More on: Creativity in Science (and – The Arts and Film)

In his excellent book Creativity in Science: Chance, Logic, Genius, and Zeitgeist (2004) DK Simonton points out “scientific creativity can be examined from four principle perspectives: logic, genius, chance and zeitgeist.” (Simonton 2004, p4)

In short: (my own synopsis of the key concepts from Simonton’s book, is as follows)

1) Chance – involves random combinations of ideas. Simonton notes that the economist William S Jevons estimates that approximately 1 in 100 ideas conceived in this way are good. (Simonton 2004, p178). It pays to be prolific with ideas.

2) Logic – essentially, what Thomas Kuhn calls “normal science” or: puzzle-solving.

3) Genius – the result of thought processes of highly creative and prolific individuals, who notably combine ideas across disciplines. (See below, for more on this.)

4) Zeitgeist – the notion that, given that unsolved problems in a domain are often clearly defined (see: Hilbert’s 23 mathematical problems from 1900, as a classic example), if there are hundreds of individuals trying to solve that problem, inevitably the problem will be solved, and this often results in what Simonton refers to as multiples, such as both Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace both arriving independently at the theory of evolution by natural selection.

Another excellent point comes from Jack Foster in How To Get Ideas (1996):

`THERE ARE NO BAD IDEAS – Madame Curie had a “bad” idea that turned out to be radium. Richard Drew had a “bad” idea that turned out to be Scotch tape. Joseph Priestley invented carbonated water while he was investigating the chemistry of the air. Blaise Pascal invented roulette while he was experimenting with perpetual motion. Vulcanized rubber was discovered by accident by Goodyear. So was antiknock gasoline by Kettering. So was electric current by Galvani. So were potato chips by an unknown chef at Saratoga Springs hotel. So was immunology by Pasteur. So were X-rays by Roentgen. So was the telescope by Lippershey. So was practical photography by Daguerre. So was radioactivity by Bacquerel. So were friction matches by Walker. So was penicillin by Fleming. So was America by Columbus.’

(Foster 1996, pp. 86-7)

Columbus takes America by storm

1492 AD – Columbus takes America by storm

Further to the idea of Zeitgeist above, Foster also points out:

`Every field has its own kind of plan that sets forth objectives and missions and strategies – what the problems are; what the opportunities are, what needs to be done.

And “The formulation of a problem” wrote Einstein “is often more essential than its solution, which may be merely a matter of mathematical or experimental skills. To raise new questions, new problems, to regard old problems from a new angle, requires creative imagination and makes real advances.”…

“The greatness of the philosophers of the scientific revolution” writes Arthur Koestler “consisted not so much in finding the right answers but in asking the right questions; in seeing a problem where nobody saw one before; in substituting a `why’ for a `how’”.

Jonas Salk agreed. “The answer to any question `pre-exists’. We need to ask the right question to reveal the answer.”

So take care in what questions you ask, in how you define your problem.’

(Foster 1996, pp. 128-30)


Further to the idea of Genius (above) and cross-disciplinary thinking, Foster also points out:

`LOOK TO OTHER FIELDS FOR HELP – In A Whack On The Side Of The Head, Dr Roger van Oech wrote this insightful paragraph:

“I have consulted for the movie and television industries, the advertising industry, high technology research groups, marketing groups, artificial intelligence groups, and art departments. The one common denominator I have found is each culture feels that it is the most creative, and that its members have a special elixir for new ideas. I think this is nice; esprit de corps helps to create a good working environment. But I also feel that television could learn one heck of a lot from software people, and that R&D people could pick up a few ideas from advertising. Every culture, industry, discipline, department, and organization has its own way of dealing with problems, its own metaphors, models, and methodologies. But often the best ideas come from cutting across disciplinary boundaries and looking into other fields for new ideas and questions. Many significant advances in art, business, technology and science have come about through the cross-fertilization of ideas. And to give a corollary, nothing will make a field stagnate more quickly than keeping out outside ideas.”

The coin punch and the wine press were around and in constant use for centuries before Gutenberg saw the relationship between them and invented the printing press.

James J Ritty was trying to figure out a way to record the cash taken in at his restaurant so as to dissuade his cashiers from pocketing so much of it. On a transatlantic steamer he saw a device that counted and recorded the turns of the propeller. He used the same principle to build the world’s first cash register.

Darwin credited a chance reading of Malthus’ Essay On Population as the key that unlocked the mystery of evolution by natural selection. Malthus showed that population was retarded by such “positive checks” as disease, accidents, war and famine. Darwin wondered if similar circumstances might retard the growth of plants and animals, if their “struggle for existence” affected their fate. “It at once struck me,” he writes “that under these circumstances favourable species would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of new species.”

Benjamin Huntsman, a clock maker, was trying to improve the steel that watch springs were made of. He noticed that the ovens that local glassmakers used were fired with coke and lined with Stourbridge clay. He tried the same thing and “crucible steel” was born.

George Westinghouse got the idea for air brakes while reading about a compressed-air rock drill they used for tunnelling in the Alps.

Before Descartes, there was no such thing as analytical geometry; arithmetic and geometry were separate.

So were the sciences of electricity and magnetism before Oersted, Richardson, Faraday et al. created the field of electromagnetism.

So were astronomy and physics before Kepler borrowed from each to create modern astronomy.’

(Foster 1996, pp. 120-3)

Neils Bohr saw the structure of the atom like a solar system.

Kepler combined astronomy and physics.

In their article “The Scientific Study of Literature: What Can, Has and Should be Done”, in the Scientific Study of Literature journal (Issue 1, 2011), Dixon and Bortolussi note that:

`…interdisciplinarity [is] a crucial ingredient of such work… it is often the case that technical advances often result from importing techniques from allied domains.’

(Dixon and Bortolussi, 2011, p. 67)

It is also for these reasons (i.e. including, interdisciplinary combinatorial thinking) that Creative Practice Theory combines concepts from psychology (Csikszentmihalyi’s systems model of Creativity), sociology (Bourdieu’s practice theory), memetics (Dawkins’ meme theory), narratology (an empirical study of the films/stories/screenplays in the Top 20 ROI Films) and philosophy (holons and holarchies, from Koestler).

Having seen Simonton’s analysis of creativity in science, I am also personally convinced that creativity in Film (and specifically in The Top 20 RoI Films) also works in this way (at least 2 of these 4 elements are always present: logic, chance, genius and zeitgeist). For more, see this post on the story ideas in the Top 20 RoI Films.

So Boden (2004) talks about combinatorial creativity, and Koestler (1967) refers to combinatorial creativity (i.e.: combing two ideas, or, two separate conceptual matrices) in creating the term “bisociation”:

`Under exceptional circumstances, when disciplined thinking is at the end of its tether, a temporary indulgence in these underground games may suddenly produce a solution – some far-fetched, reckless combination of ideas, which would be beyond the reach of, or seem to be unacceptable to, the sober, rational mind. I have proposed the term `bisociation’ for these sudden leaps of creative imagination, to set them apart from the more pedestrian or associative routines.’

(Koestler 1967/1989b, p. 181)

Koestler uses the example of Archimedes, stumbling over the idea of using water-displacement to determine the volume of a gold crown (Koestler 1989a, p. 107).

Archimedes solves the gold crown problem using bisociation (Koestler 1989a, p. 107)

Archimedes solves the gold crown problem – using bisociation (Koestler 1989a, p. 107)

My thesis contends that all Top 20 RoI films can be shown to be combinations (or, bisociations) of older ideas, or, prior popular movies or stories (all of which are also memes). Importantly, as a speculation: it is possible that the older and more popular (i.e.: viral, and thus widespread) the previous film (or, story) in the culture, the more viral, the resulting film story. In considering bisociational (or combinatorial) creativity, this thesis (as per Csikszentmihalyi and Wolfe 2000) argues that memetic and genetic evolution work the same way (via the evolutionary algorithm of selection, variation and transmission-with-heredity), and this is also therefore the genetic concept of hybrid vigour, applied to memetics.

Koestler states a very similar idea in The Ghost In The Machine (1967), with regard to older and more familiar ideas being more viral (than new ideas when combined), once they are bisociated:

`The bisociative act means combining two different sets of rules, to live on several planes at once…

Bisociation means combining two hitherto unrelated cognitive matrices in such a way that a new level is added to the hierarchy, which contains the previously separate structures as its members. The motions of the tides were known to man from time immemorial. But the idea to relate the two, the idea that the tides were due to the attraction of the moon, occurred, as far as we know, for the first time to a German astronomer in the seventeenth century; and when Galileo read about it, he laughed it off as an occult fantasy.

Moral: the more familiar the previously unrelated structures are, the more striking the emergent synthesis, and the more obvious it looks in the driver’s mirror of hindsight. The history of science is the history of marriages between ideas which were previously strangers to each other, and frequently considered as incompatible.’

(Koestler 1989b, pp. 183-4 – bold emphasis mine)

Koestler goes on to give the example of Gutenberg and the printing press, the idea for which came to Gutenberg by combining a wine press and a coin punch (Koestler 1989b, p. 189).

As a researcher of the creative processes involved in (1) artistic inspiration, (2) scientific discovery and (3) humour (i.e.: jokes) Koestler states:

`All creative activity – the conscious and unconscious processes underlying the three domains of artistic inspiration, scientific discovery and comic inventiveness – have a basic pattern in common: the co-agitation or shaking together of already existing but previously separate areas of knowledge, frames of perception or universes of discourse.

But conscious rational thinking is not always the best cocktail shaker. It is invaluable so long as the challenge does not exceed a certain limit; when that is the case it can only be met by an undoing and re-forming of the mental hierarchy, a temporary regression culminating in the bisociative act which adds a new level to the open-ended structure.

It is the highest form of mental self-repair, of escape from the blind alleys of stagnation, over-specialisation and maladjustment; but it is already foreshadowed by analogous phenomena on lower levels of the evolutionary scale.

(Koestler 1989b, p. 195 – emphasis mine)

This notion is similar to Poincare’s as cited by Simonton (2010) about interesting creative ideas or solutions:

`among chosen combinations the most fertile will often be those formed of elements drawn from domains which are far apart. Not that I mean as sufficing for invention the bringing together of objects as disparate as possible; most combinations so formed would be entirely sterile. But certain among them, very rare, are the most fruitful of all. (p. 386).’

(Simonton 2010, p. 158)

It should also be noted, this idea of `combining two old ideas to produce a new one’ can also be traced at least back to Leibniz in his Dissertation on the Art of Combinations (1666).

In this paper, Leibniz proposes an alphabet of ideas, and a `logical calculus’ by which any two ideas in the resulting idea alphabet can then be combined or permutated to produce all possible new ideas; this thesis resulted in his admission to a position on the philosophical faculty at Leipzig University, and `was to occupy his thinking for the rest of his life’. (Leibniz 1666 [1989], p. 73).

Bisociation or `combinatorial creativity’ also occurs in biological evolution, when two sets of DNA combine, and 50% of each is randomly discarded; the resulting whole is thus more than the sum of the parts, as genes are expressed differently and in relation to other parts of the DNA code. Likewise in the history of the evolution of life; when life evolved from prokaryotic form to eukaryotic, the emergent whole is more than the sum of the parts.

As Dennett (1995) notes:

`About 1.4 billion years ago, a major revolution happened: some of these simplest life forms literally joined forces, when some bacteria-like prokaryotes invaded the membranes of other prokaryotes, creating the eukaryotes – cells with nuclei and other specialized internal bodies (Margulis 1981)… [The] second revolution – the emergence of the first multi-celled organisms – had to wait 700 million years or so.’

(Dennett 1995, p. 86)

This (eukaryotic cells) is as obvious a case of bisociation or combinatorial creativity as is possible, as when combined these two cells act as one, and spookily enough, our human bodies are riddled with them.

Eukaryotic and Prokaryotic cell structures compared. The eukaryotes differ in having membrane-bound organelles which include the nucleus, mitochondria, and chloroplasts (Drawing by Christie Lyon) – (Lovelock 1995a, p. 109)

Eukaryotic and Prokaryotic cell structures compared. The eukaryotes differ in having membrane-bound organelles which include the nucleus, mitochondria, and chloroplasts (Drawing by Christie Lyon) – (Lovelock 1995a, p. 109)

Though also a harsh critic of Lovelock and Margulis’ Gaia Hypothesis and Theory, as Richard Dawkins humbly notes in The Third Culture (ed: Brockman 1995):

`Richard Dawkins: I greatly admire Lynn Margulis’s sheer courage and stamina in sticking by the endosymbiosis theory, and carrying it through from being an unorthodoxy to an orthodoxy. I’m referring to the theory that the eukaryotic cell is a symbiotic union of primitive prokaryotic cells.

This is one of the great achievements of twentieth-century evolutionary biology, and I greatly admire her for it.’

(Dawkins in Brockman 1995, p. 129)

So if biology uses combinatorial creativity, perhaps not surprising that culture does, too.

For how the units of biology and culture are the same (i.e.: the holon-parton) see this post.

And see also this book chapter:

StoryAlity #132The holon/parton structure of the Meme, the unit of culture (and narreme, or unit of story)

…Comments most welcome.


JT Velikovsky

High-RoI Story/Screenplay/Movie and Transmedia Researcher

The above is (mostly) an adapted excerpt, from my doctoral thesis: “Communication, Creativity and Consilience in Cinema”. It is presented here for the benefit of fellow screenwriting, filmmaking and creativity researchers. For more, see https://aftrs.academia.edu/JTVelikovsky

JT Velikovsky is also a produced feature film screenwriter and million-selling transmedia writer-director-producer. He has been a professional story analyst for major film studios, film funding organizations, and for the national writer’s guild. For more see: http://on-writering.blogspot.com/



Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1996), Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention (1st edn.; New York: HarperCollins) viii, 456 p.

Dennett, DC 1995, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life, Simon & Schuster, New York.

Foster, J (1996), How To Get Ideas, 1st edn, Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco.

Koestler, A 1989, The Ghost In The Machine, Arkana, London.

Leibniz, GW 1666 [1989], ‘Dissertation on the Art of Combinations’, Philosophical Papers and Letters – The New Synthese Historical Library, vol. 2, pp. 73-84.

Lovelock, J 1995, The Ages of Gaia: A biography of our living earth (2nd Edn), Bantam edn, The Commonwealth Fund Book Program, Oxford University Press, New York.

Simonton, DK (2004), Creativity in Science: Chance, Logic, Genius, and Zeitgeist, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge ; New York.

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