Root-Bernstein explores the playful side of scientific genius

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

The classic notion of the scientific method taught in high schools and colleges across the country is an inaccurate representation of the way great scientists work, play, and make discoveries, according to philosopher-scientist Dr. Robert Root-Bernstein, who spoke last night in Kohlberg’s Scheuer room.

Dr. Root-Bernstein, professor of physiology at Michigan State University and the author of a variety of books on the creative dimensions of scientific practice, encouraged over 70 captive students, faculty, and members of the community in attendance to consider the artistic and playful aspects of scientific genius – considerations that are often at variance with traditional perceptions of science.

“Scientific geniuses have to be different, which is a problem for the scientific method,” said Root-Bernstein. “However, scientific geniuses don’t think [about science] as rote and defined method, but rather as a process involving a variety of skills that can be used in an infinite number of ways.”

Root-Bernstein opened his speech with a textbook description of scientific method as it is taught in schoolrooms nationwide: scientists make observations, formulate hypotheses based on their observations, and then validate or invalidate their hypotheses through tests and experiments.

After this brief introduction, Root-Bernstein contrasted steps of this traditional model with his own observations about the dynamic and creative aspects of real scientists in practice, beginning with a discussion of how scientists “observe.”

“Learning to observe is an inherent aspect of art,” said the professor. He elaborated with a variety of anecdotes outlining how scientists have utilized studies of visual art, odor, texture, body movement, and dance to approach a variety of studies ranging from biochemistry to the mating dances of gulls.

Root-Bernstein also spoke about the mysterious and creative element of formulating hypothesis from such observations, discussing how many valid interpretations can be drawn from a single data set.

“In any random set of dots, you will find a pattern,” said Root-Bernstein. “But just because you find a pattern doesn’t mean it’s real.”

The professor discussed how many renowned scientists formulated and tested hypotheses by trying to empathize with and “get inside” their object of study, whether such objects were chimpanzees or orbiting electrons.

“This idea that feelings could be useful [to scientific understanding] is not a part of the standard method,” said Root-Bernstein. “This is not an objective process – this is an artistic dimension of science.”

Through the remainder of his lecture, Root-Bernstein spoke about other humanistic elements of scientific practice that are often overlooked by the traditional method, including the utility of analogical reasoning, the influence of the scientist’s personality, and the fundamental importance of generating novel problems and questions in the first place.

The professor described how these creative aspects culminated in a dynamic type of scientific practice that could most simply be described as “playing” – a phenomenon he illustrated with a discussion of the life and work of bacteriologist Alexander Fleming.

“Fleming was a playing man,” said Root-Bernstein, who tested the rules of games and indulged a variety of seemingly impractical pursuits in the laboratory, such as “painting” with brightly colored bacteria obtained by contaminating his Petri dishes. Through such playful endeavors, Fleming learned a great deal about bacterial interactions and eventually made the watershed discovery of the antibiotic Penicillin.

Root-Bernstein concluded by downplaying the importance of complexities he discussed and positing a simpler view of the scientific process.

“Maybe [science] is just two things: play and wonder – the sublime of the ordinary,” said the professor. “At some level, it’s not the complexity that matters – it’s the beautiful simplicity of the thing.”

Root-Bernstein’s lecture was the first in the Cooper Foundation’s “Science and Citizens” lecture series, an effort spearheaded by Adam Roddy ’06.

“I felt that Dr. Root-Bernstein’s talk helped lay down a foundation for discussing what science is – not only the methods, but the philosophy as well,” said Roddy. “I hope this foundation will lay the groundwork for the other lectures in the series that address specific issues more directly, like evolutionary theory.”

Audience responses to the lecture were favorable from both scientists and non-scientists alike. “It was refreshing to hear someone talk about science with such levity and perspective,” said senior biology major Meagan Bolles ’06. “It makes me want to go painting.”

“As an English literature major, I often had no idea what he was talking about,” said Karen Zaino ’06. “Yet, of all the lectures about science I’ve heard at Swarthmore, this one was the most accessible.”

Herman Schneid, a gentleman who made the trip from Northeast Philadelphia to hear Root-Bernstein speak, found the lecture inspiring. “This is an extremely valuable and relevant subject,” said Schneid. “This opens up life.”

Robert Root-Bernstein received his PhD in History of Science under Thomas Kuhn at Princeton University and did postdoctoral work in biological theory under Jonas Salk at the Salk Institute. He is the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship and is the author of “Discovering” as well as numerous books on the creative dimensions of science.

One thought on “Root-Bernstein explores the playful side of scientific genius

  • November 3, 2008 at 8:59 pm

    Very interesting.


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