Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘creativity’

26 APRIL, 2012

Free Radicals: How Anarchy and Serendipity Fueled Science, from Newton to Tesla to Steve Jobs

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How Goethe fueled Tesla, why Newton pricked his own eye, and other lessons in breaking the rules of science.

What goes on at the moment of discovery? Is it a flash or a slow burn? Does it come at the end of a long day of work, or upon waking in the morning? Artists might evade explanation and just call it their “muse“, but what about scientists? Science is supposed to come from a rational source, a set of long equations or a series of dogged experiments. But the truth — to which some of history’s greatest scientists can attest — is far more irrational: Discovery is anarchy, inspiration is unexplainable, and getting that Nobel Prize might just be dumb luck.

Free Radicals: The Secret Anarchy of Science by Michael Brooks is the story of scientific rule-breakers, the men and women who experimented on themselves, had fantastic visions and unexplainable hunches, and took once-in-a-lifetime risks, all in the name of pursuing curiosity.

A corridor at Allied Chemical in 1967, by Eliot Erwitt

After the second world war, Brooks explains, scientists were suffering from an image problem. They had created the bomb, cracked the enigma machine, developed nerve gas, and performed experiments on prisoners of war. “You scientists,” declared a 1960s TV drama, “you kill half the world, and the other half can’t live without you.”

After the mad-scientist archetype had done its damage, it was time to rebrand the working scientist, clocking in from 9 to 5 in a crisp white lab coat. Indeed, for the second half of the twentieth century, scientists were perceived as subservient, rule-abiding, lab-dwellers. But for the majority of scientific history, this was simply not the case.

The charicature of Humpry Davy's laughing gas experiments, by James Gillray

Much of medical history involved scientists experimenting on themselves. Issac Newton once stuck a blunt needle, or bodkin, in his eye just so he could record what happened: “there appeared severall white darke & coloured circles… I continued to rub my eye [with the] bodkin.” In the eighteenth-century Sir Humpry Davy began a series of notorious experiments with nitrous oxide by delivering himself the first dose:

This evening… I have felt a more high degree of pleasure from breathing nitrous oxide than I ever felt from any cause whatever — a thrilling all over me most exquisitely pleasurable, I said to myself I was born to benefit the world by my great talents.

Sometimes, as with Davy, self-experimentation led to a moment of inspiration. Kary Mullins, who won the 1993 Nobel Prize for gene copy-technology, would often use LSD to create “a mind-opening experience… much more important than any courses I ever took.” Steve Jobs also called LSD “one of the two or three most important things I have done in my life.”

'The glow retreats, done is our day of toil; / It yonder hastes, new fields of life exploring…' Nikola Tesla was reciting his Goethe poem when he saw his vision of alternating current.

Some of these inspirational hallucinations were undrugged and out of the blue. Nikola Tesla famously developed the self-starting alternating current motor after walking in a Budapest park and reading a passage of Goethe, when he was struck with a vision of a rotating magnetic field. While working on the Manhattan Project, Enrico Fermi had planned to induce radioactivity by shooting a lead target with neutrons, but at the last minute switched out the lead for paraffin for no apparent reason. “It was just like that,” he wrote, “no advanced warning, no conscious, prior reasoning.” For the first time, the experiment worked.

Albert Einstein reportedly once said that the secret to creativity was knowing how to hide one’s sources. Not because they were necessarily wrong, although fudged numbers were a part of Einstein’s success, but because the sources were often times unexplainable. One Nobel Prize winner described a “feeling of guilt about suppressing the part chance and good fortune played” in the work that earned him the holy grail of scientific acclaim.

Steve Jobs on LSD: 'one of the two or three most important things I have done in my life.' The drug was popular among Silicon Valley pioneers.

“Scientific anarchy may not be beautiful,” writes Brooks, “but it gets the job done.” Free Radicals illuminates the role of the irrational in science, the mistakes that make scientists human, and reveals that breakthroughs that change our lives in the most fundamental ways may have the most serendipitous origins.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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23 APRIL, 2012

Frank Chimero on the Shape of Design and the Harmonics of Influence

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“…we accept the light contained in the work of others without darkening their efforts.”

This month, my studiomate Frank Chimero — who is one of the most talented designers, most eloquent writers, and most dimensional thinkers I know — is releasing The Shape of Design, an exquisite meditation on what makes great design*.

From the very first line, Frank grabs you by the neurons and the heartstrings, and doesn’t let go until the very last:

What is the marker of good design? It moves. The story of a successful piece of design begins with the movement of its maker while it is being made, and amplifies by its publishing, moving the work out and around. It then continues in the feeling the work stirs in the audience when they see, use, or contribute to the work, and intensifies as the audience passes it on to others. Design gains value as it moves from hand to hand; context to context; need to need. If all of this movement harmonizes, the work gains a life of its own, and turns into a shared experience that enhances life and inches the world closer to its full potential.

[…]

Marshall McLuhan said that, ‘we look at the present through a rear-view mirror,’ and we ‘march backwards into the future.’ Invention becomes our lens to imagine what is possible, and design is the road we follow to reach it. But, there is a snag in McLuhan’s view, because marching is no way to go into the future. It is too methodical and restricted. The world often subverts our best laid plans, so our road calls for a way to move that is messier, bolder, more responsive. The lightness and joy afforded by creating suggests that we instead dance.

But the part that sang to me most comes from Chapter Three, entitled Improvisation and Limitations, and touches on the harmonics of influence — something I think about a great deal and have explored both playfully and seriously:

When we build, we take bits of others’ work and fuse them to our own choices to see if alchemy occurs. Some of those choices are informed by best practices and accrued wisdom; others are guided by the decisions of the work cited as inspiration; while a large number are shaped by the disposition and instincts of the work’s creator. These fresh contributions and transformations are the most crucial, because they continue the give-and-take of influence by adding new, diverse material to the pool to be used by others.

Frank goes on to illustrate this with an example from eighteenth-century Japanese haiku master Yosa Buson:

Lighting one candle
with another candle—
spring evening.

Buson is saying that we accept the light contained in the work of others without darkening their efforts. One candle can light another, and the light may spread without its source being diminished. We must sing in our own way, but with the contributions and influence of others, we need not sing alone.

The Shape of Design is excellent in its entirety, with a wealth of insight spanning everything from the interplay of How and Why to the role of storytelling to the alchemy of creative magic — an indispensable read not only for designers, but for creators in any discipline.

* Always a good time to revisit John Chris Jones’s meditation on the same subject.

https://www.amazon.com/dp/0375869832/ref=as_li_ss_til?tag=braipick-20&camp=0&creative=0&linkCode=as4&creativeASIN=0375869832&adid=02YXM5MD2VFTBCC5WMM6&Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

17 APRIL, 2012

Sir Ken Robinson on How Finding Your Element Changes Everything

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What knowing the limits of knowledge has to do with finding the frontiers of creativity.

Sir Ken Robinson has previously challenged and delighted us with his vision for changing educational paradigms to better optimize a broken system for creativity.

In this wonderful talk from The School of Life, Robinson articulates the ethos at the heart of The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything — one of 7 essential books on education — and echoes, with his signature blend of wit and wisdom, many of the insights in this indispensable collection of advice on how to find your purpose and do what you love.

Robinson seconds Stuart Firestein’s insight on the importance of ignorance in exploration and growth:

In our culture, not to know is to be at fault socially… People pretend to know lots of things they don’t know. Because the worst thing to do is appear to be uninformed about something, to not have an opinion… We should know the limits of our knowledge and understand what we don’t know, and be willing to explore things we don’t know without feeling embarrassed of not knowing about them.

Among Robinson’s many astute observations is also one about our socially distorted metrics of achievement, in line with Alain de Botton’s admonition about “success”:

It’s not enough to be good at something to be in your element… We’re being brought up with this idea that life is linear. This is an idea that’s perpetuated when you come to write your CV — that you set out your life in a series of dates and achievements, in a linear way, as if your whole existence has progressed in an ordered, structured way, to bring you to this current interview.

If you haven’t yet read The Element, do — it might just change how you relate to everything you do.

Thanks, Neil

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13 APRIL, 2012

Magic Hours: Tom Bissell on the Secrets of Creators and Creation

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“To create anything… is to believe, if only momentarily, you are capable of magic.”

Creativity is a peculiar beast. Its nebulous nature and elusive allure don’t stop us from going after it with stubborn precision, tracing its history, dissecting its neuroscience, flowcharting our way to it and itemizing it into a 5-point plan, all in the hope that, if only we understood its inner workings enough and engineered the right conditions, it would bestow its gifts upon us.

But, as any creator would attest, there are factors at play well outside our control.

From McSweeney’s and Tom Bissell, one of the finest essayists writing today, comes Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creation — a collection of fourteen essays originally published in arbiters of literary culture such as The New Yorker, Believer, and Harper’s Magazine, spanning a decade of Bissell’s best writing and dissecting the creative process through such diverse subjects as Werner Herzog’s films, video game voiceovers, Iraq war documentaries, sitcoms, and David Foster Wallace.

In the first essay, entitled “Unflowered Aloes” and originally published in the Boston Review in 2000, a 25-year-old Bissell takes apart the myth that literature is destiny and demonstrates, through the works of Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, and William Faulkner that luck — or what the Jewish call Schlimazeltov — might be the most valuable bargaining chip in whether a creative work survives and goes on to become a cultural icon.

Take Melville’s Moby-Dick, for instance. The first true American novel was a literary flop when it was first published in 1851, sliding out of print some 36 years with a scant total of 3,180 copies sold and sending Melville into a depression from which he never quite recovered. When Oxford University Press attempted to resuscitate the novel in 1907, they asked Joseph Conrad to write the introduction, but he dismissed it as “a rather strained rhapsody with whaling for its subject and not a single sincere line in the 3 volumes of it.” Then, one day in 1916, the influential critic Carl Van Doren stumbled upon a dusty copy of Moby-Dick in a used bookstore and was inspired to write an essay about it, calling Melville’s work “one of the greatest sea romances in the whole literature of the world.” D. H. Lawrence happened to read the essay and, through a few more clicks of the Rube Goldberg serendipity machine at play, it made its way, extolled, into E. M. Foster’s Aspects of the Novel in 1927. Thus, Bissell reminds us, “Melville’s greatest work, as we today know it, was born 76 years after its initial publication.”

Emily Dickinson and William Faulkner suffered a similar fate, their works mere seashells washed ashore the island of literary recognition by the capricious currents of the vast and all-engulfing ocean of chance. Bissell concludes the essay, which is titled after a plant that may live as long as 100 years and might never flower at all, with an observation that could be very glib or very optimistic, depending on how you look at it:

What faith, then, can the poet or novelist place in his or her work’s survival? Is literary destiny simply yet another god that failed? Although I know what I now believe, I hope I am wrong. Nevertheless, I cannot help but imagine that literature is an airplane, and we are passengers on it. One might assume that behind the flimsy accordion door sit pilots of skill and accomplishment. But the cockpit is empty. It was always been empty. The controls are abandoned. They have always been abandoned. One needs only to touch them to know how mutable our course.

But in this discomfiting awareness lies perhaps the self-selective secret of literature’s creators. In another essay, “Grief and the Outsider” (2003), Bissell observes:

Literature is always written by outsiders… by a person inclined not towards connecting with those around him or her but retreating into a world of nerdily private dream… To write is to fail, more or less, constantly.

This, then, begs the question — a question Bissell asks, and answers, in “Writing about Writing about Writing” (Believer, 2004):

Can writing be taught?… Of course writing can be taught… All human activity is taught. The only thing any human being is born to do is survive, and even in this we all need several years of initial guidance.

Harder to judge is the possibility of teaching a beginning writer how to be receptive to the very real emotional demands of creating literature. To write serious work is to reflexively grasp abstruse matters such as moral gravity, spiritual generosity, and the ability to know when one is boring the reader senseless, all of which are founded upon a distinct type of aptitude that has little apparent relation to more measurable forms of intelligence. Plenty of incredibly smart people cannot write to save their lives. Obviously, writerly intelligence is closely moored to the mature notion of intellect (unlike math or music, the adolescent prodigy is virtually unknown to literature) because writing is based on a gradual development of psychological perception, which takes time and experience. Writing can be taught, then, yes—but only to those who are teachable.

The essay goes on to discuss — to critique, to revere, to ponder, but mostly to critique — such classic writings about writing as Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Stephen King’s On Writing, and even Snoopy’s Guide to the Writing Life, distilling them into astute observation of what we intuitively know to be true but rarely dare let ourselves believe:

Writers who fail are not pathetic; they are people who have attempted to do something incredibly difficult and found they cannot. Human longing exists in every person, along every frequency of accomplishment. It is the delusions endemic to bad writers and bad writing that need to be destroyed. Here are a few: Writing well will get you girls, or boys, or both. Writing well will make you happy. Fame and wealth are good writing’s expected rewards. Writing for a living is somehow nobler than what most people do. What needs to be reinforced is the idea that good writing — solid, honest, entertaining, beautiful good writing — is simultaneously the reward, the challenge, and the goal.

The most heartening insight in Magic Hours, however, comes at the very beginning. As if to immunize the reader with an antidote to some of the grimmer observations that follow, Bissell offers in the author’s note preceding the essays:

To create anything — whether a short story or a magazine profile or a film or a sitcom — is to believe, if only momentarily, you are capable of magic. These essays are about that magic — which is sometimes perilous, sometimes infectious, sometimes fragile, sometimes failed, sometimes infuriating, sometimes triumphant, and sometimes tragic. I went up there. I wrote. I tried to see.

In creation — as in love — it seems timing is if not everything, then at least very much indeed. Yet without integrity and dedication even the most impeccable of timing would be devoid of magic.

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