A well-hung horse: Sired by knowledge and imagination
An expanded version of these remarks originally appeared in Cell.
For more than a century, historians of science have been spinning a philosophical roulette wheel, pondering which is more important in the creative process — imagination or knowledge. The opening salvo in the debate goes back to the Dutch chemist Jacobus van’t Hoff, who was awarded the first Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1901. van’t Hoff is credited with two original achievements. The first is his proposal that atoms in a molecule are arranged in a three-dimensional space — a hypothesis that led to the discovery of the asymmetrical carbon atom and to the founding of a new field of physical chemistry. And the second is that the speed of a chemical reaction is related to temperature and the concentration of components. Thus, two fundamental concepts — molecular shape and reaction kinetics — originated with this one individual.
van’t Hoff believed that the key to scientific creativity was not facts and knowledge, but imagination. Imagination, in his view, is the essential building block of scientific inquiry. In 1878, van’t Hoff assembled his ideas into an essay entitled “Imagination in Science,” in which he pointed out that many of the world’s most original scientists like Newton, Galileo, Davy, and Boyle possessed life-long strange imaginings and superstitions that influenced their approach to science. Most creative scientists, according to van’t Hoff, were a bit “crazy” — “crazy” being shorthand for bold thinking and being free to try out new things that less creative colleagues would deem ridiculous.
First Row, left to right: Michael Brown, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center ● J. Michael Bishop, University of California, San Francisco ● Lucy Shapiro, Stanford University ● Joseph Goldstein, Chair of the Jury, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center ● Titia de Lange, The Rockefeller University ● Paul Nurse, The Royal Society ● James Rothman, Yale University
Second Row, left to right: Tom Maniatis, Columbia University ● Huda Zoghbi, Baylor College of Medicine ● Robert Horvitz, Massachusetts Institute of Technology ● Erin O’Shea, Harvard University ● Eric Kandel, Columbia University ● Diane Mathis, Harvard University
Third Row, left to right: Harold Varmus, Weill Cornell Medical College ● Craig Thompson, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center ● Marc Tessier-Lavigne, The Rockefeller University ● Richard Lifton, Yale University ● Bruce Stillman, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory ● Gregory Petsko, Weill Cornell Medical College ● Charles Sawyers, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center ● Martin Raff, University College London ● Dan Littman, NYU Langone Medical Center ● Jeremy Nathans, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine
Public Service Award Jury
Ambassador Barbara Barrett ● Christopher Jones ● Sherry Lansing, The Sherry Lansing Foundation ● Willard J. Overlock, Jr, 3G Capital ● Alfred Sommer, Chair of the Jury, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health ● Robert Tjian, Howard Hughes Medical Institute ● Elias Zerhouni, Sanofi