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posted on January 13, 2009 | Creativity, Science and Nature
The Case of Gerhard Herzberg

The only way to make new ideas happen,
I think, the only method of creation,
is to
go into our studios and
make stuff
as I argued in
Methods of Creation?

Just do it,
but with an open mind
to possibilities. 
If so, and that
seems pretty likely to me,
then there
can be no other
way to be creative
than the hard way.   G
et busy
and get as smart as you
can get while you’re
at it.

One day, listening to the CBC
radio program Morningside in heavy
Vancouver traffic, host
Peter Gzowski asked
Canadian Nobel laureate chemist
Gerhard Herzberg
a question. 
When heard his answer I nearly
wrecked my car getting off the road
to write down what he said
before I forgot it.

I don’t remember
Gzowski’s question, but here’s
what I remember of Herzberg’s answer:
“If you think you know what you’re doing,
you’re not doing science”. That
is so, so true! Not
just for Herzberg, studying free radicals electrochemically
in the lab, but for creative activity of any sort, I think.  It has
certainly been true for me
in art, science, and teaching and
! Every day in the lab is a new day, he implied,
just as it is in living.  N
ot just human beings, either,
but sentient beings of any kind, anywhere and
every time.

Like the
proverbial river that
keeps on flowing, life never presents
exactly the same situation twice. 
Out near
the edges of experience, where we’re ignorant
and don’t know what we’re doing, is
where discoveries occur. 

Europeans didn’t
know what they’d found when
they found the Western Hemisphere.
Coming the other direction, Asians found it
long before that and they didn’t know where
they were going either.  O
ut on the edge, we
must keep our wits about us just to
survive, let alone thrive
and be
creative in arts or sciences.
That’s just how it is and
there’s no way
out of it.

We sentient
beings must keep
making up how we live
our lives, day after day after
with no free lunch or recipe
for creativity.  At least n
ot that I can
tell, and I’ve been looking for that free
lunch forever. 
If it really is true that life
is like a river, new situations
bring new
challenges, and new opportunities
to discover,
 hundreds of
times each day.

It is
relevant to creativity
that new situations mean
new confrontations with ignorance,
and we ignore that fact at our peril.
made it clear that behind each big discovery
we hear about on the news are hundreds or more
 small discoveries,  mostly about how to do things
never done before and may never be done again.
That mirrored my experience of doing science
in my own lab and in the field. 
Living with
and embracing their own ignorance
is the norm for all working

In a talk
I gave about science
I said scientists are
like moths to the flame of i
gnorance. We
can’t help ourselves.  
We can’t stay away from it.
e’re drawn to what we don’t know and many are
consumed by it.  I
f we understand something or know
how to do it, we immerse ourselves in our ignorance
and wonder about the next thing
we’re ignorant
about.  It 
keeps us alert and creative.  Instead of
doing what we already know how to
do, we tend
to try to do what
we’ve never done


get good at
doing things, you
might say, by doing what
we don’t know how to do. 
of this is simple practice, and a lot of
it, a lot of the time, is inventing.
Making up new ways of doing
things is a lot of what we

mean by creativity,
and everyone
does that.

It is not
that scientists leap into
whole unknown universes every
day.  N
o scientist could, and neither could
I see no way out of this in art, since
every “original” sculpture is necessarily
new, there are so many media, so
many methods to work with,
and so many forms.

If I tried
to make a sculpture a
second time, my body, my eyes,
and my mind would necessarily
be older and the challenges
would necessarily
be new.


reflections on his life as
a scientist resonate on
broader cultural
levels as

ideas underlie the
entire history of scientific
discovery, human inquisitiveness,
and creativity in general.
also resonate with memories of
growing up in my family,
learning how to live
and to be free.

And that’s just part
of what I love
about the

With respect to
my suggestion about making
stuff, a friend gave me a hat saying
Go Into Your Studio and Make Stuff.  Just
the Slave t-shirt Glenn Sutherland wore in
hummingbird lab reminded him of the difference
between doing things and thinking about why he
did them,
my hat reminded me that if I just
went in there and made stuff, some-
thing would come out of it. 

as I said about carving
small chalk sculptures in class,
not only did doing it help me keep
my mouth shut when I needed to listen
to my students,
but it served as a symbol,
a signal, trigger, ritual, and a central
part of how I live my life
in sculpting. 

a banner high on my
studio wall constantly reminds
me to 
“Behave as if sculpting
were my life’s work”

Even if
I’m not looking at
the banner, my commitment
is looking at me

Reading what I
wrote about scientists
not knowing what we’re doing
reminds me of some stories. 

I already mentioned
Glenn Sutherland’s Slave T-shirt in
Repetition, precision, and ChaosAn example
with an important twist is Saw Filer Guy, about a world
class expert who pretended to never make mistakes
but was very very good at detecting and
correcting them before anyone
else could notice. 

Work on the Ugliest Part
explores the same basic idea in
sculpting, science, and teaching.
There are many other examples in
Teaching & Learning and my
Videos & Podcasts
are full of them.

First published in the Vancouver Observer.

Edited March 2021.

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