Archimedes, Creativity and the Power of Ordinary Thought Process

In “How to Fly a Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery,” Kevin Ashton attempts to debunk the “Eureka” moment that has become synonymous with creation. Ashton goes back to the original “Eureka” moment when Archimedes immersed himself into a bath tub while trying to figure out a way to learn if the gold crown the king had received had been cut with silver or was pure. Archimedes’ displacement of water gave him the idea of how to measure a gold or silver object. The solution struck him with such force that he jumped out of the tub and ran through the streets naked shouting “EUREKA!” When he put the king’s crown in the water, it displaced more water than gold of the same weight, which meant the king had been cheated.

Ashton says the problem with this story is that the proposed method doesn’t work. Galileo disproved it, and Ashton speculates that Archimedes would’ve surely know that it didn’t work. Buoyancy is the key not displacement. Still, the apocryphal story is told and retold to show the “Aha!” moment of creation.

Ashton’s problem with this is that it puts creativity in the hands of a few, and it’s not supported by scientific experiments. The “Aha!” moment isn’t even supported by this story. Archimedes went into the bath thinking about the problem. He was actively engaged in thinking about the problem. Ashton points to several studies that show creative thinking is no different than regular thinking. People get to creative solutions step-by-step, one step at a time.

In the retelling, it might seem like an intuitive leap, but when people are asked to describe their thought process, they generally follow the same pattern of going through possible solutions:

  • State the problem.
  • Suggest a solution.
  • Suggest why it wouldn’t it work.
  • Suggest another solution.
  • Suggest why it wouldn’t work.
  • Suggest another solution.
  • Ad infinitum

The more creative solutions come with more steps. Some people stop as soon as they have a solution that’s good enough. Others keep going to find better solutions. As Ashton says, the one who makes the most steps wins, but creativity is the result of ordinary thought processes.

For more on creativity, get “Disneyland Is Creativity: 25 Tips for Becoming More Creative.” Order “Penguinate! Essays and Short Stories: Using Creativity for a Better Life and World.” Preorder “The Haunted Mansion Is Creativity.”