Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘letters’

14 AUGUST, 2013

How Einstein Thought: Why “Combinatory Play” Is the Secret of Genius

By:

“Combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought.”

For as long as I can remember — and certainly long before I had the term for it — I’ve believed that creativity is combinatorial: Alive and awake to the world, we amass a collection of cross-disciplinary building blocks — knowledge, memories, bits of information, sparks of inspiration, and other existing ideas — that we then combine and recombine, mostly unconsciously, into something “new.” From this vast and cross-disciplinary mental pool of resources beckons the infrastructure of what we call our “own” “original” ideas. The notion, of course, is not new — some of history’s greatest minds across art, science, poetry, and cinema have articulated it, directly or indirectly, in one form or another: Arthur Koestler’s famous theory of “bisociation” explained creativity through the combination of elements that don’t ordinarily belong together; graphic designer Paula Scher likens creativity to a slot machine that aligns the seemingly random jumble of stuff in our heads into a suddenly miraculous combination; T. S. Eliot believed that the poet’s mind incubates fragmentary thoughts into beautiful ideas; the great Stephen Jay Gould maintained that connecting the seemingly unconnected is the secret of genius; Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press embodied this combinatorial creativity; even what we call “intuition” is based on the unconscious application of this very mental faculty.

The concept, in fact, was perhaps best explained by Albert Einstein, who termed it “combinatory play.” (Einstein famously came up with some of his best scientific ideas during his violin breaks.) From his Ideas and Opinions (public library) — the same invaluable volume that gave us the beloved physicist’s timeless wisdom on kindness and our shared existence — comes Einstein’s single most succinct articulation of how his mind works, driven by this powerful combinatorial creativity. The 1945 letter was written in response to French mathematician Jacques S. Hadamard’s survey of the mental processes of famous scientists, inspired by polymath Henri Poincaré’s famous meditation on the subject and published as An Essay on the Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field, with Einstein’s missive included as a “testimonial”:

My Dear Colleague:

In the following, I am trying to answer in brief your questions as well as I am able. I am not satisfied myself with those answers and I am willing to answer more questions if you believe this could be of any advantage for the very interesting and difficult work you have undertaken.

(A) The words or the language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought. The psychical entities which seem to serve as elements in thought are certain signs and more or less clear images which can be “voluntarily” reproduced and combined.

There is, of course, a certain connection between those elements and relevant logical concepts. It is also clear that the desire to arrive finally at logically connected concepts is the emotional basis of this rather vague play with the above-mentioned elements. But taken from a psychological viewpoint, this combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought — before there is any connection with logical construction in words or other kinds of signs which can be communicated to others.

(B) The above-mentioned elements are, in my case, of visual and some of muscular type. Conventional words or other signs have to be sought for laboriously only in a secondary stage, when the mentioned associative play is sufficiently established and can be reproduced at will.

(C) According to what has been said, the play with the mentioned elements is aimed to be analogous to certain logical connections one is searching for.

(D) Visual and motor. In a stage when words intervene at all, they are, in my case, purely auditive, but they interfere only in a secondary stage, as already mentioned.

(E) It seems to me that what you call full consciousness is a limit case which can never be fully accomplished. This seems to me connected with the fact called the narrowness of consciousness (Enge des Bewusstseins).

Ideas and Opinions is superb from cover to cover, the kind of book you return to again and again, only to find new layers of meaning with each reading. Complement it with this vintage technique for producing ideas and Einstein on the secret of learning anything.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

13 AUGUST, 2013

Religion vs. Humanism: Isaac Asimov on Science and Spirituality

By:

“The soft bonds of love are indifferent to life and death.”

Science and religion have a long history of friction as diametric opposites. But some of humanity’s greatest minds have found in science itself a rich source of spirituality, from Albert Einstein’s meditation on whether scientists pray to Richard Feynman’s ode to the universe to Carl Sagan on the reverence of science to Bucky Fuller’s scientific rendition of The Lord’s Prayer to Richard Dawkins on the magic of reality.

Here comes a wonderful addition from the mind of beloved science fiction author Isaac Asimov, found in the altogether indispensable It’s Been a Good Life (public library) — a revealing selection of Asimov’s letters, diary entries, and his three prior autobiographies, In Memory Yet Green (1979), In Joy Still Felt (1980), and the posthumously published I. Asimov: A Memoir (1994), edited by his spouse, Janet Jeppson Asimov, a decade after his death.

Asimov succinctly recapitulates his philosophy:

I have never, not for one moment, been tempted toward religion of any kind. The fact is that I feel no spiritual void. I have my philosophy of life, which does not include any aspect of the supernatural and which I find totally satisfying. I am, in short, a rationalist and believe only that which reason tells me is so.

Indeed, rather than suspending his conviction in the ether of vacant self-righteousness, it is with amiable reason and clever logic that Asimov responds to his inquisitors: Shortly after writing Asimov’s Guide to the Bible, he appeared on the David Frost Show and delivered his irreverent wit in full brilliance when badgered with the G-question. The author recounts:

[Frost] said, with neither warning nor preamble, “Dr. Asimov, do you believe in God?”

“That rather took my breath away. It was a dreadful way of putting a person on the spot. To answer honestly, “No,” with millions of people watching, could arouse a great deal of controversy I didn’t feel much need of. Yet I couldn’t lie, either. I played for time, in order to find a way out.

He said, “Dr. Asimov, do you believe in God?”

And I said, “Whose?”

He said, a little impatiently, “Come, come, Dr. Asimov, you know very well whose. Do you believe in the Western God, the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition?”

Still playing for time, I said, “I haven’t given it much thought.”

Frost said, “I can’t believe that, Dr. Asimov.” He then nailed me to the wall by saying, “Surely a man of your diverse intellectual interests and wide-ranging curiosity must have tried to find God?”

(Eureka! I had it! The very nails had given me my opening!) I said, smiling pleasantly, “God is much more intelligent than I am — let him try to find me.”

Painting by Rowena Morrill

Above all, however, Asimov was an unrelenting humanist:

I’ve never been particularly careful about what label I placed on my beliefs. I believe in the scientific method and the rule of reason as a way of understanding the natural Universe. I don’t believe in the existence of entities that cannot be reached by such a method and such a rule and that are therefore “supernatural.” I certainly don’t believe in the mythologies of our society, in Heaven and Hell, in God and angels, in Satan and demons. I’ve thought of myself as an “atheist,” but that simply described what I didn’t believe in, not what I did.

Gradually, though, I became aware that there was a movement called “humanism,” which used that name because, to put it most simply, Humanists believe that human beings produced the progressive advance of human society and also the ills that plague it. They believe that if the ills are to be alleviated, it is humanity that will have to do the job. They disbelieve in the influence of the supernatural on either the good or the bad of society, on either its ills or the alleviation of those ills.

He revisits the subject of self-classification in a letter to a friend, articulating the same gripe with the label “atheist” that Brian Cox would come to echo decades later, and writes:

Have I told you that I prefer “rationalism” to “atheism”? The word “atheist,” meaning “no God,” is negative and defeatist. It says what you don’t believe and puts you in an eternal position of defense. “Rationalism” on the other hand states what you DO believe; that, that which can be understood in the light of reason. The question of God and other mystical objects-of-faith are outside reason and therefore play no part in rationalism and you don’t have to waste your time in either attacking or defending that which you rule out of your philosophy altogether.

Speaking to the core belief that the unknown is a source of wonder rather than fear, a fundamental driver of science, Asimov allows for the possibility that his own convictions about the nonexistence of “god” might be wrong, with a playful wink at Bertrand Russell:

There is nothing frightening about an eternal dreamless sleep. Surely it is better than eternal torment in Hell and eternal boredom in Heaven. And what if I’m mistaken? The question was asked of Bertrand Russell, the famous mathematician, philosopher, and outspoken atheist. “What if you died,” he was asked, “and found yourself face to face with God? What then?”

And the doughty old champion said, “I would say, ‘Lord, you should have given us more evidence.’”

But Asimov’s philosophy shines with its fullest heart in these beautiful words penned at the end of his life, at once validating and invalidating the mortality paradox:

The soft bonds of love are indifferent to life and death. They hold through time so that yesterday’s love is part of today’s and the confidence in tomorrow’s love is also part of today’s. And when one dies, the memory lives in the other, and is warm and breathing. And when both die — I almost believe, rationalist though I am — that somewhere it remains, indestructible and eternal, enriching all of the universe by the mere fact that once it existed.

It’s Been a Good Life is excellent in its entirety. Complement it with Asimov on science and creativity in education and the author’s endearing fan mail to young Carl Sagan.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

07 AUGUST, 2013

Gorgeous

By:

“This culture wants little boys to dream only of baseball, trucks, and trains. This culture has no room for little boys who want to be gorgeous.”

A recent Slate article on a supportive camp environment for gender-variant “princess boys” elicited some of the most heartbreakingly ignorant and intolerant comments I’ve ever encountered on the internet, an ugly mixture of stubborn self-righteousness and complete failure of compassion. It reminded me of an exquisite letter I had heard read years ago on Tara Brach’s fantastic mindfulness podcast, sent to The Sun magazine by reader Erika Trafton from El Cerrito, California in September of 2010:

“Am I GOR-GEOUS?” my child asks, drawing the word out like pulled taffy.

“Yes,” I say, “you are.”

The pink and teal dress is probably made of highly flammable material, some chemist’s approximation of tulle and satin. Pudgy fingers decorated with pink polish trace the sequins on the bodice. “I love this!” A giant pair of bubble-gum pink wings flap slowly. Little feet dance in sparkly red slippers. “I’m just like a real princess!”

“Yes,” I say, “you are.”

Thick blond hair, blue eyes, rosy cheeks, flawless skin. This child is the American epitome of beauty.

This child, my son.

He is four years old and prefers to wear dresses. Maybe it is a phase, maybe not. Even as I wonder how I produced such an angelic-looking creature, I wish he would put on some pants and go back to playing with toy tractors — not because it matters to me (it doesn’t) but because I am already hearing in my head the name-calling he will face in kindergarten. Many adults already seem a bit disturbed by the dresses. Strangers utter awkward apologies when they realize he’s not female.

This culture wants little boys to dream only of baseball, trucks, and trains. This culture has no room for little boys who want to be gorgeous.

He picks up a parasol a neighbor gave him and opens it jauntily over his shoulder. “Am I beautiful?” he asks.

I sweep him into my arms and plant a kiss on his cheek.

“Always.”

Boy at 'You Are You' camp rehearses his fashion show ta-dah moment.

(Image: Lindsay Morris via Slate)

Complement with Andrew Solomon’s beautiful meditation on gender identity and unconditional love and Jennifer Finney Boylan’s fantastic memoir on transgender parenting.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.