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Science & Creative Thinking

Young Indian scientists have to be imaginative and think out of the box. That?s when science gets to be fun, writes Simon Singh.

india Updated: Jan 22, 2006 02:03 IST

I visited India recently thanks to the British Council, who arranged for me to give science lectures at schools, colleges and universities. Over the course of a couple of weeks I spoke to budding scientists, retired professors, brilliant teachers and hi-tech entrepreneurs. The first issue that cropped up repeatedly was whether or not young Indian scientists were encouraged to be creative and rebellious.

Great scientists have to be logical, rigorous and determined, but they also have to be creative mavericks. The scientists who go down in history are those who think the unthinkable, who imagine the universe in a way that has previously been ignored, and this requires great originality coupled with the spirit of a mutineer.

I have huge respect for teachers all over the world, but sometimes the desire to establish a firm foundation of scientific understanding can crush the opportunity to explore, speculate and imagine. I remember encountering a group of computer scientists in Bangalore who were adamant that their high school teachers had been so focussed on the learning of formulae and equations that the excitement of science had almost been extinguished.

One of the ways of encouraging students to be creative and imaginative is to throw puzzles at them, and this was certainly one of the techniques I used when speaking at high schools. For example, here is a lovely puzzle for you to think about. In this quiz I want you to identify the word that follows BANKS, CWM, GLYPH, VEXT, FJORD. Some of the words might be unfamiliar, such as CWM which is a basin on the side of a mountain, or VEXT which is an old way of spelling vexed. Any idea what the missing word is? Most people will look at the definition of the words or look for a common theme or try to see how each word is linked to the next one, but all these approaches will fail.

The words are relatively unimportant compared to the letters within them. In fact, the letters not present are even more important. If you look at the letters in the five words, you will see that there are 22 letters and they are all different, so there are 4 letters missing from the alphabet. These missing letters are QUIZ. This is the answer, and in fact there was a clue in the question. The six words together constitute a pangram, an arrangement of all 26 letters of the alphabet.

What has this got to do with good scientific thinking? Solving the problem requires a leap of imagination, just like the sort of creativity required to make a great discovery. Here’s another problem, which is more obviously scientific. What is the following equation equal to: (x - a)´ (x - b)´…´(x - z)?

While you are pondering that puzzle and my comments about creative thinking, here is my other concern about Indian science, namely the growth in engineering and technology at the expense of the pure sciences. It seems that parents are steering their children towards computing and engineering in order that they can build a secure future. Such applied disciplines are important, but teenagers who love pure sciences should not be discouraged from pursuing their dreams. The future success of a young student depends on doing something that they are truly passionate about.

Furthermore, neglecting mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology will damage India’s long-term future. Students of the pure sciences are taught to problem solve and to tackle the most profound puzzles imaginable. Hence, if such people later chose to move into industry they bring a great deal of talent and a new mindset. There are countless examples of pure scientists make great contributions to technology. Such men and women are usually motivated by curiosity, but they are also well rewarded financially.

Also, research into pure sciences often leads to serendipitous breakthroughs that lead to huge commercial benefits. For example, I completed my PhD at CERN in Geneva, where we tried to examine the fundamental building blocks of matters, which is as pure as pure science can possibly be. However, our experiments were international, so we had to establish a system for transferring data between colleagues around the world, and suddenly the word wide web was born. One of the greatest technological breakthroughs in history, something that has transformed the global economy, was born out pure physics.

Someone who fully appreciates the contribution of physics to modern life is Mike Lazaridis, who pioneered the Blackberry, the handheld device that is transforming electronic communication. He realised that almost every element in his machine has its roots in physics, from Faraday to Einstein and beyond, so he wanted to reinvest some of his profits back into pure research. Consequently he donated $100 million to establish the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Canada.

Future lucrative technological breakthroughs will emerge out of current research into genetics, physics, mathematics and chemistry, and I hope that India will be able to contribute fully to these sciences and benefit from the technology.

And, if you were able to solve the mathematics problem I posed earlier, then maybe you have the creativity to be a great scientist. You might have thought that my question was unfairly complicated because of its algebraic complexity, but you should have realised that I would not pose an impossible or unreasonable question. Regardless of your first impression, I can guarantee you that you could solve this problem. So what is (x - a)´ (x - b)´…´(x - z)? Well, one of the 26 brackets contains the terms (x - x) which is equal to zero. And anything multiplied by zero is zero, so the answer to the question is simply zero.

(The writer is a science writer based in London. His books include Fermat’s Last Theorem, The Code Book and Big Bang.)