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Posts Tagged ‘science’

12 JULY, 2012

A Vintage Scientific Paper Published as a 38-Stanza Poem

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Verse and vengeance in vintage Australian astrophysics.

Remember last week’s first-ever poem published in a scientific journal? Turns out, it wasn’t the first. Reader Julia Deneva, a Cornell astronomer and fellow Bulgarian, alerts me to The Detection of Shocked Co/ Emission from G333.6-0.2 by New South Wales physicist J. W. V. Storey, a paper published as a 38-stanza poem, appeared in The Proceedings of the Astronomical Society of Australia in 1984. It was as much an act of creativity as it was one of vengeance. Deneva writes:

The unfortunate astronomer who got scheduled last at the annual meeting of said society decided to take revenge and gave his talk in verse — and later submitted it for publication.

The paper-poem is prefaced by the following hand-written note in the margin beside the first stanza:

It is, needless to say, just as geekily charming as it sounds:

I wrote my abstract, sent it in,
With words that don’t offend.
Imagine my horror to find that I
Am scheduled at the end.

Let me say, to be last speaker,
There are very few things worse.
And so this talk, to get revenge,
Will be entirely in verse.

The subject I address today
Is that of star formation.
And what we’ve found out recently
About the situation.

Stars start out as clouds of gas and
Dust and bits of spinning stuff.
Collapsing gravitationally
Until they’re dense enough.

They form themselves in little lumps,
(Or so says this bloke Jeans).
‘Dynamic Instabilities’
Whatever that term means.

A protostar is thus created,
Igniting nuclear fuel.
Before too long the star begins
To really lose its cool.

A massive wind begins to blow;
No one’s quite sure why.
But it’s quite clear the gas and stuff
Begins to really fly.

Well, from all this result what’s called
Protostellar outflow.
Bipolar, fast, and hot as hell —
We see it in CO.

But radio can’t tell us much;
There are but few transitions,
And cool CO’s so common, it
Confuses most positions.

So, most of what we know of this
Comes from the infrared —
That bit of spectrum in the middle
That decent people dread

Way back in 1976,
2 Micron lines were found
In Orion where, I’m sure you know,
Molecules abound.

Now everyone was most surprised,
These lines put out much power.
No one thought they’d be that strong —
Not even Neugebauer.

The lines were due to hydrogen
Molecules, and they
Don’t emit much until heated
To at least two thousand K

Well, people studied this for years,
Finding H2 everywhere.
But still these lines don’t tell you what
Density is there.

What we need’s another line:
Density dependent.
This view needs no genius
In order to defend it.

I’ve talked for several minutes now,
(I’ve half an hour to go),
I’m sure you’re most surprised I haven’t
Mentioned yet the KAO

Carbon monoxide, really hot,
Has heaps of good transitions
Depending critically upon
The density conditions.

These lines are in the far — IR,
But wait — here’s the best bit —
To see them you will need to use
The KAO, you guessed it!

In 1980, from the plane, we
Found it in Orion,
But no more CO could we find
Despite long hours of flyin’.

So models of Orion’s shock
Were looking really grand,
But it remained the only source
We claimed to understand.

We needed several other sources,
All of which we’d then compare.
But when we looked for shocked CO,
We always found it wasn’t there.

And so I searched for southern sources
Of this shocked H2,
And found it, in G333
Point six, minus, naught point two.

It’s really very, very bright
And made us all quite happy.
The data’s good, the lines are strong
(Though the slide don’t look real snappy.)

So, if we want to search again
For shocked CO, and wouldn’t you?
What better place than G333
Point six, minus, naught point two!

The problem with this new-found source,
I hardly need to warn you,
Is that it’s too far south to see
From sunny California.

And so to us the Kuiper came;
In May last year it made it.
The cost was astronomical,
But NASA mainly paid it.

Thus we made a set of flights
From Richmond Airforce Base.
One such flight is shown right here:
Our tracks’s this dotted trace.

How the instrument is made
Upon this slide is told;
It uses liquid helium
To keep all these bits cold.

Well, here’s the data — please don’t laugh,
It often looks this way.
A few times through the VAX and then
We’ll publish it as Ap J.

The line is there, I kid you not,
This dip here’s just the sky.
To see the peak you simply need
A good impartial eye.

Least-squares fitting gives a curve
From which derive the facts.
(Oh, let me thank the AAO
For lending me their VAX.)

Vlsr is fifty-three.
It’s pleasing, as you see.
The radio line velocities
More or less agree.

Intensity is really weak:
It’s two point nought by ten.
To the minus eighteenth power
(In watts per square cm.)

That’s thirty times as weak as we
Detected in Orion.
No wonder it took several years
Of concentrated tryin’

Well, as you see, I don’t yet have
Any numbers clear
For density, and things like that.
(It’s only been a year.)

But now we have not one, but two
CO sources, it is true:
Orion, and this G333
Point six, minus, naught point two.

In fact, the sources now are three
Because, again last May,
The very next flight that we did
Found CO in Sgr A.

Well, thank you all for listening
(Though some of you have slept)
I wonder now, will Dick McGee
This manuscript accept?

Now that’s a whole new layer the creativity-in-science conversation.

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11 JULY, 2012

Carl Sagan’s Reading List

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Reverse-engineering one of the greatest minds of all time by his information diet.

“Success,” concluded this 1942 anatomy of inspiration, “depends on sufficient knowledge of the special subject, and a variety of extraneous knowledge to produce new and original combinations of ideas.” Few are the heroes of modern history more “successful” and inspired than the great Carl Sagan, and his 1954 reading list, part of his papers recently acquired by the Library of Congress, speaks to precisely this blend of wide-angle, cross-disciplinary curiosity and focused, in-field expertise — and is balanced with a healthy approach to reading and “non-reading”, with some books read “in whole” and others “in part.” (Sagan, as we know, was an avid advocate of books.)

Besides books immediately relevant to Sagan’s work as a scientist and educator in cosmology and astrophysics, he took great care to also touch on history, philosophy, religion, the arts, social science, and psychology. A small but revealing sample, fodder for your own cognitive bookshelf:

Wash down with Alan Turing’s reading list.

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10 JULY, 2012

North: How a Small Arctic Town Became a Global Epicenter of Climate Science

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A cinematic history of climate change by way of the North Pole.

From British filmmaker, designer, and storyteller Temujin Doran — who has previously delighted us with this cinematic homage to language, some advice to sink in slowly, a meditation on the art of protest, and a thoughtful take on the distortions of democracy — comes North, an exquisite short documentary about how Svalbard, an archipelago in the Arctic Circle, became an epicenter of climate change science after the Svalbard Act was signed in 1920, an international treaty recognizing Norwegian sovereignty over the islands and declaring the whole region a demilitarized zone.

Doran shot most of the footage during a residency in the Arctic Circle in 2010.

In 1969, as the Swiss were marveling at the hazel trees that had been flowering since January, two men stared back at the world from the surface of the moon and took a photograph of the blue-rimmed planet they lived on — a small fragile planet, all they had, wrapped in life, yet enveloped by war — perhaps the most beautiful image ever made.

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09 JULY, 2012

An Anatomy of Inspiration: A 1942 Guide to How Creativity Works

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“The true novelist, poet, musician, or artist is really a discoverer.”

Such is the labyrinth of literature: Some time ago, Dancing About Architecture: A Little Book of Creativity led me to the 1939 gem A Technique for Producing Ideas, through which I discovered one of the best things I’ve ever read, The Art of Scientific Investigation, which has in turned led me to An Anatomy of Inspiration (public library). Written by music historian Rosamund E. M. Harding (1899-1982) in 1942, this slim but potent volume sets out to reverse-engineer the mechanisms of creativity through the direct experiences of famous creators across art, science, and literature. From Tchaikovsky’s letters to Jane Austen’s diaries to Mark Twain’s daily routine as relayed by his daughter, Harding teases out the common threads of creation and weaves them together into a framework for optimizing creativity, stressing its combinatorial nature and its reliance on eclectic knowledge.

Originality depends on new and striking combinations of ideas. It is obvious therefore that the more a man knows the greater scope he has for arriving at striking combinations. And not only the more he knows about his own subject but the more he knows beyond it of other subjects. It is a fact that has not yet been sufficiently stressed that those persons who have risen to eminence in arts, letters or sciences have frequently possessed considerable knowledge of subjects outside their own sphere of activity.

Harding goes on to give a number of examples: Pasteur was a bachelor of literature in addition to being a doctor of science; James Watt rested his mind from honing the steam engine with archeology and poetry; Emmanuel Kant read classics, mathematics, physics, astronomy, metaphysics, law, geography, and travel; Goethe was a collector of art and science ephemera, and took a close interest in the engineering of canals, harbors, and tunnels; George Eliot was obsessed with philology:

Success depends on adequate knowledge: that is, it depends on sufficient knowledge of the special subject, and a variety of extraneous knowledge to produce new and original combinations of ideas. Technical skill must be so far developed that it is never a hindrance to the flow of ideas. The thinker does not sit down and say to himself: ‘now I am going to think out the relations between so and so.’ The process is not so much an active as a passive one. In short the thinker dreams over his subject.

Illustration from 'Inside the Rainbow: Russian Children's Literature 1920-35.' Click image for more.

One particularly interesting notion Harding puts forth is that of “fringe-ideas” — ideas on the periphery of the thinker’s particular inquiry, but resonant in tone and thus able to enhance and flow into the creative process:

[M]any ideas outside the subject become associated with it by a kind of interest association and acquire a similar tone. Thus they tend to become available at the same time as the ideas directly connected with the subject itself. The variety of interests tends to increase the richness of these extra ideas — ‘fringe-ideas’ — associated with the subject and thus to increase the possibilities of new and original combinations of thought.

Harding offers an articulate rebuttal of the genius-myth that modern neuroscience has since debunked:

The old-fashioned idea that in-born genius is enough by itself without a solid foundation of knowledge, is the reason why [famous creators] set themselves against the use of this term and their pupils against the state. Without the rock of knowledge genius has no foundation to make it durable. In the words of Eugene Delacroix: ‘Natural gifts unsupported by culture may be said to resemble the honeysuckle, charming in its grace, but without odour, that I see hanging from the trees in the forest.’

Echoing the importance of a gestational period of unconscious processing, Harding points to the art of the pause:

There is much to be said in favour of laying a work aside to mature; for one thing it gives the judgment time to operate; the mind is able to return to the work from time to time with a fresh outlook; and check it from many different angles. It follows also that if new ideas are to be set aside to develop and newly finished works left to ‘mature,’ there must be several things on hand at the same time in various stages of development. The continuity of attention is purposely shorted and interrupted partly on account of the rest this gives.

Harding goes on to prescribe the following method for capturing and harnessing ideas:

(i) The ideas occurring when in the glow of inspiration are (a) briefly noted down and (b) checked.

(ii) (a) The subject is worked upon immediately, the thinker being wholly absorbed by it to the exclusion for the time being of everything else, or (b) The subject is set aside to develop and is then worked upon after an interval of time has elapsed, (c) the first draft of the completed work or half of it perhaps is put aside to ‘mature’ for a while; then it is again revised before publication.

(iii) Working at two or more subjects concurrently.

(iv) Working up the imagination to the state of vision and sometimes an audition.

(v) Trusting to feeling (or intuition, instinct).

(vi) Procedure when baffled by a problem; namely, laying the work aside and turning to something else. This process may be repeated many times during the course of a long work of any kind.

Long before we knew the science of internal time, Harding offers a temporal recipe for creativity:

On the whole it appears that morning or night hours are the most favourable to the flow of ideas. It has been shown that a difficulty unsolvable the day before is sometimes solved in the morning upon waking. In fact the value of morning hours when the mind is fresh has long been recognized as a time to be consecrated to important work.

[…]

Night-time when awake is perhaps the best time of all for the flow of ideas…. The spiritual aloneness that comes over the thinker when the world sleeps, carrying with it the sense of detachment so essential to a creative thinker may account partly for the fascination and spell of working by night. It is, however, a spell, to be resisted since it may lead to practices dangerous alike to bodily and mental health: Byron, sometimes writing on Hollands and water, Schiller on strong coffee, wine-chocolate, old Rhenish, or Champagne, the poet Crabbe at one time on weak brandy and water and snuff, and Balzac on endless cups of black coffee.

Harding also points to the importance of bodily posture and the habit of motion that many creators cultivated: Dickens and Hugo were avid walkers during ideation; Burns often composed while “holding the plough”; Twain paced madly while dictating; Goethe, Scott, and Burns composed on horseback; Mozart preferred the back of a carriage; Lord Kelvin worked on his mathematical studies while traveling by train. Harding offers:

It is possible that the rhythmical movement of a carriage or train, of a horse and to a much lesser degree of walking, may produce on sensitive minds a slightly hypnotic effect conducive to that state of mind most favourable to the birth of ideas.

Corroborating Henri Poincaré’s insistence on invention as choice and George Lois’s conception of creativity as discovery, Harding writes:

The true novelist, poet, musician, or artist is really a discoverer. Ideas — the theme of a plot, a poem, a picture, a theme of music — come to him as a gift. The idea, ‘the seed-corn’ as Brahms called it, he allows to develop naturally. There may come a point where it branches in one or many directions; he is free at this point to follow one or other. And it is here and here only that the judgment or choice of the true artist may legitimately be exercised. In fact the artist is in much the same position as a gardener growing prize rose trees, who in order to produce beautiful roses lops off unwanted shoots and suckers.

With its countless anecdotes from some of mankind’s most remarkable creators and its synthesis of common ground, An Anatomy of Inspiration is, if not a blueprint to true creativity, at the very least an invaluable lens on the nooks and crannies of the creative process.

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