Connecting the dots

 

Spinning its delicate web, this golden orb-weaver will soon wind up in the hands of Michael Ellison’s students, who will milk it for silk. A flexible material with herculean strength for its weight, spider silk has yet to yield the secrets of its remarkable structure.

That may be changing, and the results could yield new materials with broad applications. For more, see the web of science.

Image by Craig Mahaffey.

 

The last word you might expect to find on the cover of a research magazine is creativity. Somewhere along the line, creativity came to seem fuzzy and soft—a topic for the humanities, perhaps, but not for the clear-eyed realm of science and technology. For several decades now, a chasm has yawned between these two cultures and their two ways of under­standing the world. At Clemson, we are bridging the chasm. Glimpse is a magazine of research and creative discovery because creativity matters, in every corner of our society.

These days, we hear a lot of talk about lagging test scores in science and math, and how they might presage a decline in American competi­tiveness. Yes, we must find ways to equip our students with the technical skills they need for success in the new economy, and at Clemson we are doing just that. But when you ask business leaders what they value most, they are likely to say, “creative thinkers and problem solvers.”

Here is one quote from David Attis, writing for the Council on Com­petiveness: “Companies say that the skills they find most valuable—collab­oration, communication, creative problem solving—are not typically found in science and engineering graduates.” Here is another from the late Steve Jobs, cofounder of Apple, as quoted in Wired magazine: “Creativity is just connecting things,” he said. “…A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.”

How do we instill that broad perspective? In part, we do so by asking our students and our faculty members to connect some new dots. We ask them to reach beyond their academic disciplines, beyond their comfort zones, and experience the world from other points of view. In these pages, you will read how Catherine Paul in English collaborates with anthro­pologists and mathematicians, how Christina Hung in art is working with bioengineers, and how Lesly Temesvari in biological sciences reaches out to people in math and behavioral science. In engineering, Joshua Sum­mers pushes his students to read broadly, study languages, and learn to draw—to give them more dots to connect.

None of this is easy. Any time we venture off the beaten path, we put ourselves at risk. As David Brooks has written, in the New York Times, “Creative people don’t follow the crowds; they seek out the blank spots on the map… Instead of being fastest around the tracks everybody knows, creative people move adaptively through wildernesses nobody knows.”

Creativity, as we see it, is not soft and squishy. It is as edgy, unpre­dictable, and prismatic as shattered glass. Sometimes, there is no break­through without actually breaking something. But destruction is never the goal. It is only a first step toward making something new.

 

R. Larry Dooley

Interim Vice President for Research