Creativity Is Thinking Deeper

picture of Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

What is creativity? A typical definition might be “the ability to create new things using your imagination.” Using the word “create” in the definition seems to remove some of the definition, however. Merely changing “create” to “produce” may be more satisfying.

Whichever definition you prefer, it’s clear that imagination is involved as is making something new on the face of the planet, at least new to the creator. Much more important than the what of creativity is the how. How do you become more creative?

Being in a creative job (making new online science lessons that are truly different), having a creative avocation (writing fiction and non-fiction), and having been in creative professions previously for a long time (first scientist and then software engineer), I have some thoughts. Many ideas about being creative have been explained by very many people before. There are endless suggestions ranging from meditation to travel.

To all of these, I’ll add one idea. It’s not a new one, but then none truly are. I happen to like this idea because it fits with my concepts of what a scientist, such as myself, must be able to do. It’s an important part of scientific thinking and of many professions that must see something where others do not. 

In two words, “Think deeper.” That’s grammatically incorrect and should be “Think more deeply,” but this sort of jargon shortcut is so common these days that I am taking the necessary writer’s license to reduce the length by 33%. After all, if Apple could use “Think different,” then why not? What do I mean by that phrase?

Much of education today is mostly memorization. You are presented with the “facts” and asked to recall them later for tests. You are not encouraged to seek beyond or below those so-called facts. Teachers who allow such exploration are opening up a can of worms because they cannot control where the thought processes may lead. They certainly are likely to lead into spaces for which the teacher is unprepared. Some teachers are comfortable with this process, but many are not. I’d like to change this situation, but I am digressing here.

If you look beneath the surface instead of just taking what you see for granted, it’s amazing what you can turn up. For example, when I was working in my book, Mars Rhapsody, I was concerned with how Mars colonists would create and maintain the air that they must breathe. We, here on Earth, breathe air that’s basically about 1/5 oxygen (O2) and about 4/5 nitrogen (N2) with minor quantities of CO2 and water along with some trace gases that aren’t really important. Humans live reasonably comfortably up to altitudes at which the atmospheric pressure is around ¾ of that at sea level.

Most writers naturally assume that you must have an O2-N2 atmosphere for people to survive. Pure oxygen, they argue, will create serious fire hazards. The trouble in providing that N2 and in building pressure domes to hold in all of that extra pressure from the N2 is usually just waved aside. Everyone simply assumes that you must have an O2-N2 atmosphere like on the Earth. Think deeper!

A very little research, if you don’t make that assumption, will tell you that fires depend on the partial pressure of O2. I have to admit that I have a bit of a head start here because my PhD is in chemistry. That doesn’t really matter because the information is readily accessible on the Internet these days to anyone. At sea level, the O2 partial pressure is about 200 millibars because atmospheric pressure at sea level is around 1,000 millibars. This is the “Aha!” moment. Were you to take all of the N2 out of the atmosphere, making it nearly pure O2, you could still breathe and make fires in the usual fashion. Other stuff would change for sure. For example, water would now boil at slightly above hot tap water temperature. Despite the 99% O2 atmosphere, fires would not rage wildly out of control where previously they were controllable. That part would work as it always has. I won’t explain all of the other differences because they really don’t matter for living in pressurized habitats on Mars.

By moving your base of operations up high in mountains where people live quite well, you can reduce the necessary partial pressure of O2 to ¾ of 200 millibars or only 150 millibars. For building habitats on Mars, that’s an enormous saving in materials and mass to lift from Earth. Now you only have to deal with 15% of Earth’s atmospheric pressure. In addition, you no longer have to find a source for providing and replacing the N2. Oxygen can come from electrolysis of water, H2O. In another creative leap, it also can be obtained from the 95% carbon dioxide (CO2) atmosphere even though the pressure of Martian air is only around 7-10 millibars, depending upon your altitude on Mars. It could range outside of those limits because altitude extremes are much greater on Mars than on Earth. Again, this is not important to the potential colonists.

I know that many more sources of creative inspiration exist. You must be open to ideas as they come, for example. You must not only look around yourself but also see what you’re looking at. And so it goes. However, for me, seeing beneath the surface, looking past the obvious face of things, is what helps me find new ideas. They’re just sitting there waiting to be found below the surface. You just have to dig them up.

If you’d like to become more creative, I suggest that you constantly mentally challenge things you see around you. Ask why. If the answer is obvious, ask why again. At some point, you’ll say, “Aha!” Now, you’re starting on the creative road.

Go forth, see, and create!

One Response

  1. Good write-up. I definitely appreciate this site. Thanks!

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