Sparks of Genius: The Thirteen Thinking Tools of the World's Most Creative People. Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein. 400 pp, Houghton Mifflin, 1999. $26.
Sparks of Genius presents radically different ways of approaching problems—alternative ways of thinking that tend to lead to creativity. These are illustrated with excellent examples of creative thinking on the part of some of the greatest scientists and artists in history, from Leonardo da Vinci to Vladimir Nabokov.
The 13 tools alluded to in the subtitle are observing, imaging, abstracting, recognizing patterns, forming patterns, analogizing, "body thinking," empathizing, dimensional thinking, modeling, playing, transforming (see illustration for an example) and synthesizing. Many of these thought processes are familiar, but most readers will discover some that they rarely or never use themselves. The concept of "body thinking" was new to me. And I had never thought of empathizing as an approach to problem solving. Nor had I thought of abstracting in art as analogous to the reductionism in science that has brought so much important knowledge into the world. Many of the examples from artists are intriguing from the perspective of science. I found myself sharing the book's contents with both artists and scientists of my acquaintance.
I particularly enjoyed the chapter on playing, an approach whose importance for creative people has been emphasized by Frank Press, former President of the National Academy of Sciences. I wondered, though, why the authors didn't use Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss) as an example.
Having read Sparks of Genius, I find myself analyzing, visualizing and describing problems differently. Even the Root-Bernsteins' seemingly simple discussion of algebraic versus geometric thinking caused me to realize that, in solving problems, my bias is to take an approach I've used before rather than trying to come up with a unique approach tailored to the demands of the particular problem. We need to be reminded that the carpenter who owns only a hammer tends to see everything as a nail, and this book does that very well.
The authors are appropriately humble in describing these as tools to "bridge the gap between illusion and reality." As they admit, they are not the first to try to find the basis of genius, nor do they claim that mastery of these diverse ways of thinking guarantees creativity.
In their introduction, the authors state that the most important use of their work may be in education. Actually, I think the most important use may be in reeducating already-accomplished individuals. In addition to learning and integrating new concepts, I relearned many things reading Sparks of Genius. I recommend this powerful book to scientists, artists and humanists alike.—Thomas L. Isenhour, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Duquesne University, Pittsburgh