Science and Creativity: Part 1

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If you have been reading my blog for a while, you know that science is not my only interest. I write plays, perform in plays (musicals and non-musicals), and play the piano. When people who don’t know me well find out about these interests, they are sometimes surprised. They wonder how a scientist could possibly have a creative side. I have always been puzzled by the idea that science and creativity are incompatible. Science, by its very nature, is creative. I know lots of scientists who can write amazing poetry, play an instrument beautifully, sing a song magnificently, or perform onstage like a professional. However, none of my acquaintances from the arts can solve a differential equation, analyze the motion of a body that is influenced by friction, or synthesize a chiral compound from nonchiral components. In my opinion, science and creativity simply go together.

That’s why I love it when students decide to be creative with their assignments. I have two examples of this, which will take up two blog posts. They both come from the online physics courses I taught the previous academic year. In those courses, students must write lab reports, and I grade them. I don’t have the students write a hypothesis, discuss materials and methods, and all that nonsense. That makes no sense when it comes to a laboratory exercise, and it doesn’t really prepare the student for university lab reports. Instead, I have them write out their data, do any calculations that are necessary, and then write a summary of what they did and what they can conclude from their results. The summary and conclusions must be in their own words.

In honor of my love of the theater, one student (Riley Harro) wrote his last experiment summary and conclusion as an audition, and it was stellar! It contains a lot of inside jokes that resulted from the discussions we had in class and the common phrases I use while teaching. To give you some context, the lab is about testing materials to determine whether or not they are ferromagnetic, paramagnetic, or diamagnetic. In the end, the nail is ferromagnetic, the aluminum paper clip is paramagnetic, and the matchstick is diamagnetic. I hope you enjoy his report as much as I did:

Summary for Experiment 16.2: Creating, Testing and Classifying Magnetic Materials
by Riley Harro

Scene I
Enter Casting Director, Large Iron Nail, Paper Clip

Casting Director: (Clicks pen open) I’m all ears! Play this like you were born for the part. We need you to cling together in this scene.

Large Iron Nail: Yes sir. (Audition starts) Hi Paper Clip. (Clunks against Paper Clip, Paper Clip doesn’t cling)

(Audition ends)

Casting Director: (Closes pen) I… appreciate the effort. I will notify you if you’re selected to act this feature. Any questions?


Casting Director: I’ll take that deafening silence as a no. While I make my decision, head over to the hall.

Exit Large Iron Nail, Paper Clip

Scene II
Enter Producer

Casting Director: (pacing in frustration) We need characters who actually feel what they act! I haven’t seen one audition that shows remotely realistic emotion.

Producer: (chuckles) Maybe you ought to expand your market…paper clips, matchsticks and nails just aren’t all cut out for this sort of thing. If I’m being generous.

Casting Director: You’re right. I just would hate to have the paper clip not be in it. He ought to get a starring role beyond “Simple Harmonic Motion!”

Producer: Ah yes, what role did he play there?

Casting Director: (chuckling, rubbing eyes) He suspended a spring and clung to a ruler. That’s about it. He was bent out of shape over it.

Producer: Some in this field aren’t wired to do more than that experiment.

Casting Director: (Stops walking. Claps his hands together) You have it! They need to be wired, don’t you see?

(Exits room, Producer shakes head, follows suit)

Scene III
Enter Casting Director, Long Wire With ½ an Inch of Insulation Off Both Its Ends, Large Iron Nail, Small Iron Nail, Battery and Paper Clip

Casting Director: Wire, get to work wrapping yourself around Long Nail. Battery, connect your terminals to the ends of wire that are not wrapped around Long Nail. All in position? Good.

(Audition starts)

Large Iron Nail [with wire conducting electricity]: Hi Paper Clip. (Clunks a hug with Paper Clip, tries to pull away, but Paper Clip keeps clinging)

(Audition ends)

Casting Director: Stellar! You have performed the part just as I dreamed it.

Enter matchstick

(Sequence of tests start)

Large Nail [with wire conducting electricity]: (Touches Matchstick, Matchstick doesn’t cling)

Large Nail [with wire unwrapped and no electricity flowing]: (Clunks against Paper Clip, tries to pull away, but Paper Clip stays attached)

Paper Clip [straightened out/wrapped in wire that is conducting electricity from the battery]: (Clunks into Small Nail, Small Nail does not cling)

(Tests finish)

Exit Long Wire With ½ an Inch of Insulation Off Both Its Ends, Large Nail, Small Nail, Battery and Paper Clip

Scene IV
Enter Producer

Casting Director: You see, for the iron nail to attract the paperclip, its atoms had to be arranged in magnetic domains. The electricity (flow of charged particles) through the wire did that, and the paper clip hugged it because it was a magnet. Even with no electricity flowing around our nail, it was still magnetic to the paper clip, since iron is ferromagnetic. The magnetic domains of iron atoms stayed aligned even after electricity stopped flowing. The matchstick did not cling to the magnet, so it was diamagnetic. Magnetic fields need to be aligned so as not to cancel out. When the straightened out paperclip was wrapped in wire that conducted electricity, its atoms had trouble organizing into magnetic domains, so it could not be a magnet to the small iron nail. They did weakly align when exposed to a magnetic field however, which was enough to respond to the large iron nail as a magnet.

Producer: Fantastic! Thanks to you and Hans Christian Oersted, we have the results of our experiment, “The Wiles of Magnetism.”

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