Observation and Creativity in Science

In the evening of Wednesday April 17th, Dr. Louis Taillefer presented the Inaugural Killam Prize Talk “On Creativity in Science” to a full room at the Rowe Building at Dalhousie University.  Dr. Taillefer presented personal reflections about creativity in science based on examples from the history of physics and recent work in his lab and with colleagues.

Dr. Taillefere discussed four aspect essential for creativity and discovery in science, including:

  1. Open Mind
  2. Imagination
  3. Observation
  4. Intuition

Two important points related to drawing and observation skills stood out during Dr. Taillefer’s presentation.  The first was that he mentioned in his work as a physicist (studying superconductors), he “drew a phase diagram many times each day” while trying to understand new phenomena or consider new experimental approaches.  The second point was that one of the major discoveries made recently in his lab came about from an observant student who noticed an almost imperceptibly subtle wiggle in a curved (exponential) line on a graph.  The first example provided evidence for the importance of sketching for knowledge construction, and the second is a great example about the importance of careful observation.

Redrawing a diagram, like this phase diagram, on a chalkboard is one way that physicists work through problems and find new solutions. Sketching is important for externalizing ideas and provides opportunities to discover new connections.

Drawing a phase diagram or a graph while thinking about a topic does not involve observation drawing, rather it is the depiction of phenomena and relationships between unseen processes.  This is an example of drawing to think.  The sketching the phase diagrams relates to the importance of sketching for the externalization of ideas that assists in the construction of new and novel relationships and ideas.  The importance of sketching for creative discovery has been studied by Verstignen et al (1998), who found that sketching as an externalization process was important for restructuring and combining knowledge to make comnnections and discoveries.

Observation skills can impact how we see data.

The second point of interest from Dr. Taillefer’s presentation involved the keen observation skills of one his students, who noticed a very slight wiggle in a line graph generated through computer analysis.  The graphed line (above) may be interpreted by some as a smooth exponential line, but a keenly observant student noticed a slight wiggle that appeared to be present.  Was the wiggle an optical illusion or perhaps an insignificant artifact or anomaly?  Greatly simplifying the physics involved, they ‘cranked up the power’ of the magnet and found that the wiggle was indeed significant, and they discovered a new phenomena (below).  Using keenly tuned observation skills and as Dr. Taillefer noted “loving your data” enough to look at it with great care an interest, is what leads to new discoveries.


There were many other interesting points made throughout Dr. Taileffer’s presentation, but the main take home message for me was his example of how his team repeatedly drew a diagram as a part of their thinking process; externalizing information as necessary for constructing new knowledge. These “thinking drawings” are different from observation drawings, but the importance of sketches for generating new knowledge is of special significance when thinking about creativity and discovery in science.




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *