Fractal Darwinism 


Creative Thinking
The Creative Process

An interview with Gerd K. Binnig

According to the Nobel Prize laureate for physics Gerd Binnig, new ideas are generated only when people receive enough new stimuli. In an interview he uses his theory of “fractal Darwinism” to explain how something new comes about.

Mr Binnig, why are you, as a physicist, interested in creativity?

I became interested in it more by chance – in the framework of several interviews I gave about 20 years ago. We were talking about the invention of tunnelling microscopy and discussing whether this was a creative process. I later realized that the procedures involved in developing the microscope could not be brought into line with the traditional notion of creativity, and that I had a fundamentally different view on this issue. That is why I began studying it intensely.

What do you understand precisely by creativity?
I call my concept “fractal Darwinism”. With his theory of the evolution of life Darwin already described important fundamentals of creativity, but not everything. Only that which is fractal brings the aspect of synergy or cooperation between living creatures or thoughts into play. By combining both theories we can understand and promote creative processes. In order to explain more precisely what I mean I have to go back a bit. Up to 20 years ago scientists divided problems into individual, easily manageable parts so as to simplify and then analyze them. I refer to this as single-scale thinking. The physicist remained at the scale of atoms, the biologist at that of cells – to put it briefly. When I spoke about multi-scale thinking people at the time looked at me askance. Only very very few scientists thought as I did then. Benoît Mandelbrot and Kenneth Wilson were the pioneers here.

What do you mean by multi-scale?
Mandelbrot, for example, linked forms in nature with mathematics. He claimed that nature was full of geometry. He discovered and mathematically described structures in which, geometrically, each part resembled the whole. This is the case, for example, with the course of a coastline. Irrespective of whether you observe it from a satellite or a ship or the perspective of a microbe – the patterns resemble each other on each of the scales. This feature is called self-similarity. Thanks to Mandelbrot’s geometry, such structures can be calculated using very simple formulae. In the resulting fractal images you can repeatedly enlarge details and discover recurrent patterns. I go a step further with my creativity model: Mandelbrot’s insight applies not only to geometry but also to processes. They too are self-similar, meaning that the structure of a process repeats itself to a degree in its individual components. You just have to abstract enough.

What does that have to do with creativity?
Creativity is a very self-similar process. Changes on a small scale add up, changing structures at higher levels, which in turn have an impact on the small structures. At the same time, creativity is a process that functions like evolution: in keeping with the mechanisms of reproduction, mutation, selection, isolation and cooperation. The latter follows from the multi-scale approach. For example: you play on a football team. If you think about survival strategies, you will presumably realize that the survival of the team is necessary for your personal survival. So, in order to have a chance as a good player, you have to work with the team, meaning you have to make your contribution to it winning. You think not just from your own viewpoint but from that of the group. You change scales. The mechanism at the basis of the footballer’s behaviour is cooperation.

How does fractal Darwinism function in practice?
I can demonstrate that nicely with the development of the scanning tunnelling microscope. I was working at the time in the research laboratory at IBM in Rüschlikon. We wanted to examine something that was part of a very large problem: Then, in the late 1970s, physicists were not yet able to observe a single individual atom on the surface of metal. But we wanted to know how their features change when the atoms are not so regularly ordered in the crystal as the theory prescribes, but rather continually fall out of line. The scanning tunnelling microscope was developed in the context of our work on that problem, without us intending to invent it.

So you owe the Nobel Prize to chance?
In a certain sense, yes. Anyone who wants to be creative should not have a concrete objective, like the invention or improvement of a microscope. Even then he can of course be creative in a particular framework. But man is creative at a higher level when he wants to solve a problem, because he proceeds differently. He seeks the components necessary to solve the problem.

Is this approach really innovative?
I want to solve a problem, which I do in individual stages, and in the end something new emerges.

Haven’t people been working like that for centuries?
I cannot say straight away: We will now take the logical path and then invent a tunnelling microscope. A really creative solution is so complex that it cannot be found by logic. I would have to work through millions and millions of possibilities to arrive at it logically. Human life is not long enough for that. So I have to do it differently. I have certain approaches and ideas, but chance plays a very big role. For example: Someone expresses a thought in a lecture. I take it up and integrate it into my thought process. For me, that is like a mutation that enters into my brain from outside and survives my selection process – like in evolution. Certain things assert themselves, others die off relatively quickly. It’s the same with ideas. Some emerge, do not survive long and then disappear forever. Other ideas are latently there, because they stand up to analysis.

How can managers, for example, use your concept to be more creative?
This may sound surprising, but I believe they have to know less and think more slowly. If I am always just ticking off topics, creativity has no chance. That happens even when I am working on something intellectually ambitious. Man must start to dream. He must not allow himself to become embroiled too much in the everyday and must constantly create room to manoeuvre. Breaks are extremely important if new ideas, or connections between existing but isolated knowledge, are to reach our consciousness. Anyone who wants to work creatively needs time out.

Is it realistic to think that busy researchers or managers will take that time?
Of course it is very difficult to create room for free development. But not in my case. I have strong defensive reactions against such tension in everyday life. The subconscious is very much involved here. If I constantly feed it new impressions it is busy. As a rule, it processes the information during sleep and connects it up anew. That is why we dream. When we take in something new, we have to go through in our minds whether the old knowledge still applies. We see this when we simulate creativity in computers. If I simply add new knowledge to the existing knowledge, it just destroys the old knowledge.

So we shouldn’t learn anything?
For a while, at least.

Can employees in companies with their mostly rigid structures be creative at all?
I think that large companies in general are not very creative. Perhaps they do not need to be any more, because they have already achieved a lot simply by their size. But if they are completely uncreative, one day they will no longer be successful.


More about Professor Dr. Gerd Binnig

The experimental physicist and holder of the 1986 Nobel Prize for physics, who was born in Frankfurt, sees evolution as a creative process. For many years the inventor of the scanning tunnelling microscope has been trying to arrive at a deeper understanding of creativity.

20.09.2004 / 25.05.2006

© Deutschland magazine

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