A conversation about cooking, science, and creativity

by AllAmericanBreakfast5 min read27th Jul 20214 comments

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My girlfriend is a creative cook, and worked in the Portland food industry - renowned for its innovation by small kitchens - for ten years. I'm interested in creativity in scientific research. Where does it come from?

Furthermore, what is the relationship between scientific creativity and scholarship - the immense amount of background material that scientists-in-training are expected to absorb? Over the last year, I have spent a lot of time focused on learning how to do effective scholarship. I wanted to know how to learn the theory of differential equations, immunology, biochemistry, and computer science.

In our conversation about culinary creativity, we started off with a simple question. What is the difference between a competent chef and a creative one?

She answered with an example. A competent chef can follow a recipe. A creative chef can predict what the recipe will taste like, and knows in advance how to modify it to suit her own taste. She can tell from the recipe whether the soup will be thick or thin, or have a good flavor, and knows how to adjust the broth or the spices. Some of that happens while she cooks, by tasting and adjusting, but some of it happens in her imagination, during the planning phase.

Let's break this down into components, and see if we can draw an analogy between culinary and scientific creativity. We have:

  • A recipe
  • A cook, who has:
    • Her own preferences, needs and goals
    • Some imagination and technical knowledge for how to transform the recipe to achieve those goals
    • The resources to turn her cooking plans into reality

What's the analogy with science?

  • The recipe is like the prior research in the lab or subfield
  • The cook is the scientist, who has:
    • A research problem, with its own requirements and goals
    • Some imagination and technical knowledge for how to transform the prior research to move closer to achieving those goals
    • The resources to turn her scientific plan into an experiment

This helps illuminate my intuition that scholarship and creativity feel like related, but separate tasks, and that scholarship doesn't directly lead to creativity. If scholarship is akin to the technical knowledge that helps a chef modify a recipe to her taste, then it's what helps a scientist build on prior research to advance closer to the goals of the research program. You need to have "scientific taste," a sense of where you're trying to go, and a vision for how to get there. The technical knowledge helps you figure out how to accomplish that, but you don't really derive your vision and "taste" from the mechanical details of your subject.

In my experience, classwork is almost entirely about developing that technical knowledge, and involves very little of cultivating scientific taste, or going through the process of building on prior experiments and imagining new ones. So this feels like a great area for educational outsiders to create exercises and prompts, which I welcome in the comments.

But it also invites curiosity about what's required to carry out a creative process in scientific research. To see why, let's turn back to our cooking/science analogy. The cook has some mysterious faculties allowing her to have a sense of "scientific taste:" a tongue, a nose, and a set of associations with memory and food. These somehow allow her to generate a sense of what she finds delicious, or disgusting, or just bland and disappointing. The tongue and nose are marvelously sensitive (in many people) to subtleties of flavor and intensity. And we know pretty clearly what effect we will have if we add more salt, or water, or potatoes into the soup.

In scientific research, we can't directly "taste the soup," and we can't as easily know what effect our additions had. Techniques for determining causality, measuring effect sizes,  and operationalizing concepts, are the researcher's "scientific tongue," the basis of their sense of "taste." Learning how to use those techniques, get information out of them, and have a reaction that makes you intuit that this is how we need to "modify the recipe," seems like a good analogy for how to become a creative scientist.

And note that this is different from just being able to pull out and explain that information from a scientific paper. I can look up an effect size in a paper, no problem. But in the culinary world, you don't get nearly the same kind of practice being a creative chef by accepting another cook's opinion on the soup as you do by forming your own opinion on it. Can we do better? How?

That's not to say that there's no role for exchange of opinions, in the kitchen or the laboratory. Frequently, after cooking a meal for her family, my girlfriend will ask everyone for their critical opinions on the flavor and texture. They'll share their honest opinions. I only ever notice how delicious it was, so I'm pretty much useless! But she seems to benefit from this peer review process, often just by having her own opinion reinforced, or getting a better understanding of the taste of her family members.

Likewise, absorbing the author's stated opinion of their own work, or the feedback from a formal or informal peer review process, should be a chance to compare your own opinion with that of another expert. But in order for that to be most useful, you need to have a "scientific tongue" of your own, and form your own evaluation.

Here are a few skills that seem like the "nerve endings" of the scientific tongue:

  1. Understanding the pros and cons of various methods and measurements.
  2. Being able to understand the statistics and figures used to measure and report the data, and having a sense of how intensely good, bad, or "meh" the findings are.
  3. Knowing what the overall goal of the research is, and the intermediate goals that are its more immediate agenda - including the ones that didn't get mentioned in the paper. Also, being able to imagine new intermediate goals that still fit within the field (sort of like being able to do fusion cuisine that still has recognizable influences).
  4. Being able to compare it to other studies on a similar topic, and describe the value the diversity in their approaches.
  5. Knowing, big picture, what sorts of things we'd like to be able to do in order to "taste" and "improve" the "recipe."

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These books come to mind, and might interest you:

Wired to Create - https://scottbarrykaufman.com/books/wired-to-create/

Problem Solving: Perspectives from Cognition and Neuroscience - https://www.amazon.com/Problem-Solving-Perspectives-Cognition-Neuroscience-ebook/dp/B01N03PCGH/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=Problem+Solving.+Perspectives+from+Cognition+and+Neuroscience&qid=1627400134&s=digital-text&sr=1-1

(Sorry about long links, was on mobile and couldn’t find way to make labeled links 🙁 )

Thanks for the suggestions!

I've done scientific research not at all, but I've been cooking for friends and roommates for about six years. Last night I had a lot of bagels I wasn't going to eat, so I tore them into small pieces, soaked them in an egg mixture and baked them into a French toast casserole. It's not a recipe I've ever made before, but I did know for instance that the amount of milk in the egg mixture wasn't actually very important. I think part of this is that I've made French toast many times; the simpler the recipe, the more it can be iterated.

In contrast, one roommate of mine is learning to cook, and she'll do things like carefully working out every bubble of a box-mix cake batter. In my experience this is far more care than necessary, and I think this is because experience highlights the steps in the process that are more crucial.

The recipe innovations I see most often are those that try to rebuild a recipe or a taste without one or more ingredients or steps, like gluten-free pasta or no-bake cookies. Some recipes we understand very well, like bread, and people have reinvented some version of it for almost any shortage in ingredients. Perhaps this could lead to a better development of scientific taste - how would you achieve a similar study if the p-value were lowered substantially, or you had a different sample size?

Several years ago, I helped a family friend, who's an excellent cook, prepare a Bûche de Noël. One of the small but powerful pieces of advice she gave me that evening was "we don't need to be tedious."

There's definitely the equivalent of "bread recipes" in scientific research. The lab I'm joining this fall is doing spinal cord injury research, and the PI is setting me up on what he calls "turn-the-crank research." It uses a preclinical test they've done many times before, using a small but meaningful improvement in the intervention. It doesn't require too much creativity or expert knowledge, just a lot of diligence and reasonable planning skills.