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18 JANUARY, 2012

The Science of Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing

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What the greatest mystery of science has to do with this moment we share, right now.

We’ve previously explored the complex scientific underpinning of concepts we’ve come to see as cultural givens, such as time, infinity, and consciousness. But perhaps our most fundamental solid ground, the kind of existential stake on which we peg our very understanding of the world and our place in it, are the concepts of “something” and “nothing,” and nothing is more mind-bending than the proposition that there is no such thing as “nothing.” That’s precisely what theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss explores in A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing — a riveting cosmological story that seeks to unravel the greatest mystery of science: where the energy in the universe comes from. Krauss uses groundbreaking scientific research to subvert some of humanity’s most basic and enduring philosophical questions, based on the premise that the nature of “something” and “nothing” is a scientific inquiry rather than theological or philosophical one.

Everything we see is just one percent of cosmic pollution in universe dominated by dark matter and dark energy. You could get rid of all the things in the night sky — the stars, the galaxies, the planets, everything — and the universe would be largely the same.”

This, of course, is not to say there isn’t room for philosophical reflection in these grand questions. Just take this one, brilliant in its exquisite simplicity, from my favorite illustrator and visual philosopher, Wendy MacNaughton (remember her?), titled The Universe and Forever:

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18 JANUARY, 2012

Woz on Creativity: Work Alone

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Groupthink, the origin of originality, and why most inventors are like artists.

Last week, we took a look at what a 1962 Candid Camera elevator experiment reveals about the psychology of groupthink. More than vintage comic relief, however, groupthink can be the archnemesis of creativity, because creativity by committee is no creativity at all — just ask Stephen King, who famously advised aspiring authors to “write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.” In his modestly titled memoir, iWoz: Computer Geek to Cult Icon: How I Invented the Personal Computer, Co-Founded Apple, and Had Fun Doing It, computer legend Steve Wozniak, better-known as Woz, makes a bold case for the importance of intellectual independence in the creative process:

Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me — they’re shy and they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone — best outside of corporate environments, best where they can control an invention’s design without a lot of other people designing it for marketing or some other committee. I don’t believe anything really revolutionary has ever been invented by committee… I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone… Not on a committee. Not on a team.”

This, of course, should be ingested with caution — when taken out of context, it could easily become a distorted extreme. As Steven Johnson argues in Where Good Ideas Come From, innovation happens when ideas collide with one another, which can’t happen in isolation — an environment conducive to such collisions is essential for combinatorial creativity. But at the heart of Woz’s insight seems to be a prompt to silence groupthink and bake just enough quiet time into the creative process for the ideas that we’ve acquired through our interactions with the world and other people to collide and fuse together into something new, something “really revolutionary.” At least that’s how I’d like to interpret it.

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18 JANUARY, 2012

A. A. Milne on Happiness and How Winnie-the-Pooh Was Born

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On rainy days and the simplicity of happiness.

Though Alan Alexander Milne (1882-1956) is best-known for authoring the Winnie-the-Pooh book series, among the most beloved children’s books with timeless philosophy for grown-ups, A. A. Milne was also a prolific poet. In 1924, two years before the first Winnie-the-Pooh book, he penned When We Were Very Young — a collection of poetry for young children, illustrated by E. H. Shepard. In the 38th poem of the book, titled “Teddy Bear”, the famed Winnie-the-Pooh character makes his first appearance. Originally named “Mr. Edward Bear” by Christopher Robin Milne, Milne’s own son, Winnie-the-Pooh is depicted wearing a shirt that was later colored red for a recording produced by Stephen Slesinger, an image that eventually shaped the familiar Disney character.

The third poem in the book is a short gem titled “Happiness” — a wonderful meditation on how little it takes to find happiness. (And, clearly, a giant missed opportunity for Apple.)

John had
Great Big
Waterproof
Boots on;
John had a
Great Big
Waterproof
Hat;
John had a
Great Big
Waterproof
Mackintosh–
And that
(Said John)
Is
That.

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