How To Build a Creative Scientist
OMNI Magazine - November 1985
Remember the Sixties? Remember the freewheeling schools that era produced — you know, bend irrelevant rules for brilliant oddballs, we are all Leonardos, and so on? Presumably, such institutions have all gone the way of tie-dyed shirts and Moby Grape black-light posters, destroyed by Eighties' counterrevolutionary second thoughts. Except for one: the College of Creative Studies (CCS), founded back in 1967 by Marvin Mudrick, the l-hate-phonies University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB) English professor who pioneered student-led seminars, noncompetition [no grades), and a take -it-any-way-you -want-it curriculum.
The school's record of distinguished science and mathematics graduates, plus prime gallery artists and trend-setting composers, suggests that despite its quasi-flake title and California location— CCS is an autonomous part of the Tahiti-like UCSB— it offers far more than metaphysical motorcycle maintenance.
The way "Creatives" are produced by UCSB biologist Ian Boss is the clearest example of CCS philosophy. "I will often give a sev- enteen-year-old freshman an unsolvable problem, like: What is the chemistry behind aging? Most scientists agree that humans should live to be one hundred and ten, so why don't they? the immune system? the nervous system? an X factor? How do you design an experiment to find out? Why do even the Nobel laureates know so little about it? After a few years of that kind of thinking, the student is ready to work in any lab in the world. I want my students to be professionally competent biologists by the time they receive their bachelor's degrees — many years before the doctorate — and I don't care how they get there," Ross explains.
David Cannell, professor of physics, adds another wrinkle to the CCS method: 'As early as the first meeting or two with a new CCS student, I might ask that he or she figure out how to measure the surface tension of water — and I forbid looking it up in the library. We want to stimulate the kind of originality that the professional physicist has to use every day."
Max L. Weiss, the mathematician who helped design the original CCS curricula and is now its chief academic officer, puts it another way: "On the very first day I tell students I don't teach content. I teach them the language of math [sets, Peano's postulates for the natural numbers], its art and spirit. CCS is a trade school, a master- and apprentice shop."
And Bruce Rickborn, a former CCS organic-chemistry professor now at UCSB, took his Creatives out into the field the first day. "We gathered leaves, sap, lichens, and so forth, then went back to the lab where I showed them how to isolate, identify, and purify the compounds. And within two quarters, these freshmen were as good as juniors and seniors."
The man who spawned this all, the caustic Professor Mudrick, served as provost of CCS until his still-contested firing of last year. Mudrick, it seems, had a habit of referring to other educators as "mediocre" and "incompetent." ("Marvin doesn't really mean it," says one admirer, "he's just practicing his craft.") Regardless of the Mudrick nondiplomacy, potentially hostile UCSB investigators concluded that his no-grade, no-sequence, nonpunitive, early-research approach has produced hundreds of able professionals. In its 18 years, nearly 85 percent of CCS mathematicians and scientists have gone on lo graduate school — many to the Harvard- Princelon-Berkeley-Caltech class of university (which some Creatives have written of as being no better than CCS).
Headliner graduates include: Mohan Putcha, who published 12 professional papers in mathematics journals by the time he was a CCS sophomore, and twenty-six-year-old Alex Filippenko, who in 1985 (as a Berkeley astrophysicist) not only published subtle evidence that the Milky Way and many other galaxies evolved from quasars but also discovered an entirely new type o! exploding star, an oxygen-rich supernova. Then there's Timothy May, Silicon Valley's INTEL genius, who concluded that cosmic rays damage highly miniaturized microprocessor circuits and who then perfected new particle-proof designs, and Clovice Lewis, composer of electronic music whose works were performed by the New Orleans Symphony while he was still a teenager. The College of Creative Studies also lays claim to mathematical analysts of obscure South Seas dialects, advisers to French symphony orchestras, and adolescent founders of software companies— these are Marvin Mudrick's Creatives.
While CCS has produced fewer than 700 graduates, more than 300 of them have written testimonial letters endorsing CCS as a unique educational experience. "The CCS annual budget is only about seven hundred thousand dollars," notes biologist Ian Ross. "We've shown we can produce a better can of beans cheaper than any other university."— WILLIAM K. STUCKEY