“I carry my thoughts about with me for a long time, sometimes a very long time, before I set them down.”
By Maria Popova
“Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos,” Mary Shelley observed in contemplating how creativity works in her preface to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein. “It is strange the way ideas come when they are needed,” the physicist Freeman Dyson wrote nearly two centuries later in his account of the “flash of illumination” by which creative breakthrough occurs. It is a chaotic strangeness familiar to every creative person, be she poet or physicist or composer, and yet we have expended millennia of thought and divination on trying to locate its source and foment its springing.
Again and again, we have arrived at one elemental aspect of it: the necessary period of unconscious incubation by which any creative achievement is hatched. “We do not know until the shell breaks what kind of egg we have been sitting on,” T.S. Eliot wrote of this incubation period. Oliver Sacks enumerated it among the three essential elements of creativity. E.B. White attributedCharlotte’s Web to it.
A beautiful articulation of both the conscious preparation and the unconscious incubation of creativity comes from Ludwig van Beethoven (December 16, 1770–March 26, 1827), as relayed by Johann Aloys Schlösser — a composer about twenty years Beethoven’s junior, who would go on to write the first biography of him. The slim book, published just after Beethoven’s death, was more a work of celebration and commemoration than one of scholarship. Schlösser himself considered it an offering of “love and esteem” for “the master of immortal sound.” But Schlösser had one insurmountable advantage over later biographers — he intersected with Beethoven in time and space, which granted him singular access and insight into the great composer’s character and creative process. The essence of the latter comes alive in one particularly revealing exchange between the two composers, later cited in Life of Beethoven (public library) by the American librarian and journalist Alexander Wheelock Thayer — the first full, scholarly biography of Beethoven, published at the end of the nineteenth century, which set out to fact-check and clear the many romantic myths about the composer that had been circulating in the decades since his death.
Schlösser recounts bringing “a new, somewhat complicated composition” to Beethoven as a young man and asking the master for constructive feedback. After reading it, Beethoven responded with an insightful remark on the art of editing and the life-cycle of creativity:
You give too much, less would have been better; but that lies in the nature of heaven-scaling youth, which never thinks it possible to do enough. It is a fault maturer years will correct, however, and I still prefer a superfluity to a paucity of ideas.
When Schlösser inquired how Beethoven himself managed this intricate dance of calibrating ideas, the elder composer outlined the process of incubation, ideation, and editing by which a great work of art is birthed:
I carry my thoughts about with me for a long time, sometimes a very long time, before I set them down. At the same time my memory is so faithful to me that I am sure not to forget a theme which I have once conceived, even after five years have passed. I make many changes, reject and reattempt until I am satisfied. Then the working-out in breadth, length, height and depth begins in my head, and since I am conscious of what I want, the basic idea never leaves me. It rises, grows upward, and I hear and see the picture as a whole take shape and stand forth before me as though cast in a single piece, so that all that is left is the work of writing it down.
And yet Beethoven — who did most of his composing outdoors, jotting down ideas as they occurred to him there, then writing them into scores upon returning to his quarters — acknowledges the essential mystery at the heart of creative work, which no framework or discipline or routine can manufacture. In a sentiment evocative of Charles Bukowski’s ferocious poem “so you want to be a writer,” he writes:
Whence I take my ideas… I cannot say with any degree of certainty; they come to me uninvited, directly, or indirectly. I could almost grasp them in my hands, out in nature’s open, in the woods, during my promenades, in the silence of the night, at earliest dawn. They are roused by moods which in the poet’s case are transmuted into words, and in mine into tones, that sound, roar and storm until at last they take shape for me as notes.
Wisdom “for strong artists and leaders—for fresh broods of teachers… and coming musicians.”
By Maria Popova
“The most regretful people on earth,” Mary Oliver wrote in her beautiful reflection on the central commitment of the creative life, “are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.” A large part of that power, and of its temporal dimension, is an openhearted curiosity about the world — a willingness to take in its varied and often contradictory aspects, in order to distill from them the concentration of truth we call art. Rainer Maria Rilke knew this when he contemplated the combinatorial nature of creativity: “One must see many cities, men and things. One must know the animals, one must feel how the birds fly and know the gesture with which the small flowers open in the morning… One must have memories of many nights of love… But one must also have been beside the dying, one must have sat beside the dead in the room with the open window…”
Under the heading “Laws of Creation,” addressed to “strong artists and leaders… fresh broods of teachers… and coming musicians,” Whitman takes up the necessary risks and core elements of creative work:
All must have reference to the ensemble of the
world, and the compact truth of the world;
There shall be no subject too pronounced — All works
shall illustrate the divine law of indirections.
What do you suppose creation is?
What do you suppose will satisfy the Soul, except to
walk free, and own no superior?
What do you suppose I have intimated to you in a
hundred ways, but that man or woman is as
good as God?
And that there is no God any more divine than Your-
And that that is what the oldest and newest myths
And that you or any one must approach Creations
through such laws?
“Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos.”
By Maria Popova
“Creativity involves not only years of conscious preparation and training but unconscious preparation as well,” Oliver Sacks wrote in outlining the three essential elements of creativity, adding: “This incubation period is essential to allow the subconscious assimilation and incorporation of one’s influences and sources, to reorganize and synthesize them into something of one’s own.” The richer one’s reservoir of these influences and sources, the more interesting their synthesis into something new would be — something Rilke articulated beautifully a century before Sacks when he contemplated inspiration and the combinatorial nature of creativity. Albert Einstein intuited this when he described the workings of his own mind as “combinatory play.”
Long before Sacks, Einstein, and Rilke, another genius addressed this abiding question of what it means and what it takes to create: Mary Shelley (August 30, 1797–February 1, 1851), writing in the preface to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus (public library) — her trailblazing literary masterpiece that not only furnished a timeless lens on questions of science and social responsibility, but embodied the combinatorial nature of creativity as Shelley transmuted ideas she had absorbed at the science lectures she frequently attended into a visionary work of art.
Every thing must have a beginning… and that beginning must be linked to something that went before… Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos; the materials must, in the first place, be afforded: it can give form to dark, shapeless substances, but cannot bring into being the substance itself. In all matters of discovery and invention, even of those that appertain to the imagination, we are continually reminded of the story of Columbus and his egg. Invention consists in the capacity of seizing on the capabilities of a subject, and in the power of moulding and fashioning ideas suggested to it.
“The labours of men of genius, however erroneously directed, scarcely ever fail in ultimately turning to the solid advantage of mankind.”
By Maria Popova
A teenage girl grieving the death of her infant daughter is sitting on the almost unbearably beautiful shore of a Swiss mountain lake. Her own mother, a pioneering feminist and political philosopher, has died of complications from childbirth exactly a month after bringing her into the world. Her philosopher father has cut her off for eloping to Europe with her lover — a struggling poet, whom she would marry six months later, after the suicide of his estranged first wife.
Mary Shelley (August 30, 1797–February 1, 1851) is just shy of her nineteenth birthday. She and her lover — Percy Bysshe Shelley — are spending the summer with Percy’s best friend, the poet Lord Byron, whose wife has just left him and taken custody of their infant daughter, Ada Lovelace. One June evening, Lord Byron proposes that the downtrodden party amuse themselves by each coming up with a ghost story. What Mary dreams up would go on to become one of the world’s most visionary works of literature, strewn with abiding philosophical questions about creativity and responsibility, the limits and liabilities of science, and the moral dimensions of technological progress.
The year is 1816. Decades stand between her and the first working incandescent light bulb. It would be more than a century before the Milky Way is revealed as not the whole of the universe but one of innumerable galaxies in it. Photography is yet to be invented; the atom yet to be split; Neptune, penicillin, and DNA yet to be discovered; relativity theory and quantum mechanics yet to be conceived of. The very word scientist is yet to be coined (for the Scottish mathematician Mary Somerville).
Against this backdrop and its narrow parameters of knowledge barely imaginable to today’s vista of scientific understanding, Mary Shelley unleashed her imagination on Lord Byron’s challenge and began gestating what would be published eighteen months later, on the first day of 1818, as Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus. Its message is as cautionary as it is irrepressibly optimistic. “The labours of men of genius,” this woman of genius writes, “however erroneously directed, scarcely ever fail in ultimately turning to the solid advantage of mankind.”
Editors David H. Guston, Ed Finn, and Jason Scott Robert, who consider Shelley’s masterwork “a book that can encourage us to be both thoughtful and hopeful” and describe their edition as one intended “to enhance our collective understandings and to invent — intentionally — a world in which we all want to live and, indeed, a world in which we all can thrive,” write in the preface:
No work of literature has done more to shape the way humans imagine science and its moral consequences than Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus, Mary Shelley’s remarkably enduring tale of creation and responsibility… In writing Frankenstein, Mary produced both in the creature and in its creator tropes that continue to resonate deeply with contemporary audiences. Moreover, these tropes and the imaginations they engender actually influence the way we confront emerging science and technology, conceptualize the process of scientific research, imagine the motivations and ethical struggles of scientists, and weigh the benefits of scientific research against its anticipated and unforeseen pitfalls.
It is almost impossible to imagine what the world, the everyday world, was like two centuries ago — a difference so profound it seeps into language itself. With this in mind, the editors offer a thoughtful note on their choice of referring to Doctor Frankenstein’s creation as “the creature” (rather than daemon, which Shelley herself uses, or monster, as posthumous criticism often does). In consonance with bryologist Robin Wall Kimmerer’s insight into how naming confers dignity upon life, they write:
It is worth pointing out that the way we now use the word creature ignores a richer etymology. Today, we refer to birds and bees as creatures. Living things are creatures by virtue of their living-ness. When we call something a creature today, we rarely think in terms of something that has been created, and thus we erase the idea of a creator behind the creature. We have likewise lost the social connotation of the term creature, for creatures are made not just biologically (or magically) but also socially.
This nexus of the scientific and the social at the heart of Shelley’s novel comes alive in a lovely companion to the annotated edition: Reanimation! — a seven-part series of animated conversations with scientists by science communication powerhouse Massive, exploring the prescient questions embedded in Shelley’s novel — questions touching on the nature of consciousness, the evolution and definition of life, the ethics of genetic engineering, the future of the human body and artificial intelligence.
I’m really hoping that synthetic biology as a whole can drive a different appreciation — a different definition and relationship — of what we see to be nature. For years, we have peddled this notion that humans are separate entities from nature — there’s the arrogance that humans are somehow divinely above nature and we’re the caretakers of the world and we can do whatever we want with it. But there really hasn’t been a universal realization that we are nature.
Perhaps the central animating question of Shelley’s novel is what she termed “the nature of the principle of life” — that curious island of being amid the vast cosmic ocean of nonbeing. This is what theoretical physicist Sara Imari Walker and exoplanetary scientist and astrobiologist Caleb Scharf consider in the second film, exploring the nature and definition of life on Earth and beyond, and what we mean by intelligence when we speak of intelligent life:
We’ve really thought about life as being a binary phenomenon — something is alive or it’s not… In the context of origins of life, that’s really critical, because you want to talk about the transition between nonliving things and living things… [But] life in general is actually a process that occurs across multiple scales, and you can talk about a cell in my body being alive or you can talk about me being alive and you can also… go up in scale and maybe think about societies as being alive. That’s one of the things that’s really interesting about life… it has this kind of hierarchical structure where you have many layers of organization.
We might be able to understand more universal properties of life based on organizational principles — [not] just focusing on the things life is made of, but how it is organized. That’s [why] reductionism has been hard in biology — because we always try to separate out these scales and treat them separately. But [in reality] you have ordered processes and dynamics across multiple scales — that really is the intrinsic indicative process of life.
Trying to go directly from the cells to behavior is not going to be possible. Why? Because there are actually several levels of organization in between them. If you start with the cell, then the next level of organization would be a circuit. And how does the nervous system as an organ interact with other organs in the body? And then, after that, is the organism and all the movements produced by an organism.
But that still isn’t behavior, because behavior is something that arises when you have goals for your movements and the only way for you to really pick or even decide a goal is not in a vacuum — it has to be within your environment: What other creatures, what other organisms, do you have to coordinate with in order to exist in your immediate local physical space?
It’s this interplay between brains, bodies, and the world that, in the end, allows us to develop these goals… and the development of those goals is what I would call cognition.
In the fourth film, molecular biologist Kate Krueger and paleoanthropologist and archaeologist Genevieve Dewar consider the common human impulse for transformation, which undergirds both our most primitive Stone Age tools and our most advanced gene editing technologies:
Once we see the development of culture and social interactions, we actually see for the first time our species being able to step outside of and above biological evolution.
It’s very rare that humans like to sit still and do nothing and maintain stasis. While we love what we know and we do want to maintain it, I think all of us would love to make the world a more interesting place and a more useful place, and be able to do more things and climb higher and move faster. This is also part of our nature — the desire to create and to grow and to change.
When you start to get a much more rapid change in technology, particularly technology that affects the human… you begin to get human as a process. The idea of human that we have is already changing much more rapidly than we know, but the process of human has simply accelerated. It continues, and we remain human.
In the sixth film, historian and philosopher of science Margaret Wertheim, neuroscientist and AI researcher Daniel Baer, and engineer and ethicist Branden Allenby reflect on our perpetually evolving definition of and ethical parameters around what constitutes intelligence and what makes an intelligence “artificial”:
I suspect that we are not going to think we see a conscious machine even when they are running the planet… We have an extraordinary ability as humans — as soon as we offload something to machines that has to do with our cognition, we call it simple and it’s obviously not part of intelligence. [For example], the first people who were called computers were in fact very highly trained mathematicians, many of them women, who did systemic mathematical solutions for very complex equations for things like ballistics… and they were regarded as extremely intelligent. That lasted until TI came up with the first calculator and then, suddenly, we decided that mathematical calculations weren’t part of being intelligent. So my suspicion is that we already have machines that, to at least first degree, are AI.
In the seventh and final film, BBC science communicator Britt Wray, theoretical physicist Sara Imari Walker, and paleoanthropologist and archaeologist Genevieve Dewar examine what may be the overarching philosophical concern of Shelley’s masterwork — the God complex with which we wield our tools and regard their creations, and the interplay between fear and curiosity indelible to all innovation and to every leap of science:
What makes Homo sapiens special and different is their ability to innovate on the fly, come up with new ideas and new ways of doing things, [and] learn from the mistake of others and communicate rapidly… to build upon the mistakes of the past.