Arts advocates are always looking for ways in which the arts inform more “practical” fields, such as the sciences. One convergence between these two areas was back in the year 1928, when Sir Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin.
Fleming’s now-famous “accidental discovery” of penicillin was the result of the growth of mold on one of his influenza experiments. Fleming realized that the mold actually halted the growth of the influenza, leading to the development of penicillin, research furthered by Howard Flory and Ernst Chain.
As the story goes, Fleming was known for being a bit of a slob around the office. He didn’t clean up his messes, and these messes lead to his groundbreaking discovery. However, looking at things a different way, you could give him another name. Sir Alexander Fleming was an artist.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is an expert on the creative process (most famous for his concept of “flow.”) For him, the creative process begins with preparation, in which the artist brings together ideas, tools, inspirations. Then, he lets them sit for a while, a process Csikszentmihalyi calls incubation. Then, inspiration strikes, seemingly out of the blue!
This process is borne out in the life of the artist: we all know the story of the writer or painter who strolls the streets for days, trying to summon the inspiration to complete a work. What Csikszentmihalyi suggests, however, is that this is not writer’s block or lack of inspiration, but rather the artist’s process.
Perhaps, in the same way, Sir Alexander Fleming was not merely a lucky slob, but a creative artist of science. He operated by intuition, leaving the flu virus out in the open for reasons even he had yet to discover.