The science of creativity

Two academics from ostensibly disparate disciplines discuss how their areas of expertise intersect when it comes to cultivating creative capital.

Professor Damien Wilkins

In my latest novel, Dad Art, two characters make a pilgrimage to the display case on the Kelburn campus of Victoria University to look at Alan MacDiarmid’s Nobel Prize medal in the building named after the great scientist. MacDiarmid was, like me (end of comparison), a paperboy in Lower Hutt. He then became a lab boy in the Chemistry Department of Victoria College, sweeping floors and washing dirty glassware.

One day, he was asked to prepare some tetrasulfur tetranitride. Speaking decades later as a Nobel Laureate, MacDiarmid remembered those bright orange crystals as the key: ‘It really stems from the fact that I like colour. I like pretty things.’ Perhaps for many scientists, this statement won’t seem strange or disarming. Aesthetic pleasure, of course, isn’t the preserve of arty types. Creativity is a human need, not an academic discipline. And the Creative Capital steering group, of which I’m a member, has decided one of its chief tasks is to break down the silos of university life, to find the pretty things wherever they pop up. A university is an unparalleled community of knowledge.

How can we make that imaginative community more connected—within itself and to the larger world?

I confess that one of the reasons my characters think about MacDiarmid is that his priorities challenge a lot of current thinking about what’s valuable in our lives. He ranked money ‘about one in ten in degree of importance’, and he thought that intellectual enjoyment was what mattered in ‘beautiful research’—just like, he said, beautiful poetry, music and art, adding that ‘if beautiful research was technologically useful, that was the icing on the cake’. This perfect inversion of the Government’s mantra on tertiary education should sit as the conscience of all our work around creative capital.

I think of this conscience as having the qualities of disobedience, recalcitrance even, unruliness certainly. This is part of our inheritance and our brief as we celebrate and build on both Victoria’s history as a place where all sorts of imaginative achievements have arisen and where current staff and students are working towards fresh ways of seeing and doing.

Dr Rebecca Priestley

In a radio interview with Kim Hill, I found myself doing my first—and probably last—on-air poetry reading when Kim asked me to read Ashleigh Young’s poem ‘Small Fry’. The poem is one of seven in my new anthology of Antarctic science, Dispatches from Continent Seven.

I chose to include poems in the anthology to give a different perspective on some of the topics—krill, melting icecaps, the Dry Valleys—written about by scientists. While there’s a pleasing tension between the poets’ and scientists’ different approaches to their subject matter, science writing and poetry have much in common. Precision of language, reliance on metaphor and exploration of grand themes through a focus on the particular are features of both modes of expression. Victoria University has a history of scientists and poets working together—Paul Callaghan and Bill Manhire led a project that culminated in the publication of Are Angels OK? in 2006—but it’s not an everyday occurrence. Perhaps it should be. In my experience, exciting things happen when you work with people from outside your own discipline.

In the writing group for the Cultivating Creative Capital distinctiveness theme, four people from different parts of the University—a fiction writer, a composer, a theatre director and me, a science historian—spent many hours in a room together, sharing our stories and ideas, and talking about the future of the University. This grouping together of people from diverse disciplines—we each had different stories, different challenges, different passions—created an exciting and productive dynamic. At the same time, I realised we had more similarities than differences and that creativity was at the core of this.

Creativity is, as my colleague Damien Wilkins says, a human need. But creative expression can too often be hampered by disciplinary and administrative barriers that confine us to safe practice and narrow ways of thinking and being. As we address these barriers and do more to nurture, encourage and celebrate creativity across the University, I look forward to greater opportunities for unlikely and fruitful collaborations.