What I Learned about Creative Thinking from Nobel Prize Winning Physicist Neils Bohr

Niels Henrik David Bohr was a Danish physicist who made foundational contributions to understanding atomic structure and quantum mechanics, for which he received the Nobel Prize in Physics. He is considered to the father of Quantum Physics.

Niels Bohr once said that, one day, he was looking at a friend who had done something wrong, when he realized he could not look at his friend in the “light of love” and in the “light of justice” simultaneously. The two were totally incompatible.  He then went on to speculate that there must be an analogue to this in physics, in which you could not look at the same thing from two different perspectives simultaneously. This insight became the foundation for his famous discovery of the “principle of complementarity.” This is the idea that that particles could be separately analyzed as having several contradictory, and apparently mutually exclusive, properties (an example being the wave-particle duality of light, where light can either behave as a particle or as wave, but not simultaneously as both).

Albert Rothenberg, a noted researcher on the creative process, has extensively studied the use of opposites in the creative process. He was intrigued by Bohr’s ability to imagine two opposite or contradictory ideas, concepts or images existing simultaneously.  Bohr demonstrated that if you hold opposites together, then you suspend your thought and your mind moves to a new level. The suspension of thought allows an intelligence beyond thought to act and create a new form. The swirling of opposites creates the conditions for a new point of view to bubble free from your mind.

Rothenberg identified this process as “Janusian thinking,” a process named after Janus, a Roman God who has two faces, each looking in the opposite direction. Janusian thinking is the ability to imagine two opposites or contradictory ideas, concepts, or images existing simultaneously. Imagine, if you will, your mother existing as a young baby and old woman simultaneously, or your pet existing and not existing at the same time.

Rothenberg found that other geniuses as well resorted to paradoxical thinking quite often in the act of achieving original insights. Albert Einstein, for example was looking for an example in nature that would allow him to bring Newton’s theory of gravitation into the theory of relativity, the step making it a general theory would have objects in motion and at rest simultaneously. He was able to imagine this, but to better understand the nature of this paradox; he constructed an analogy that reflected the essence of the paradox. An observer, Einstein posited, who jumps off a house roof and releases any object at the same time, will discover that the object will remain, relative to the observer, in a state of rest. The unique feature of this analogy was that the apparent absence of a gravitational field arises even though gravitation causes the observer’s accelerating plunge. This analogy and its unique feature inspired his insight that led him to arrive at the general theory of relativity. This insight, Einstein said, was the happiest moment of his life.

I learned the value of thinking in terms of simultaneous opposites from Niels Bohr. Bohr’s quote “The opposite of fact is falsehood, but the opposite of one profound truth may very well be another profound truth” inspired me to always think of opposites when looking for creative ideas and solutions to problem. Once in a heated debate over how electrons can appear in one place and then in another without any traveling in between, he declared how wonderful it was that they have met with a paradox. For now they can make intellectual progress.

Consider how Louis Pasteur discovered the principle of immunology by discovering the paradox. Some infected chickens survived a cholera bacillus. When they and uninfected chickens were inoculated with a new virulent culture, the uninfected chickens died and the infected chickens survived. In seeing the unexpected event of the chickens’ survival as a manifestation of a principle, Pasteur needed to formulate the concept that the surviving animals were both diseased and not-diseased at the same time. This prior undetected infection had therefore kept them free from disease and protected them from further infection. This paradoxical idea that disease could function to prevent disease was the original basis for the science of immunology.

I learned to convert your subject into a paradox and then find a useful analogy.  For example, foundries clean forged metal parts by sandblasting them. The sand cleans the parts but the sand gets into the cavities and is time consuming and expensive to clean. The paradox is that the particles must be “hard” in order to clean the parts and at the same time “not hard” in order to be removed easily. An analogue of particles which are “hard” and “not hard” is ice. One solution is to make the particles out of dry ice. The hard particles will clean the parts and later turn into gas and evaporate.

Following are specific guidelines for solving problems based on this thinking strategy which include creating a paradox, finding an analogue and using the unique feature of the analogue to trigger original ideas.

THOUGHT EXPERIMENT.  A CEO noted that when his high-tech company was small, people would often meet spontaneously and informally. Out of these meetings came their best ideas. With the company’s rapid growth, these informal meetings (and the number of good ideas) declined. He tried the usual ways to stimulate creativity (meetings, dinners, parties, roundtables, etc.), but they did not generate novel ideas. He wanted to re-create the spontaneous creative environment.

1. PARADOX. Convert the problem into a paradoxThe question to ask is: What is the opposite or contradiction of the problem? And then imagine both existing at the same time. One of the things that distinguishes the vision of genius is its curious relationship to contraries

EXAMPLE: The paradox of the company’s situation was that unless the gatherings were unorganized they wouldn’t produce novel ideas.

2. SUMMARIZE THE PARADOX INTO TWO OR THREE WORDS. The summary should capture the essence and paradox of the problem. The summary should usually include an adjective and a noun. Some examples:

Sales target— Focused Desire

Different level employees— Balanced Confusion

Seasonal sales cycles— Connected Pauses

Birth control— Dependable Intermittency

Nature— Rational Impetuousness 

EXAMPLE: In our example, the CEO summarized his paradox as “Unorganized Gatherings.”

3. ANALOGUE. Find an analogy that reflects the essence of the paradox. Think of as many analogies as you can and select the most suitable.

EXAMPLE: Our CEO found a suitable analogy in nature. He thought of herring gulls who are very unorganized scavengers but effective survivors.

4. UNIQUE FEATURE. What is the unique feature or activity of the analogue? Creative ideas often involve taking unique features from one subject and applying them to another. John Hopfield was a physicist who knew a lot about spin glass, which are magnetic substances in which the atoms have a spin and interact in either a positive or negative way with each other. Hopfield discovered that the brain is composed of neurons that are either on or off and either excite or inhibit one another. He took a set of unique features from spin glass and applied them to the brain thereby creating his famous neural network theory.

EXAMPLE: In our example, the CEO determined that the unique feature of his analogy is “scavenging.” The gulls gather for an easy meal when fishermen throw unwanted fish and fish parts back into the sea.

5. EQUIVALENT. Use an equivalent of the “unique” feature to trigger new ideas.

EXAMPLE: The equivalent of this unique feature might be to have people come together for convenient meals at attractive prices.

6. BUILD INTO A NEW IDEA. The CEO decided to serve inexpensive gourmet food in the company cafeteria. By subsidizing the cost of the gourmet food, the CEO encouraged employees to gather there (much like the herring gulls drawn to the fishermen’s free food) to meet informally, mingle and exchange ideas. These informal unorganized gatherings worked and the ideas began to flow again.

A few years ago I was in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, a small town where many buildings were vacated when the steel industry declined. But there was one old abandoned factory doing a tremendous business. Their product?  Placebos. For almost any drug on the market, they produce an inert replica: round pink pills, triangular red ones, blue ovals, yellow tablets, the entire range. The irony is that the drug companies have built research lab upon research lab hoping to discover new products, while the placebos are made in an abandoned factory with no research labs (and no lawyers) because they have one product, no side effects, and no patents. The paradox is that they are selling a product that is not a drug that works like the drug that people are prescribed. The paradox could be summarized as “counterfeit reality.” They work remarkably well. How and why they work is still a mystery.

In another example of paradoxical thinking, the city of Troy, Michigan was forced to make personnel and city services cuts due to a struggling economy and a 20% loss in city revenue due to the drop in property values. The public library was among the city services that would get cut if a tax increase for additional operating funds didn’t pass.

The tax increase didn’t pass and there was no organized group defending the library, and a highly-organized anti-tax group, Troy Citizens United rallied against the proposed tax increase. The city then proposed a library-only tax increase- the Troy Library would need a minuscule 0.7% tax increase to continue to operate. Troy Citizens United campaigned again against the tax increase, and again, the tax increase didn’t pass. The library was scheduled to close, but supporters of the library rallied to try one last time to try and pass the tax increase. In the face of two losses, a last-ditch vote was scheduled but it looked like the library would close. The Troy Library needed something drastic to keep it alive.

An anonymous advertising agency in Detroit decided to help save the Troy Library by turning around the anti-tax sentiment. Their thought was to dramatize what “closing” the library would mean.

PARADOX: The paradox was how can you save something by destroying it? “Save by destroying.”

ANALOGUE: Medieval towns were threatened with total destruction unless they surrendered to the aggressors and saved themselves.

UNIQUE FEATURE: Threatening total destruction inspires action. Citizens of the medieval towns were forced to decide to surrender or fight.

The agency campaigned to save the library by pretending to want to destroy the books in the library; agency staff posed as a fake radical political group, Safeguarding American Families (SAF) and distributed yard signs around the city of Troy with the message “Vote To Close Troy Library On Aug.2- Book Burning Party On Aug.5. All are Invited.” People were so enraged by the idea of a book burning party by this fake political action group that they went in droves to the voting booths to save the library.


Michael Michalko is the author of the highly acclaimed Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques; Cracking Creativity: The Secrets of Creative Genius; ThinkPak: A Brainstorming Card Deck and Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work.

Web site: www.creativethinking.net

Face book: http://www.facebook.com/creative.thinkering

Twitter: http://twitter.com/MichaelMichalko


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