Nuclear physicist and art critic son to discuss issues in creative process

Nobel laureate Martin L. Perl, a professor emeritus in physics at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park, Calif., will be making a public presentation this Thursday at UC Davis along with his son, art critic Jed Perl. They will speak on the topic of the similarities and differences of the creative process in art and science.

Martin Perl was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1995 for discovering a subatomic particle called the tau lepton. Perl will address the issue of creativity in art as opposed to creativity in science and engineering.

“How similar are they?” Martin asks. “What do you need to become a highly creative person or more creative person?”

Jed Perl has authored a number of nonfiction books on art criticism, including Eyewitness: Reports From An Art World In Crisis and Trevor Winkfield’s Pageant, a book about a one-of-a-kind, living artist whose paintings have been compared to music. He was the art critic for Vogue and currently writes for The New Republic.

“Creativity has something to do with how a person puts together two different elements — the emotional element and the intellectual element,” Jed said. “The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that you have very different processes going on in the arts and the sciences.”

Dean Keith Simonton, a distinguished professor in the UC Davis psychology department, will be the moderator. Simonton has written extensively on the topics of genius, creativity, leadership and aesthetics.

“Historically, there has been no agreed-upon definition [of creativity],” Simonton said.

Simonton pointed out that creativity can be given a common definition regardless of the domain.

“Creativity is what’s involved in generating ideas that are original, valuable and surprising,” Simonton said.

Martin will discuss the role of visualization in creativity. His process involves asking important questions that break down a creative process into stages.

“What’s the start? How will you make progress? How will things go?” Martin asks.

Jed studies the artistic aspect of creativity. His conception of creativity differs somewhat from his father’s process.

“Different people have to work out the equation of creativity in their own way,” Jed said.

Another important issue is the question of individual creativity as opposed to group creativity.

“One major distinction between scientific and artistic creativity is that the former is now more likely to be collective; the latter, individualistic,” Simonton said.

“It’s not completely separated,” Martin said. “The great painters [in France] knew others, but they worked as individuals.”

As an art critic, Jed has noticed common qualities among visual artists. Visual artists often live in cities in order to stay in contact with other artists.

“But of course, any environment can become overwhelming. The pace of city life – or commercialism – can become too much for the artist,” Jed said. “Artists – all creative people – need to find the atmosphere that nourishes them.”

Both Martin and Jed Perl, as well as Simonton, stress that a level of skill and expertise in some particular domain is important.

“I find it fascinating that nobody would think that they could become a world chess champion or win at a sports championship without having first acquired the necessary knowledge and skill,” Simonton said. “Yet there are amateurs who believe they have great ideas without expertise.”

Thursday’s event will be held at 8 p.m. at the UC Davis Conference Center and will feature a question-and-answer session.

BRIAN RILEY can be reached at science@theaggie.org.