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Editorial: Creativity and the scientific method

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G.J. 2003. Editorial: Creativity and the scientific method. the Exchange 10(3):2, 4.

There's an old joke that refers to a possibly apocryphal physics exam. In this particular exam, one question asked students to describe how they would determine the height of a tall building using only a barometer. Since barometers are designed to measure air pressure, and since air pressure decreases in a mostly predictable fashion with increasing height above ground, the teacher was presumably seeking a simple answer based on this physical principle.

Students of science, being notoriously recalcitrant, have come up with a variety of creative alternatives that avoid complying with the professor's desire without actually getting into a fight over it. These include a variety of amusing, though practical alternatives:

At first glance, it seems like none of the solutions honor both the letter and the spirit of the original problem. But it's worth noting that the most interesting and important studies in the history of science have come from thinking outside the box and trying something other than the expected approach. That's something we scientific communicators should bear in mind in responding to our own daily tests.

(Historical footnote: The original student claimed to be responsible for all of these solutions was Niels Bohr, Danish Nobel laureate in Physics. If true, the story illustrates nicely how his creativity in a simple test was only one early symptom of future greatness.)

My essays on scientific communication have now been collected in the following book:

Hart, G. 2011. Exchanges: 10 years of essays on scientific communication. Diaskeuasis Publishing, Pointe-Claire, Que. Printed version, 242 p.; eBook in PDF format, 327 p.

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