On Art, Fairy Tales, and Creativity


“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”

Do you know who said that? I’ll break the post here to give you a moment to think about it. I’m not going to ask for the answer in the comments since you have Google on your side, but you can, if you like, share in the comments whether you knew or guessed it right before you moved to the rest of the post below to learn the answer. (Image above is an illustration by Walter Crane for ‘Snow White’ (1882).) Continuing…

It was Albert Einstein. Yep.

I like this. It is not an endorsement of the kind of fantastical thinking that encourages a kind of escapism from dealing with the world of personal responsibilities and realities (see Barbara Ehnrenreich’s new book “Smile and Die” about American culture’s going too far on the “power of positive thinking” mantra. She is interviewed about it in on BBC Radio 3’s and you can hear it on Monday 18th Jan.’s Arts and Ideas here, but it’ll be gone by the 25th), or the kind of problematic magical thinking associated with the recent anti-vaccination movement or the old creationism vs. evolution issue, but something more subtle. Tom Shakespeare used the quote to end his interesting talk at the 2009 Free Thinking Festival of Ideas (held at the Sage in Gateshead, a place I regularly watched under construction with great hope and glee when I used to live and work in Durham, only to leave the area before it opened). There’s audio of it (at least for a while) here. I pointed to this talk in the comments of a recent post by KC Cole over at NPR’s 13.7 entitled “The Doomsday Clock: Can Artists Save The World?”, where she wonders whether artists, and/or inclusive participatory events that remind us of our humanity, can help solve our big problems. I quote:

Can we use their power or something like it to get people to see through all the things that divide us for long enough to look nuclear weapons in the eye? To stop fighting against each other and fight together for survival as a species? […]

I do have a feeling, though, that the answer is going to come from artists. Because if our brains can’t deal with the problem, maybe our hearts can.

While Tom Shakespeare’s talk is about bioethics primarily, I offered in my comment that:

[…] most of what he says extends, I think, to other discussions about how we internalize problems and issues with the aid of stories, images – _art_ rather than statistics and large numbers. It then helps mobilize. He describes some example pieces of art (see e.g. some of Anthony Gormley’s excellent work). Some of the synopsis: “Instead, Tom argues it is not science, but rather art that can help us think through these modern dilemmas by making space for the emotion and complexity they need. He demands we think of art as a ‘tool for thinking’, explaining why as a scientist he believes we need to involve art in some of our most difficult social and ethical decisions – because it will help us in unexpected ways.”

Overall, I think that Einstein’s thought certainly applies here, and it was a good quote to end with. I also, as you might guess from reading this blog, happen to think that Einstein’s thoughts also apply directly to how we approach science, and indeed our everyday lives. Dreaming, playing, and imagining what can and can’t be, and what might be, are all important in tackling so many tasks at hand, as well as simply enriching us. Recently, I was talking to a friend about this, who expressed real shock that scientists dream things up as part of their process of learning about the world (before then seeing if it fits into the fabric of what is known, tested, and, in a pragmatic sense, real). She exclaimed that, wow, scientists are creative. Slightly exasperatedly, I’ll admit, I explained that yes, among the most creative people I’ve ever known are many scientists, and so much of what we take for granted around us, that we owe our lives to, is as a result of this essentially creative collective enterprise that we call science, and it is done by scientists.

I still find it shocking and dismaying that science is not presented this way more, and that its practicioners are so often presented as coldly rational slaves of dry process. This view is programmed into a lot of the language we use and the images we project about science. Here’s a mild, but telling example: I live in a neighbourhood of Los Angeles where most of the people seem to work in the entertainment industry and they refer to themselves as “creative” people. I’ve even been asked what it is like to be living among all those “creative” people. Evidently, as a scientist I am to be thought of as some sort of impurity in that regard, an interloper from some other tribe. I find this ironic. Intending no disrespect to that fine Industry and its workers, some of whom are among my friends, but I must say that having spent a lot of time with and worked on projects with people from both sides of the aisles I find that I encounter original thinkers – people making that creative leap to solve a problem or understand a concept – far more often in the scientist crowd than the Industry crowd. It is not because one group necessarily has smarter people than the other, or is working on more “worthy” material than the other, I hasten to add. I am not going to fall for that tired cliché. Instead, I think it is more a function of the environment these people find themselves working in. I see far more strict following of arbitrary rules and conventions on a day to day basis to create a piece of work in the Industry than I do in a seminar room or lab.

Just take a moment to consider how much film and TV, etc., there is out there, produced every year, that is pretty much all the same formulaic forgettable stuff, with huge amounts of money being spent, and people being employed, to produce it. This is the stuff that is being lumped together and called “creative”, but most of it is about following very strict rules and conventions, otherwise no paycheck. A profession with less arbitrary rigid structure right at the coal face of activity is going to allow for more creativity – and maybe attract more creative people – to it. Yes there are a lot of rules and conventions in science as well, but somehow I think that they can get in the way a lot less, on a day to day basis, to allow a significant contribution to be made, than I’ve seen in many of the self-styled “creative” endeavours.

On balance, it might end up being all equal in the end – there is great creativity to be found in many professions, after all, but I just wish that science got presented as a creative endeavour at least as frequently as other human activities. Is that too much to ask?

What do you think?

Some notes: I recommend listening to Tom Shakespeare’s talk here (before the BBC hides it), and also going over and chatting with KC and her readers about her thoughts. It does not hurt to listen to that excellent podcast I linked to above (see it at the end of this post again) for not only the interview with Barbara Ehnrenreich but also with Antonia Fraser about her memoir of her late husband Harold Pinter. Shakespeare’s talk is at the end of it too. As usual with the excellent Radio 3 Arts programs, the interviewers know their material and press the interviewees somewhat, so it forces the interviewee to defend their position carefully and in a considered way. So it is with Ehnrenreich and her interviewer Ann McElvoy. Listen:

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8 Responses to On Art, Fairy Tales, and Creativity

  1. CS Guy says:

    I TOTALLY guessed it 😉

    It just seemed like something Einstein would say, he is well known for having similar aphorisms attributed to him (many perhaps incorrectly).

    I think I agree with your overall thrust as well, many non-scientists do think of science as a very dry and boring process, we don’t do a very good job of conveying the excitement and passion of DOING science.

  2. Melvin says:

    Ehnrenreich also caught the attention of Lexington in The Economist.

    There is another quote attributed to Einstein that goes like “imagination is more powerful than knowledge”. I guess a large part of the motivation for special relativity came from the gedankens with light rays and fast observers.

    This apply in QFT too: Feynman lifted the quantum fields from the pages to an arena where lines split and join in many ways.

  3. Plato says:

    There is so much truth in the views toward the culmination of what is seen in science can be expressed in “another format” to which we can place perspectives about the future. Science Fiction. So scientists can be “before their time?”

    From what you write, and of course the wider perspective of the related links, KC saw something other then what resides in the mind but more in the heart, so it not so much that it is a publication at fault, but more the setting in stone of what as you point out is the perspective view on creativity. It being garnered to a segment of the entertainment industry. I agree with you here.

    There is always the metaphorical danger of misinterpreting which is why science has to be so exact, but then, to see such culmination of genius to take it to another format in which to transfer “the myth” unbeknown to the population, a mathematical lead troop, toward a Lewis Carroll interpretation.

    Why the “gedanken experiment” can be so “forecasting.”

    Good post Clifford.

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  5. ijc says:

    Fairy Tales? No wonder Hilbert remarked that “every boy in the streets of Gottingen knows more four dimensional geometry than Einstein.”

  6. Clifford says:


    …and do we remember any of those boys for revolutionizing the way we think about our universe?



    (Cue the stampede to list famous thinkers who were small boys in Gottingen at around that time…)

  7. Yvette says:

    Funny, never for a second did I ever think that scientists WEREN’T supposed to be creative people. Because space telescopes and the like are sort of obvious giveaways no?

    But then, as a kid I always got excited about fairy tales and now feel the same excitement about science. If I ever have the time someday I want to write a book of physics fairy tales. 🙂

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