexes in the seamless flowing of a stream. He was not successful in devising the mathematics for his universal field.

What do these biographical facts of one of the world's greatest geniuses tell us about vision? Gerald Holton thinks they tell us a great deal.


Holton is a Harvard professor of physics and professor of the history of science. His work is contained in a gradually accumulating collection of scholarly essays in books and journals that document how great historical figures of science have arrived at their discoveries and which portray how scientific creators think. Holton, like several of the researchers I talked to, is at a special advantage in his research because his training as a physicist enables him to move about freely in the details of such historical scientific documents as lab notes, letters to colleagues and early drafts of scientific papers. From that vantage, he can follow the emergence of a particular discovery at great depth. Holton works in the area of overlap between the history of science and the psychology of scientific creativity. Perhaps his greatest contribution has been the unearthing of what seem important signposts of vision, hidden elements in scientists' creative thinking which he calls "thematic ideas."

Holton has discerned that the work of scientific creativity is shaped by clusters of presuppositions and "gut" assumptions which each scientist has about the universe. He calls these gut assumptions "themata": themes. For the most part themata are aesthetic qualities like the assumption that the universe is basically symmetrical, or the opposite assumption that it's asymmetrical. Some other themata: the conviction that the true order of things involves a hierarchy; the conviction that scientific explanations for natural phenomena must be primarily abstract and formally mathematical, or the contrasting presupposition that the explanations must be visualizable; a sense that the universe is basically a plenum (full), or the contrary view that the source of all things must lie in the void.

The cluster of themata differs from scientist to scientist, though most scientists doing what Thomas Kuhn has called "normal" science share basically the same set of underlying assumptions. Scientists who end up revolutionizing their fields appear to have a collection of themata at variance in some significant ways with the theme clusters held by most of their colleagues.

Holton says, "My guess is that there's a focusing of these ideas fairly early, in childhood. What is impressive is the stability they show over many years. Once the scientist has committed himself to one particular set of presuppositions, the set doesn't change very much." The themata are central to scientific process because they are imposed "on your observations and they often tell you which kinds of experiments to try or not to try."

Holton's themata sound like abstractions but they aren't abstractions in the usual sense. They're a concrete feel for the surrounding world. "Quite a few of the themata have a visual component," Holton says, "very often they're not even conscious." Though he terms them thematic ideas, they might also be called thematic perceptions, for convictions about symmetry or complexity, simplicity, even formalism are convictions about the way things "look" or should look. Themata also seem perceptual in the sense that they act like special sense organs, attuning the scientist to certain subtle facets of nature. Einstein said of his march toward relativity theory: "During all those years there was a feeling of direction, of going straight toward something concrete. It is, of course, very hard to express that feeling in words...but I have it in a kind of survey, in a way visually."

Holton believes that that "direction" Einstein felt, his vision, had something to do with the compass story and a very early commitment to the theme of the "continuum," or "field." This sense that the "something deeply hidden" in reality must be a form of continuum, like the magnetic continuum that held the compass needle, guided Einstein in his later work as a physicist. But, that wasn't all. For, as the boy had gazed at the amazing instrument that his father had brought to his sickbed, another primitive presupposition must also have been awakened, Holton believes. Perhaps the constancy of the needle that always points north convinced Einstein that there must be a fundamental "invariance" in nature. Significantly, Einstein first called his theory of special relativity "Invarianten Theorie."


On his seventy-fourth birthday Einstein wondered what "determine[s] the particular reaction of an individual," why he should have been taken so powerfully with the compass and another child not. It is altogether too easy to impose our interpretations on the childhood memories of great creators. Speculation is possible but certainty remains elusive. For that reason Holton is careful when he offers the speculation that some of Einstein's themata, such as the themes of continuum and invariance, might be connected to an early religious obsession.

Though Einstein's parents were nonreligious, their son became so enthralled by religious sentiments that he managed to compel his reluctant elders to keep a kosher house. His fervor, according to his autobiography, went through an abrupt deflation when he was twelve and realized after reading popular science books that many things in the biblical stories could not be true. "The consequence," Einstein wrote, "was a positively fantastic [orgy of] freethinking coupled with the impression that youth is intentionally being deceived by the state through lies; it was a crushing impression. Suspicion against every kind of authority grew out of this experience.... It is quite clear to me that the religious paradise of youth, which was thus lost, was a first attempt to free myself from the chains of the 'merely personal.'" In another context he explained that

... one of the strongest motives that lead persons to art and science is flight from everyday life, with its painful harshness and wretched dreariness.... With this negative motive there goes a positive one. Man seeks for himself, in whatever manner is suitable for him, a simplified and lucid image of the world, and so to overcome the world of experience by striving to replace it to some extent by this image. This is what the painter does, and the poet, the speculative philosopher, the natural scientist, each in his own way. Into this image and its formation, he places the center of gravity of his emotional life, in order to attain the peace and serenity that he cannot find within the narrow confines of swirling, personal experience.

Escaping a world which you feel is dreadful and trivial may not be the motivation of all creators but it was for Einstein. Holton says in one of his papers that "Einstein's attempt to restructure science, then, seems to me ... to be a return ... to the childhood state of innocence by a secularization of the religious childhood paradise."

Excerpted from FIRE IN THE CRUCIBLE by JOHN BRIGGS. Copyright © 2000 John Briggs. Excerpted by permission of Phanes Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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