Three Visionary Scientists Who Embraced Limitations to Have Creative Outbursts

Astrophysicist
Over a year ago

Many procrastinators have claimed that ever-closer deadlines help them focus and enforce creativity. There may be something to that. Not quite the procrastination, but the forced wall of immovability restricting them that gets gears going. For proof, get your hands on a copy of The Five Obstructions, a documentary where experimental Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier inflicts five restrictions on his filmmaking mentor and friend Jørgen Leth, pushing him to make the same short film five times in different ways, driving him to the edge of creativity (and of his sanity).

Janna Levin, professor of physics and astronomy at Barnard College at Columbia University and author of Black Hole Blues, believes that it’s the restrictions in science that help scientists get more creative. It’s these limits that give scientists something to work against, or with, and force them to move forward.

Albert Einstein himself, who was recently proven right about gravitational waves after 100 years, had his own limits that aided him in science. Einstein believed that light travels at a certain speed; no faster, no slower. He believed that anything else might change, anything else could be just a theory so long as the speed of light remained the same. Because he had this one constant, the speed of light, he went on to break new ground with the theory of relativity, black holes, and the shape of space. Despite having the restriction of something that could not be changed, Einstein arrived at multiple theorems still being proved true today.

Heisenberg had a similar creative burst from his own uncertainty principle. He said one can’t know exactly where a particle is. This doesn’t really add up to how we typically think about things – we can usually tell where an object is. But a particle’s momentum and the path of its motion are too complicated, especially after we’ve disturbed it. Because of this, he says we just can’t know where the particle is. And with this constant uncertainty, Heisenberg went on to discuss quantum physics in a new way.

Levin’s final example of limitation leading to creativity is Kurt Gödel. Gödel’s theory of limitation was complicated, in that he wanted to prove that not everything can be proven. His theory, considering everything including basic arithmetic, states that not everything can be proven true or false, not everything can be known in the mathematical proven state. But this idea propagated further creativity, including the invention of the computer and artificial intelligence. It was the limitations of the unknown that helped Alan Turing complete the very machines that were the building blocks of the high-tech, cutting-edge device that you’re reading these words on right now. Three cheers for limitations!