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.





Thinking with a Pencil

Originally published in 1957 (Editions 1964,1981), Thinking with a Pencil by Henning Nelms provides a catalog of how the styles and technology of representation can shape the thoughts and pattens of observation. He starts by pointing out that  knowledge can affect drawing ability and confidence:

Need for Data. If you have found drawing difficult, you probably attributed this to a lack of skill. Actually, part of the trouble was almost certainly due to something quite different – lack of knowledge about the thing you were trying to draw. (Pg 1.  Ten Speed Press, Berkeley California, 1981)

The proposal that drawing skill and confidence will improve with an increase in the quality of knowledge is insightful, and the inverse also seems likely true, that knowledge will increase with drawing.  It seems that the action of completing an observation drawing, putting “pencil to paper”, will similarly increase the quality of knowledge.  Although drawing from memory is dependent upon knowledge and memory,  observation drawing provides an opportunity to visually study an object or scene in greater detail and over extended time.  Knowledge of the subject and sensitivity to the patterns of the field of study are promoted by observation drawing.

Thinking with a Pencil - Nelms 1981 CoverThe diagrams and illustrations in Nelms 1981 edition remain the originals from the 1957, maintaining the fashion and image reproduction technology methods of the late 1950’s era.  Compass protractors, copy stand devices, and late-fifties style and fashion demonstrated in the photographs display that era’s image reproduction technology and methods.

The reproduction methods and tools included in Nelms’ book were used previously by industry professionals, and provided the opportunity to improve observation and visualization skills. Yet, the tools (protractors) and methods (copy stands) in Thinking with a Pencil are not commonly used today. Among the proliferation of mobile-phones,  tablets, and laptops, our cultural landscape is even more hyper-visual than the mid-twentieth century. Our current cultural communications are dominantly visual, digital, mobile and online.

There are (rare) laptop and tablet devices that promote (permit) the use of drawing as digital input, either through peripherals or system based tablets.  However, the pencil and paper will always remain the most affordable and widely accessible technology for drawing observations or plans .  Amid this digital boom, there is perhaps no better time to ensure we keep putting pencil to paper, or stylus to screen if available.

Observation drawing provides an valuable opportunity to enhance observation skills and knowledge.  Thinking with a Pencil is filled with useful insights on the relationship between visualization and knowledge development.  Although the text has a couple of chapters that are obsolete and historical, but most of the text remains useful for those interested in improving their ability to draw, whether for observation or visualization (thinking).


Henning Nelms (1900-1986) also wrote a mystery novel (Rim of the Pit, 1944) under the pen name Hake Talbot (1).