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Posts Tagged ‘science’

20 MAY, 2013

How Creativity in Humor, Art, and Science Works: Arthur Koestler’s Theory of Bisociation

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“The discoveries of yesterday are the truisms of tomorrow, because we can add to our knowledge but cannot subtract from it.”

At a recent TED salon, New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff presented his theory of humor as “a conflict of synergies,” which reminded me of a wonderful concept from Arthur Koestler’s seminal 1964 anatomy of creativity, The Act Of Creation (public library). Koestler coins the term bisociation to illustrate the combinatorial nature of creativity — the reason it operates like a slot machine, relies on the mind’s pattern-recognition machinery, and requires the synthesis of raw material into “new” ideas.

Koestler diagrams his theory and explains:

The pattern underlying [the creative act] is the perceiving of a situation or idea, L, in two self-consistent but habitually incompatible frames of reference, M1 and M2. The event L, in which the two intersect, is made to vibrate simultaneously on two different wavelengths, as it were. While this unusual situation lasts, L is not merely linked to one associative context, but bisociated with two.

I have coined the term ‘bisociation’ in order to make a distinction between the routine skills of thinking on a single ‘plane,’ as it were, and the creative act, which … always operates on more than one plane. The former can be called single-minded, the latter double-minded, transitory state of unstable equilibrium where the balance of both emotion and thought is disturbed.

Koestler goes on to discuss the forms this creative instability takes in humor, art, science. In a chapter on the varieties of humor, he explores how the bisociation theory of creativity can be applied to analyzing “any specimen of humor”:

The procedure to be followed is this: first, determine the nature of M1 and M2 . . . by discovering the type of logic, the rules of the game, which govern each matrix. Often these rules are implied, as hidden axioms, and taken for granted — the code must be de-coded. The rest is easy: find the ‘link’ — the focal concept, word, or situation which is bisociated with both mental planes; lastly, define the character of the emotive charge and make a guess regarding the unconscious elements that it may contain.

He then applies this technique to various types of humor. The pun is one example of bisociation in action:

The pun is the bisociation of a single phonetic form with two meanings — two strings of thought tied together by an acoustic knot. Its immense popularity with children, its prevalence in certain forms of mental disorder (‘punning mania’), and its frequent occurrence in the dream, indicate the profound unconscious appeal of association based on pure sound.

He then examines how bisociation manifests in science vs. art:

In the discoveries of science, the bisociated matrices merge in a new synthesis, which in turn merges with others on a higher level of the hierarchy; it is a process of successive confluences towards unitary, universal laws. . . . The progress of art does not display this overall ‘river-delta’ pattern. The matrices with which the artist operates are chosen for their sensory qualities and emotive potential; his bisociative act is a juxtaposition of these planes or aspects of experience, not their fusion in an intellectual synthesis — to which, by their very nature, they do not lend themselves. This difference is reflected in the quasi-linear progression of science, compared with the quasi-timeless character of art, its continual re-statement of basic patterns of experience in changing idioms. If the explanations of science are like streams joining rivers, rivers moving towards the unifying ocean, the explanations of art may be compared to the tracing back of a ripple in the stream to its source in a distant mountain-spring.

A pillar of Koestler’s theory is the difference between bisociation and mere association, and the criteria for true creativity inhabit that very difference:

The term ‘bisociation’ is meant to point to the independent, autonomous character of the matrices which are brought into contact in the creative act, whereas associative thought operates among members of a single pre-existing matrix.

In examining “the criteria which distinguish bisociative originality from associative routine,” Koestler singles out the most important litmus test:

The previous independence of the components that went into a ‘good combination’ [is] a measure of achievement. Historically speaking, the frames of reference of magnetism and electricity, of physics and chemistry, of corpuscles and waves, developed separately and independently, both in the individual and the collective mind, until the frontiers broke down. And this breakdown was not caused by establishing gradual, tentative connections between individual members of the separate matrices, but by the amalgamation of two realms as wholes, and the integration of the laws of both realms into a unified code of greater universality. Multiple discoveries and priority disputes do not diminish the objective, historical novelty produced by these bisociative events — they merely prove that the time was ripe for that particular synthesis.

Koestler, as we know, was an enormous advocate of the importance of ripeness in the creative process. He then maps bisociation onto the infrastructure and hierarchies of knowledge:

Minor, subjective bisociative processes do occur on all levels, and are the main vehicle of untutored learning. But objective novelty comes into being only when subjective originality operates on the highest level of the hierarchies of existing knowledge.

He then turns to the psychology underpinning phenomena like “generational amnesia” — our tendency to take for granted ideas once they are in place, and to forget what the world was like before they existed:

The discoveries of yesterday are the truisms of tomorrow, because we can add to our knowledge but cannot subtract from it. When two frames of reference have both become integrated into one it becomes difficult to imagine that previously they existed separately. The synthesis looks deceptively self-evident, and does not betray the imaginative effort needed to put its component parts together.

But this, he argues, is where art and science once again diverge:

In this respect the artist gets a better deal than the scientist. The changes of style in the representative arts, the discoveries which altered our frames of perception, stand out as great landmarks for all to see. The true creativity of the innovator in the arts is more dramatically evident and more easily distinguished from the routine of the mere practitioner than in the sciences, because art (and humor) operate primarily through the transitory juxtaposition of matrices, whereas science achieves their permanent integration into a a cumulative and hierarchic order.

There is, however, another important criterion that distinguishes true creativity, a sort of unconscious processing similar to what T. S. Eliot famously observed. Koestler writes:

[The creative act] involves several levels of consciousness. In problem-solving pre- and extra-conscious guidance makes itself increasingly felt as the difficulty increases; but in the truly creative act both in science and art, underground levels of the hierarchy which are normally inhibited in the waking state play a decisive part.

One of the inevitable byproducts of bisociation, he argues, is the demolition of existing dogma:

The re-structuring of mental organization effected by the new discovery implies that the creative act has a revolutionary or destructive side. The path of history is strewn with its victims: the discarded isms of art, the epicycles and phlogistons of science.

Koestler admonishes against over-reliance on habit, which, even though William James may have framed it as the key to happiness, is the tool of association rather than bisociation and thus the enemy of the creative act:

The skills of reasoning rely on habit, governed by well-established rules of the game; the ‘reasonable person’ — used as a standard norm in English common law — is level-headed instead of multi-level-headed; adaptive and not destructive; an enlightened conservative, not a revolutionary; willing to learn under proper guidance, but unable to be guided by his dreams.

He concludes the chapter by summing up the distinguishing features of associative and bisociative thought, or habit and originality, “somewhat brutally” in a tally of contrasts:

The Act Of Creation is absolutely fantastic — necessary, even — in its entirety. It will change the way you think about everything, including thinking itself.

River delta image: “The Lagoon” by Jamie Meunier

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17 MAY, 2013

Gorgeous Black-and-White Photos of Vintage NASA Facilities

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From the wind tunnels the made commercial aviation possible to the analog machines that preceded the computer, a visual history of the spirit of innovation presently unworthy of the government’s dollar.

Among the great joys of spending countless hours rummaging through archives is the occasional serendipitous discovery of something absolutely wonderful: Case in point, these gorgeous black-and-white photographs of vintage NASA (and NASA predecessor NACA) facilities, which I found semi-accidentally in NASA’s public domain image archive. Taken between the 1920s and 1950s, when the golden age of space travel was still a beautiful dream, decades before the peak of the Space Race, and more than half a century before the future of space exploration had sunk to the bottom of the governmental priorities barrel, these images exude the stark poeticism of Berenice Abbott’s science photographs and remind us, as Isaac Asimov did, of NASA’s enormous value right here on Earth.

NACA's first wind tunnel, located at Langley Field in Hampton, VA, was an open-circuit wind tunnel completed in 1920. Essentially a replica of the ten-year-old tunnel at the British National Physical Laboratory, it was a low-speed facility which involved the one-twentieth-scale models. Because tests showed that the models compared poorly with the actual aircraft by a factor of 20, a suggestion was made to construct a sealed airtight chamber in which air could be compressed to the same extent as the model being tested. The new tunnel, the Variable Density Tunnel was the first of its kind and has become a National Historic Landmark. (April 1, 1921)

Pressure tank of the Variable Density Tunnel at the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company, Hampton, VA. Photograph courtesy Northrop-Grumman Shipbuilding-Newport News (February 3, 1922). The tank was shipped by barge to NACA, now NASA Langley Research Center, in June 1922.

Workmen in the patternmakers' shop manufacture a wing skeleton for a Thomas-Morse MB-3 airplane for pressure distribution studies in flight. (June 1, 1922)

A Langley researcher ponders the future, in mid-1927, of the Sperry M-1 Messenger, the first full-scale airplane tested in the Propeller Research Tunnel. Standing in the exit cone is Elton W. Miller, Max M. Munk's successor as chief of aerodynamics. (1927)

16-foot-high speed wind tunnel downstream view through cooling tower section. (February 8, 1942)

Free-flight investigation of 1/4-scale dynamic model of XFV-1 in NACA Ames 40x80ft wind tunnel. (August 18, 1942)

Engine on Torque Stand at the Aircraft Engine Research Laboratory in Cleveland, Ohio, now known as the John H. Glenn Research Center at Lewis Field. Torque is the twisting motion produced by a spinning object. (April 15, 1944)

Detail view of Schlieren setup in the 1 x 3 Foot Supersonic Wind Tunnel. (October 26, 1945)

Boeing B-29 long range bomber model was tested for ditching characteristics in the Langley Tank No. 2 (Early 1946)

Looking down the throat of the world's largest tunnel, 40 by 80 feet, located at Ames Aeronautical Laboratory, Moffett Field, California. The camera is stationed in the tunnel's largest section, 173 feet wide by 132 feet high. Here at top speed the air, driven by six 40-foot fans, is moving about 35 to 40 miles per hour. The rapid contraction of the throat (or nozzle) speeds up this air flow to more than 250 miles per hour in the oval test section, which is 80 feet wide and 40 feet high. The tunnel encloses 900 tons of air, 40 tons of which rush through the throat per second at maximum speed. (1947)

Analog Computing Machine in the Fuel Systems Building. This is an early version of the modern computer. The device is located in the Engine Research Building at the Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory, now John H. Glenn Research Center, Cleveland Ohio. (September 28, 1949)

Guide vanes in the 19-foot Pressure Wind Tunnel at Langley Aeronautical Laboratory, National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, form an ellipse 33 feet high and 47 feet wide. The 23 vanes force the air to turn corners smoothly as it rushes through the giant passages. If vanes were omitted, the air would pile up in dense masses along the outside curves, like water rounding a bend in a fast brook. Turbulent eddies would interfere with the wind tunnel tests, which require a steady flow of fast, smooth air. (March 15, 1950

24-foot-diameter swinging valve at various stages of opening and closing in the 10ft x 10ft Supersonic Wind Tunnel. (May 17, 1956)

A television camera is focused by NACA technician on a ramjet engine model through the schlieren optical windows of the 10 x 10 Foot Supersonic Wind Tunnel's test section. Closed-circuit television enables aeronautical research scientists to view the ramjet, used for propelling missiles, while the wind tunnel is operating at speeds from 1500 to 2500 mph. (8.570) The tests were performed at the Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory, now John H. Glenn Research Center. (April 21, 1957)

8ft x 6ft Supersonic Wind Tunnel Test-Section showing changes made in Stainless Steel walls with 17 inch inlet model installation. The model is the ACN Nozzle model used for aircraft engines. The Supersonic Wind Tunnel is located in the Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory, now John H. Glenn Research Center. (August 31, 1957)

The Gimbal Rig, formally known as the MASTIF of Multiple Axis Space Test Inertia Facility, was engineered to simulate the tumbling and rolling motions of a space capsule and train the Mercury astronauts to control roll, pitch and yaw by activating nitrogen jets, used as brakes and bring the vehicle back into control. This facility was built at the Lewis Research Center, now John H. Glenn Research Center at Lewis Field. (October 29, 1957)

Lockheed C-141 model in the Transonic Dynamics Tunnel (TDT). By the late 1940s, with the advent of relatively thin, flexible aircraft wings, the need was recognized for testing dynamically and elastically scaled models of aircraft. In 1954, NASA's predecessor agency, the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA), began converting the Langley 19-foot Pressure Tunnel for dynamic testing of aircraft structures. The old circular test section was reduced to 16 x 16 feet, and slotted walls were added for transonic operation. The TDT was provided with special oscillator vanes upstream of the test section to create controlled gusty air to simulate aircraft response to gusts. A model support system was devised that freed the model to pitch and plunge as the wings started oscillating in response to the fluctuating airstream. The TDT was completed in 1959. It was the world's first aeroelastic testing tunnel. (November 16, 1962)

Alas, the names of the photographers — as is often the case with creators working on the government dollar — were not preserved. If you recognize any, get in touch and help credit them.

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16 MAY, 2013

Wild Ones: What an Obscure Endangered Butterfly Teaches Us About Parenthood & Being Human

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“Maybe you have to believe in the value of everything to believe in the value of anything.”

Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America (public library) by journalist Jon Mooallem isn’t the typical story designed to make us better by making us feel bad, to scare us into behaving, into environmental empathy; Mooallem’s is not the self-righteous tone of capital-K knowing typical of many environmental activists but the scientist’s disposition of not-knowing, the poet’s penchant for “negative capability.” Rather than ready-bake answers, he offers instead directions of thought and signposts for curiosity and, in the process, somehow gently moves us a little bit closer to our better selves, to a deep sense of, as poet Diane Ackerman beautifully put it in 1974, “the plain everythingness of everything, in cahoots with the everythingness of everything else.”

In the introduction, Mooallem recalls looking at his four-year-old daughter Isla’s menagerie of stuffed animals and the odd cultural disconnect they mime:

[T]hey were foraging on the pages of every bedtime story, and my daughter was sleeping in polar bear pajamas under a butterfly mobile with a downy snow owl clutched to her chin. Her comb handle was a fish. Her toothbrush handle was a whale. She cut her first tooth on a rubber giraffe.

Our world is different, zoologically speaking — less straightforward and more grisly. We are living in the eye of a great storm of extinction, on a planet hemorrhaging living things so fast that half of its nine million species could be gone by the end of the century. At my place, the teddy bears and giggling penguins kept coming. But I didn’t realize the lengths to which humankind now has to go to keep some semblance of actual wildlife in the world. As our own species has taken over, we’ve tried to retain space for at least some of the others being pushed aside, shoring up their chances of survival. But the threats against them keep multiplying and escalating. Gradually, America’s management of its wild animals has evolved, or maybe devolved, into a surreal kind of performance art.

Yet even conservationists’ small successes — crocodile species bouncing back from the brink of extinction, peregrine falcons filling the skies once again — even these pride points demonstrate the degree to which we’ve assumed — usurped, even — a puppeteer role in the theater of organic life. Citing a scientist who lamented that “right now, nature is unable to stand on its own,” Mooallem writes:

We’ve entered what some scientists are calling the Anthropocene — a new geologic epoch in which human activity, more than any other force, steers change on the planet. Just as we’re now causing the vast majority of extinctions, the vast majority of endangered species will only survive if we keep actively rigging the world around them in their favor. … We are gardening the wilderness. The line between conservation and domestication has blurred.

He finds himself uncomfortably straddling these two animal worlds — the idyllic little-kid’s dreamland and the messy, fragile ecosystem of the real world:

Once I started looking around, I noticed the same kind of secondhand fauna that surrounds my daughter embellishing the grown-up world, too — not just the conspicuous bald eagle on flagpoles and currency, or the big-cat and raptor names we give sports teams and computer operating systems, but the whale inexplicably breaching in the life-insurance commercial, the glass dolphin dangling from a rearview mirror, the owl sitting on the rump of a wild boar silk-screened on a hipster’s tote bag. I spotted wolf after wolf airbrushed on the sides of old vans, and another wolf, painted against a full moon on purple velvet, greeting me over the toilet in a Mexican restaurant bathroom. … [But] maybe we never outgrow the imaginary animal kingdom of childhood. Maybe it’s the one we are trying to save.

[…]

From the very beginning, America’s wild animals have inhabited the terrain of our imagination just as much as they‘ve inhabited the actual land. They are free-roaming Rorschachs, and we are free to spin whatever stories we want about them. The wild animals always have no comment.

So he sets out to better understand the dynamics of the cultural forces that pull these worlds together with shared abstractions and rip them apart with the brutal realities of environmental collapse. His quest, in which little Isla is a frequent companion, sends him on the trails of three endangered species — a bear, a butterfly, and a bird — which fall on three different points on the spectrum of conservation reliance, relying to various degrees on the mercy of the very humans who first disrupted “the machinery of their wildness.” On the way, he encounters a remarkably vibrant cast of characters — countless passionate citizen scientists, a professional theater actor who, after an HIV diagnosis, became a professional butterfly enthusiast, and even Martha Stewart — and finds in their relationship with the environment “the same creeping disquiet about the future” that Mooallem himself came to know when he became a father. In fact, the entire project was inextricably linked to his sense of fatherly responsibility:

I’m part of a generation that seems especially resigned to watching things we encountered in childhood disappear: landline telephones, newspapers, fossil fuels. But leaving your kids a world without wild animals feels like a special tragedy, even if it’s hard to rationalize why it should.

The truth is that most of us will never experience the Earth’s endangered animals as anything more than beautiful ideas. They are figments of our shared imagination, recognizable from TV, but stalking places — places out there — to which we have no intention of going. I wondered how that imaginative connection to wildlife might fray or recalibrate as we’re forced to take more responsibility for its wildness.

It also occurred to me early on that all three endangered species I was getting to know could be gone by the time Isla is my age. It’s possible that, thirty years from now, they’ll have receded into the realm of dinosaurs, or the realm of Pokémon, for that matter — fantastical creatures whose names and diets little kids memorize from books. And it’s possible, too, I realized, that it might not even make a difference, that there would still be polar bears on footsy pajamas and sea turtle-shaped gummy vitamins — that there could be so much actual destruction without ever meaningfully upsetting the ecosystems in our minds.

In fact, this “generational amnesia” is what Mooallem was hoping to prevent by showing Isla endangered animals in the wild, helping her learn about a baseline that preceded her and, in the process, learning about a baseline that preceded him — an antidote to “shifting baseline syndrome,” the concept coined in 1995 by fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly, positing that each subsequent generation of scientists uses wildlife populations at the time they entered the field as the baseline, leveling the awareness of how much these populations may have plummeted between that point and the “baseline” of the generation before. In humans, psychologist Peter H. Kahn, Jr. has termed this phenomenon “environmental generational amnesia” — our tendency to adopt the natural world we come to know in childhood as our psychological baseline against which we measure all change and which defines our expectation of how the world should be.

One of Mooallem’s missions takes him to Antioch Dunes, one of America’s tiniest but most rigorously studied wildlife reserves, home to the little-known and gravely endangered Lange’s metalmark butterfly, which inhabits no other locale on Earth. In an effort to establish a baseline for the butterfly’s conservation, the government seeks to record the species “peak count” — the highest number of butterflies spotted on a single afternoon. But with plummeting environmental subsidies and national park budgets, much of the responsibility falls on volunteer citizen scientists. So, one afternoon in August, Mooallem heads to Antioch Dunes as one of sixteen volunteers — or, more precisely, fifteen enthusiasts there voluntarily, ranging from elderly couples to a college student with a Day-Glo tiger tattoo to a spiritually reborn former Chevron executive, and one man doing mandatory community service.

Once the leader gives the signal, the frantic counting unfolds amidst excited shouting and counter-clicking. Mooallem recalls the exhilaration and glory of citizen science:

It was a monstrously eventful and confusing ten seconds. And in that pandemonium, it was immediately clear just how unscientific this process was going to be. The very baseline understanding of the species’ health was being provided by us, a bunch of civilians, who had only just been shown a photo of the bug a moment ago. And yet this is a common situation. As the budget for protecting endangered species and managing wildlife has stayed relatively stagnant, but the workload has exploded, more of that work has fallen to a standing army of curious and often retired volunteers—citizen scientists whom Princeton ecologist David Wilcove has compared to volunteer firefighters. In Maine, they count moose and frogs. In Ohio, they snatch Lake Erie water snakes out of the water and measure them.

But most powerful of all was that moment of transmutation when the butterfly metamorphosed from an abstraction to a living thing:

I squatted and looked at the butterfly for a long time. It was the size of a quarter. The wings were rimmed in black with white speckles, then gave way to sunbursts of deep orange. I’d seen lots of photos of the species before that afternoon, but the butterfly was always blown up and perfectly centered in the shot. Looking at it now for the first time in the wild—seeing it as a tiny blotch on a big leaf, with so much air and space and civilization around it—brought a deflating new sense of scale. The bug seemed vulnerable to the point of helplessness. You wanted somehow to zoom in, to make it feel important and central again — a worthy protagonist of the bizarre, generations-long saga that’s played out at Antioch Dunes on its behalf.

You wanted to make the butterfly look big again.

Much of what’s driving our perception of animals as abstracts rather than real beings, Mooallem argues, is rooted in the symbolic narratives of our cultural mythology — the plethora of anthropomorphic animals in children’s books to the propaganda of the anti-suffragist movement. He writes:

There was no shortage of butterflies in Isla’s life. They spread their sequined wings on her favorite hoodie and flitted out of sticker books, winding up on the walls. By now, the wild animals were everywhere in our house—the geese on her quilt, the fawn on her wall. They seemed to be spontaneously generating, like a cuddly infestation, spreading through every storybook on her shelf. I read that one researcher, pulling a random sample of a hundred recent children’s books, found only eleven that did not have animals in them. And what really struck me as strange was how often those critters have almost nothing to do with nature at all, but are only arbitrary stand-ins for people: the ungainly pig that yearns to be a figure skater; the squirrels that look disapprovingly at the bear who cannot stop biting her nails; a family of raccoons that bakes hamentashen for the family of beavers at Purim. It had all started to feel slightly insane, and I was hungry for an explanation. As Kierán Suckling, the executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, had pointed out to me, “Right when someone is learning to be human, we surround them with animals.”

What makes Mooallem’s narrative particularly compelling is that he approaches the subject not with the familiar agenda of a conservationist — though he is deeply concerned with conservation — but with the mindset of a philosopher, a student of the relationship between self and universe, sharing in the same awe that drove Henry Miller to ponder the meaning of life and urge us to “leave this dear fucked-up planet a little healthier than when we were born.” Mooallem reflects:

For me, wildlife has always been a reminder of all the mystery that exists outside my own experience — out there, beyond the suburban rec room I felt trapped in as a kid, watching Wild America on PBS. There’s a special amazement that comes from watching a grizzly smack a salmon out of a river, or even from seeing just how hideous certain bottom-dwelling fish look. It enlarges your sense of the world, the way looking out from the top of a tall hill does. It’s the perspective that William Temple Hornaday feared American kids would lose if they only stared into microscopes instead of strolling through the woods with a field notebook.

In the end, rather than telling us what to think and how to feel, Mooallem invites us simply to think and to feel something:

In Antioch … people were clinging to the last Lange’s metalmarks — believing in the butterfly, and clapping as hard as they could, so that, like Tinker Bell, the species wouldn’t disappear from the stage. But what if the greater, more progressive challenge was to work through the guilt and knowingly let the butterfly go?

In the end, part of me wants to argue for that. But, then again, maybe letting go once only leads to more letting go. Maybe you have to believe in the value of everything to believe in the value of anything. Maybe giving in a little only hastens the terminal disenchantment. . .

At times poignant, at times playful, at times provocative, Wild Ones is altogether fantastic.

Public domain images via Flickr Commons

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