Note: This conversation was edited for content and length.
Renée Hložek: There is always a lifecycle of everything, right? And in science, I suppose the lifecycle of some of our projects is very long. It is sort of 10, 15, 20 years of planning because you are building something that is going to go into space. But also, I am really curious, you know, Elvira you were talking about the, — you know, the changing perspectives, and that kind of process of art making and I am super intrigued as to the — just as a scientist, what it means for me to be in a position where I am just receiving and generating ideas but not forcing anything to happen yet. Which is really not my nature, like, I am definitely a person that wants to like, okay, go, go, go, go, go, we need to like plan things, I need to create a piece — you know, make actionable items from everything. But it is really useful to just have these ruminations and germinations and see — because I know that all the artists have very different perspectives, and that They are taking from a particular conversation –something that is very different, something that is, — you know, uniquely speaks to their modality. And so that is really interesting for me just being like, pausing the action and just absorbing and reflecting information which is great.
Elvira Hufschmid: I think, on the other hand, I feel like there are, — well, there are differences, but there are also in terms of the creative process. And I am very — I would be very interested to hear, — or some more about your creative process in terms of generating ideas —
Renée Hložek: Yeah.
Elvira Hufschmid: It is actually — — maybe similar, right? Like what artists do. And so, yeah, that would be…
Renée Hložek: And then, it is interesting because we — I actually develop sort of tools and exercises with my students to try and, — you know, generate creative ideas. So, my brother is a graphic designer and when I was growing up, you know, I did art at school. But when I started in university, it was very science focused. And so, I always used to enjoy watching him as he studied the visual arts, being trained to think in a different way just to approach creativity. And so, I used to joke with him that the kind of creativity that he would generate if he was coming up with a visual representation of some of his ideas — he would have this like, plethora of idea generation, and then kind of whittling everything down into being whatever he wanted. Whereas I sometimes — — think the way initially we are creative in the sciences is — sometimes it is creating, like, logical pathways from a point rather than, — you know, — I mean, sometimes we actually do, do the thing where I just say, ‘take two words from a scientific paper, if you put them together would you be able to come up with a new scientific paper? Are there any linkages?’ But often it is, — you know, I have some problem and I am trying to find potential avenues of solution that are somehow, — you know, linearly linked to the thing that I am doing, but the interesting point often comes about when all of those avenues prove unsuccessful at solving the kind of problem. In your next step, you have to generate more. And so, you have to be willing to think, — not necessarily outside the box but like around to try and come up with these new solutions. But They are often — often the creativity is solution driven to problems or finding the problem. Yeah, so it is really fun the different ways in which we’re trained to be creative. And then my job as I am sure is the same with the artist, is to throw away some number of those, — you know, avenues and — until you find the one that is truly speaking to you that is truly making sense, that is generating — — the correct or the satisfactory kind of modality. So yeah, it is really fun to think through the similarities.
Elvira Hufschmid: So, I was wondering if you — — if you have a kind of a set of strategies in terms of processing information and then generating ideas from that, especially in regard to this non-logical pathway? Is it that — — yeah, I was just wondering, do you have a strategy, or does it just sometimes happen? Does it happen, — you know, on the way to the canteen or whatever that some — that you are kind of processing things, and then something comes up or…?
Renée Hložek: Yeah. So, it is interesting. So whenever — you know, we have a few different ways you can — a few different kinds of situations that need creativity. So — — someone joked with me that there are three things you do as a scientist: you either generate brand new ideas, — so like, you know, the genesis of some new model, some new hypothesis or whatever, or you nurture an idea, so I take a burgeoning idea and I develop its complexity a little bit more, or I kill something, right? So, someone wrote a paper, and I find the way that it is wrong. And typically, every individual has more strength in different areas. Some colleagues are really good at generating ideas, but They are not really — they do not really care about checking if they make sense in terms of the cosmos and others are really good at tearing down, finding the mistake that you’ve made. And one of the ways — so if you want to be creative in that destruction mode, you basically will read a scientific paper and then you start questioning — you just write down one of the assumptions that they made and let me take those and throw it away. So, an example would be, — — we wrote a paper where we said, — you know, when we want to — when we talk about the expansion of the universe, we talk about its size changing with time. And the size is measured in these units of space, we call it a scale factor. And that is a sort of theoretical concept and it comes in all of our equations in general relativity, and that makes sense. And we link it to the red shift of the galaxy which is a measurable quantity. But the link between the measurable quantity and the sort of abstract concept, we assume they have a — one — They are just the same. And so, we asked in one of our papers, we just said, what if that isn’t true? What if the thing you measure is slightly different from the thing you assume it to be a proxy for? And in that way, we generated a new paper just by saying, what if this thing that everyone has always believed is wrong. So that is one mode of sort of generating creativity. And one of the ways in which I have to be the most creative is if I have something that is broken. So, I’ll write some computer code and it doesn’t work or it gives me an answer that doesn’t seem logically consistent with the things that I’ve assumed. And that is a very difficult way to be creative because, — you know, I joke that it is like up against the wall creativity. Because There is not a lot of freedom. Actually, you can’t just throw everything away, that doesn’t necessarily help me. So, I am maximally constrained in the, — like, freedom of my mental movement, and yet I have to be creative. And that is the thing that works very well if you, you know, switch off and have a bath or go for a run or go to sleep. And then I’ll wake up and I had some thought of something to try. And that — those are the things where you, you know, you take little steps left and right, and just say, could it be this, — you know, could I have relabeled some variable, you know, so it is kind of very constrained. And because I do a lot of computational work, that mode is the one that I am in a lot. It is maybe the least sexy of the ways of creative thinking, but I am in that mode a lot. And then the really, really fun one is just, — — you know, imagining ‘Are there new things I have not thought about testing? Are there new models, — you know, dark matter models that I have not thought of before? And what if I took this person’s theory of dark matter and then I took these people’s observations, can I find a way to link them and test them together?’ And that, of course, is the hardest for me, anyway. It is the hardest creative way, and it is the one I need to coax myself into relaxing into. Because that — 90% of the ideas I have in that mode will be instantly falsifiable or instantly incorrect, or vanishingly small, like, you have this beautiful idea of this beautiful model and you realize, if that model was true, the sun wouldn’t exist. You know, like, very quickly, you realize — well, it would cause this huge inconsistency that we would have seen by now. So that mode is the one that requires often — just thinking, just sitting and reading a paper and thinking, jotting down things that we know about the universe. Things that we do not know and trying to make links between them. And that is really fun but, yeah, but daunting.
>> Yeah, and it is interesting because I think a lot of the time too, — you know, I think of musical improvisation where, — you know, you know the rules of the game in the sense of you understand the key signature, and you understand the time, and it is all about improvising within that space. And, –you know, I tell people, I do not know what the universe is. My job is to find out what it isn’t. And so, I spend a lot of my time trying to disprove myself. Disprove my theories, disprove my assumptions. And I really appreciate that, I really like that. It means you have to be slightly careful that you do not become very critical of everything and just cutting it down that you remain open-minded. But, you know, we generate new ideas with roughly the same frequency that we kill old ones, so that is good. And when I say kill, I really just mean, — you know, you do not ultimately say this one thing is wrong, but you just say this extension couldn’t — isn’t — would be detected already or is not detectable or whatever. So, I kind of — — yeah, I think I work best in that mode where we’re trying to, — you know, finish the puzzle and hunt down that final piece a lot, rather than making — rather than generating brand new artworks every time or puzzle pieces every time.
>> No, I was just going to say I do improvisational comedy. And I found that that helps. I do not know, necessarily, if it helps my scientific thinking, but I definitely think it helps —
Elvira Hufschmid: I am sure.
Renée Hložek: — my communication. Because it helps me think of analogies and it helps me sort of go — left field a little bit, yeah.
Elvira Hufschmid: Yeah, I was just thinking about the education that physics students go through and education that artists go through. And I — it is probably safe to say that as an artist, you definitely are trained to go down the non-logical pathways.
Renée Hložek: Okay.
Elvira Hufschmid: But we can dispute that. Meaning that in terms of the cognitive process of — in creative processes, it is a lot about thinking in what was — Labuan Satoshi [sic] she is an Austrian theorist – [inaudible] — and other people said that — talking about — thinking in analogies or analogue thinking, instead of logical — not instead but analogue thinking and logical thinking. And there might be, — you know, like, all these different layers of the way we think. So, it is not just one or the other but just to give a framework to talk that these phenomena that, if you, — let’s say, just look at brainstorming in this cognitive process of producing associations that usually occur in a non-logical manner — and it actually offers a wide range of meanings suddenly, because my associations in regard to a certain topic can jump to a place that, — you know, could be connected to my memory, to my life experience and various things. So, it is a wider field than just, — you know, trying — let’s say, connecting it in a logical — a subject matter in a logical sense to a next — another topic.
Renée Hložek: Yeah, and I think it is interesting, because I think maybe in the scientific generative creative process, it — you make the most success early if you can start with some — bringing some illogical things or analogous things together. Because then you come up with truly groundbreaking new ideas. And then, you know, that is followed by like a second round of logical pruning, or whatever. And I think one of the problems with science communication sometimes and the visual representations of science can be if scientists choose to communicate that second half and forget that the first analogous moment is really where a lot of the new understanding came from — and you find this a lot. I am giving a public science talk next week actually.
Elvira Hufschmid: Mm-mmh.
Renée Hložek: In the evening. And I was — I met with the host last night – met me and another colleague to ask questions — and she was asking questions about my work, you know, like, talking about the Big Bang and how can we explain it to people and how can we explain the physics that I do. And my colleague was using these very interesting and quite abstract concepts, but because she was assuming that she would go from A to B to C, the host initially was super lost. And so, we had to then turn it around and — — start with a very simple analogous abstractions before trying to make it logical, because if you do not understand or you do not feel the import of the way things are going, it just is — it is just facts. And I think that those can be — in terms of communicating science, those can be really frustrating because we respond to the narrative, it is just that the narrative is now deeply entrenched in us. And so, we take that for granted, but then — and then do the logical jargony stuff, because that is my practice. But the logical jargony stuff is not the key.
>> To me, the — if you understand the scientific concept, of course, the generative process is about trying to match my understanding of the narrative of the physics — and I do think narrative is very important with your understanding of the narrative and the concepts, and if those do not mix, I can give you as many jargon words as possible — it is not going to help. So, if I just — if I can try to change mine until something locks together, then you can really start to grow, right? Because then your understanding of the physics is correct but also mapped onto your understanding of all concepts in a way.
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