Science for Artists

Inspiration and Truth

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Color Patches, words from Annie Dillard

Painting by Katarina Countiss





Excerpt from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Dillard, Annie (Book – 2007) page 27-31


I chanced on a wonderful book by Marius von Senden, called Space and Sight. When Westerner surgeons discovered how to perform safe cataract operations, they ranged across Europe and America operating on dozens of men and women of all ages who had been blinded by cataracts since birth. Von Senden collected accounts of such cases; the histories are fascinating. Many doctors had tested their patients’ sense perceptions and d ideas of space both before and after the operations. The vast majority of patients, of both sexes and all ages, and, in von Senden’s opinion, no idea of space whatsoever. Form, distance, and size were so many meaningless syllables. A patient “had no idea of depth, confusing it with roundness.” Before the operation a doctor would give a blind patient a cube and a sphere; the patient would tongue it or feel it with his hands and name it correctly. After the operation the doctor would show the same objects to the patient without letting him touch them; now he had no clue whatsoever what he was seeing. One patient called lemonade “square” because it pricked on his tongue as a square shape pricked on the touch of his hands. Of another postoperative patient, the doctor writes, “I have found in her no notion of size, for example, not even within the narrow limits which she might have encompassed with the aid of touch. Thus when I asked her to show me how big her mother was, she did not stretch out her hands, but set her two index fingers a few inches apart.” Other doctors reported their patients’ own statements to similar effect. “The room he was in… he knew to be but part of the house, yet he could not conceive that the whole house could look bigger”; “Those who are blind from birth… have no real conception of height or distance. A house that is a mile away is thought of as nearby but requiring the taking of a lot of steps… The elevator that whizzes him up and down gives no more sense of vertical distance than does the train of horizontal.”


For the newly sighted, vision is pure sensation unencumbered by meaning: “The girl went through the experience we all go through and forget, the moment we are born. She saw, but it did not mean anything but a lot of different kinds of brightness.” Again, I asked the patient what he could see; he answered that he saw an extensive filed of light, in which everything appeared dull, confused, an in motion. He could not distinguish objects.” Another patient saw “nothing but a confusion of forms and colors.” When a newly sighted girl saw photographs and paintings, she asked, “‘Why do they put all those dark marks over them?’ ‘Those aren’t dark marks,’ her mother explained, ‘those are shadows. That is one of the ways the eye knows that things have shape. If it were not for the shadows many things would look flat.’ ‘Well, that’s how things do look,’ Joan answered. ‘Everything looks flat with dark patches.’ “


But it is the patients’ concepts of space that are most revealing. One patient, according to his doctor, “practiced his vision in a strange fashion; thus he takes off one of his boots, throws it some way off in front of him, and then attempts to gauge the distance at which it lies; he takes a few steps towards the boot and tries to grasp it; on failing to reach it, he moves on a step or two and gropes for the boot until he finally gets a hold of it.” “But even at this stage, after three weeks’ experience of seeing,” von Senden goes on, “ ‘space,’ as he conceives it, ends with visual space, i.e. with color-patches that happen to bound his view. He does not have yet the notion that a larger object (a chair) can mask a smaller one (a dog), or that the latter can still be present even though it is not directly seen.”


In general the newly sighted see the world as a dazzle of color-patches. They are pleased by the sensation of color, and learn quickly to name the colors, but the rest of seeing is tormentingly difficult. Soon after his operation a patient “generally bumps into one of these color-patches and observes them to be substantial, since they resist him as tactual objects do. In walking about it also strikes him—or can if he pays attention—that is continually passing in between the colors he sees, that he can go past a visual object, that a part of it then steadily disappears from view; and that in spite of this, however he twists and turns—whether entering the room from the door, for example, or returning back to it—he always has a visual space in front of him Thus he gradually comes to realize that there is also a space behind hi, which he does not see.”


The mental effort involved in these reasonings proves overwhelming for many patients. It oppresses them to realize, if they ever do at all, the tremendous size of the world, which they previously conceived of as something touchingly manageable. It oppresses them to realize that they have been visible to people all along, perhaps unattractively so, without their knowledge or consent. A disheartening number of them refuse to use their vision, continuing to go over objects with their tongues, collapsing into apathy and despair. The child can see, but will not make use of his sight. Only when pressed can he with difficult be brought to look at objects in his neighborhood; but more than a foot away it is impossible to bestir him to the necessary effort. Of a twenty-one-year-old girl, the doctor relates, “Her unfortunate father, who had hoped for such much from this operation write that his daughter carefully shuts her eyes whenever she wishes to go about the house, especially when she comes to a staircase, and that she is never happier or more at ease than when, by closing her eyelids, she relapses into her former state of blindness.” A fifteen-year-old boy, who was also in love with a girl at the asylum for the blind, finally blurted out, “No, really, I can’t stand it anymore; I want to be sent back to the asylum again. If things aren’t altered, I’ll tear my eyes out.”


Some do learn to see, especially the young ones. But it changes their lives. One doctor comments on the “rapid at complete loss of that striking and wonderful serenity which is characteristic only of those who have never yet seen.” A blind man who learns to see is ashamed of his old habits. He dresses up, grooms himself, and tries to make a good impression. While he was blind he was indifferent to objects unless they were edible; now. “a shifting of values sets in… his thoughts and wishes are mightily stirred and some few of the patients are thereby led into dissimulation, envy, theft, and fraud.”


On the other hand, many newly sighted people speak well of the world, and teach us how dull is our own vision. To one patient, a human hand unrecognized, is “something bright and then holes.” Shown a bunch of grapes, a boy calls out, “It is dark, blue and shiny… It isn’t smooth, it has bumps and hollows.” A little girl visits a garden. “She is greatly astonished, and can scarcely be persuaded to answer, stands speechless in front of the tree, which s\he only names on taking hold of it, and then as ‘the tree with the lights on it.’”  Some delight in their sight and give themselves over to the visual world. If a patient just after her bandages were removed, her doctor writes, “The first things to attract her attention were her own hands; she looked at them very closely, moved them repeatedly to and fro, bent and stretched the fingers, and seemed greatly astonished at the sight.” One girl was eager to tell her blind friend that “men do not really look like trees at all,” and astounded to discover that every visitor had an utterly different face. Finally, a twenty-two-year-old girl was dazzled by the world’s brightness and kept her eyes shut for two weeks. When at the end of that time she opened her eyes again, she did not recognize any objects, but, “the more she now directed her gaze upon everything about her, the more it could be seen how an expression of gratification and astonishment overspread her features; she repeatedly exclaimed: ‘Oh God! How beautiful!”




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The Beauty of Evolution, part 2

Drawing by Katarina Countiss

Excerpt from What Technology Wants by Kelly, Kevin (Book – 2010) page 318-320

Real cities display this same principle of evolutionary beauty. Throughout history, humans have found new cities ugly. For years people recoiled from Las Vegas. Many centuries ago the first few versions of London were considered heinous eyesores. But over generations, every urban block was tested by daily use. The parks and streets that worked were retained; those that failed were demolished. The height of buildings, the size of a plaza, the rake of an overhang was all adjusted by variations to suit current needs. But not all imperfections were removed, nor can they be, since many aspects of a city—say, the width of streets—cannot be changed easily. So urban work-arounds and architectural compensations are added over generations, upping the city’s complexity. In most real cities, such as London or Rome or Shanghai, the tiniest alleyway is hijacked and then utilized for public space, the smallest nook becomes a store, the dampest arch under a bridge is filled with a home. Over the centuries, the constant infilling, ceaseless replacement, renewal, and complexification—in other words, evolution—creates a deeply satisfying aesthetic. The places most renowned for their beauty (Venice, Kyoto, Esfahan) are those that reveal intersecting deep layers of time. Every corner carries the long history of the city embedded in it like a hologram, glimpses of which unfold as we stroll by.

Evolution is not just about complications. One pair of scissors can be highly evolved and beautiful, while another is not. Both scissors entail two swinging pieces of metal joined at their center. But in the highly evolved scissors, the accumulated knowledge won over thousands of years of cutting is captured by the forged and polished shape of the scissor halves. Tiny twists in the metal hold that knowledge. While our lay minds can’t decode why, we interpret that fossilized learning as beauty. It has less to do with smooth lines and more to do with smooth continuity of experience. The attractive scissors and the beautiful hammer and the gorgeous car all carry in their form the wisdom of their ancestors.

The beauty of evolution has put a spell on us. According to psychologist Erich From and famed biologist E.O. Wilson, humans are endowed with biophilia, an innate attraction to living things. This hardwired genetic affinity for life and life processes ensured our survival in the past by nurturing our familiarity with nature. In joy we learned the secrets of the wild. The aeons that our ancestors spend walking in the woods finding coveted herbs or stalking a rare green frog were bliss; ask any hunter-gatherer about their time in the wilds. In love we discovered the bounty each creature could provide and the great lessons organic forms had to teach us. This love still simmers in our cells. It is why we keep pets and potted plants in the city, why we garden when supermarket food is cheaper, and why we are drawn to sit in silence under towering trees.

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The Beauty of Evolution, Part 1

Drawing by Katarina Countiss

Excerpt from What Technology Wants by Kelly, Kevin (Book – 2010) page 317-318

Most evolved things are beautiful, and the most beautiful are the most highly evolved. Every living organism today has benefited from four billion years of evolution, so every creature live—from a spherical diatom to a jellyfish to a jaguar—displays a depth that we see as beauty. This is why we are attracted to natural organisms and materials and why it is so hard to create synthetic objects with a similar glow. (Facial beauty in humans is a different phenomenon entirely. The closer a face hews to an ideal average human face, the more attractive we find it.) The complex history of a living creature gives it a patina that holds up to inspection no matter how close we get.

My friends in Hollywood special effects business who create the lifelike virtual creatures for movies like Avatar and Star Wars series say the same thing. They first engineer their made-up creature to follow the logic of physics, and then they make it beautiful by layering on history. The monster on the ice planet in the 2009 film Star Trek was once white (in its virtual evolution), but after it became the top predator in its snowy white world, camouflage was no longer necessary, so parts of its body shifted to bright red to display its dominance. The same creature once had thousands of eyes not visible in the movie, but these organs shaped its form and behavior. Watching it on the screen, we “read” the results of this fantasy evolution s authentic and beautiful. Sometimes directors will even transfer the development of a creature from one designer to another, so that it does not acquire a homogenous style but feels deeper, more layered, more evolved.

The world-making wizards create beautiful artifacts in the same way. They give a prop the convincing heft of reality by layering on “greeblies,” or intricate surface details that reflect a fictitious past history. To produce a stunning cinematic city in one recent movie, they took photographic bits of decaying Detroit buildings and added modern structures around the ruins according to a backstory of past disasters and rebirth. The resolution of the detail was not as important as historically meaningful layers.

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The Rise of Extropy

Drawing by Katarina Countiss

Excerpt from What Technology Wants by Kelly, Kevin (Book – 2010) page 57-58
Author’s Note: (from page 10) “I dislike inventing words that no one else uses, but in this case all known alternatives fail to convey the required scope. So I’ve somewhat reluctantly coined a word to designate the greater, global, massively interconnected system of technology vibrating around us. I call it the technium. The technium extends beyond shiny hardware to include culture, art, social institutions, and intellectual creations of all types. It includes intangibles like software, law, and philosophical concepts. And most important, it includes the generative impulses of our inventions to encourage more tool making, more technology invention and more self-enhancing connections. For the rest of this book I will use the term technium where others might use technology as a plural, and to mean a whole system (as in ‘technology accelerates’).

Most hydrogen atoms were born at the beginning of time. They are as old as time itself. They were created in the fires of the big bang and dispersed into the universe as a uniform warm mist. Thereafter, each atom has been on a lonely journey. When a hydrogen atom drifts in the unconsciousness of deep space, hundreds of kilometers from another atom, it is hardly much more active than the vacuum surrounding it. Time is meaningless without change, and in the vast reaches of space that fill 99.99 percent of the universe, there is little change.

After billions of years, a hydrogen atom might be swept up by the currents of gravity radiating from a congealing galaxy. With the dimmest hint of time and change it slowly drifts in a steady direction toward other stuff. Another billion years later it bumps into the first bit of matter it has ever encountered. After million so years it meets the second. In time it meets another of its kind, a hydrogen atom. They drift together in mild attraction until aeons later they meet an oxygen atom. Suddenly something weird happens. In a flash of heat they clump together as one water molecule. Maybe they get sucked into the atmosphere circulation of a planet. Under this marriage, they are caught in great cycles of change. Rapidly the molecule is carried up and then rained down into a crowded pool of other jostling atoms. In the company of uncountable numbers of other water molecules it travels this circuit around and around for millions of years, from crammed pools to expansive clouds and back. In day in a stroke of luck, the water molecule is captured by a chain of unusually active carbons in one pool. Its path is once again accelerated. It spins around in a simple loop, assisting the travel of carbon chains. It enjoys speed, movement, and change such as would not be possible in the comatose recesses of space. The carbon chain is stolen by another chain and reassembled many times until the hydrogen finds itself in a cell constantly rearranging its relations and bounds with other molecules. Now it hardly ever stops changing, never stops interacting.

The hydrogen atoms in a human body completely refresh every seven years. As we age we are really a river of cosmically old atoms. The carbons in our bodies were produced in the dust of a star. The bulk of matter in our hands, skin, eyes, and hearts was made near the beginning of time, billions of years ago. We are much older than we look.

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Life is Algorithms

Excerpt from Le Ton Beau De Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language by Hofstadter, Douglas R. (Book – 1997) page. 215-216

Two-ties joke

A Jewish mother gives her son two ties for his birthday. He puts on one at once, but when she sees him, she says, “So what’s the matter with the other one?”

The deep link is that the mother plays the role of the dimwit who recognizes neither the symmetry of the “competition” nor the silliness of drawing any conclusion from the identity of its “winner.” More precisely she doesn’t recognize that between the two ties, there will always be a winner and a loser—never a tie… although the son’s choice might reflect a strong preference on his part for one time, his mother cannot know if it does or doesn’t; after all, no matter whether he liked his new ties equally or liked one of them far better, he could wear but one of them.

Excerpt from Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life by Dennett, Daniel Clement (Book – 1995) page 53-54.

We can begin zeroing in on the phylum of evolutionary algorithms by considering everyday algorithms that share important properties with them. Darwin draws our attention to repeated waves of competition and selection, so consider the standard algorithm for organizing an elimination tournament, such as a tennis tournament, which eventually culminates with quarter-finals, semi-finals, and then a final, determining the solitary winner.

Notice that this procedure meets the three conditions. It is the same procedure whether drawn in chalk on a blackboard, or updated in a computer file, or—a weird possibility—not written down anywhere, but simply enforced by building a huge fan of fenced-off tennis courts each with two entrance gates and a single exit gate leading the winner to the court where the next match is to be played. (The losers are shot and buried where they fall.) It doesn’t take a genius to march the contestants through the drill, filling in the blanks at the end of each match (or identifying and shooting the losers). And it always works.

But what, exactly, does this algorithm do? It takes input a set of competitors and guarantees to terminate by identifying a single winner. But what is a winner? It all depends on the competition. Suppose the tournament in question is not tennis but coin-tossing. One player tosses and the other calls; the winner advances. The winner of this tournament will be that single player who has won n consecutive coin-tosses without a loss, depending on how many rounds it takes to complete the tournament.

… Any elimination tournament produces a winner, who “automatically” has whatever property was required to advance through the rounds, but as the coin-tossing tournament demonstrates, the property in question may be “merely historical” – a trivial fact about the competitor’s past history that has no bearing at all on his or her future prospects….Chance has no memory. A person who holds the winning lottery ticket has certainly been lucky, and thanks to the millions she has just won, she may never need to be lucky again—which is just as well, since there is no reason to think she is more likely than anyone else to win the lottery a second time, or to win the next coin-toss she calls.


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Artist and Picture by J.W. Dunne

Excerpt from The Serial Universe by Dunne, J. W. (Book – 1938) page 29

 A certain artist, having escaped from the lunatic asylum in which, rightly or wrongly, he had be confined, purchased the materials of his craft and set to work to make a complete picture of the universe.

He began by drawing in the centre of a huge canvas, a very small but very finely executed representation of the landscape as he saw it. The result (except for the execution) was like the sketch labeled X1 in FIGURE 1.

Figure 1.

On examining this, however, he was not satisfied. Something was missing. And, after a moment’s reflection, he realized what that something was. He was a part of that universe, and this fact had not yet been indicated. So the question arose: How was he to add to the picture a representation of himself?

Now, this artist may have been insane, but he was not mad enough to imagine that he could paint himself as standing in the ground which he had already portrayed as lying in front of him. So he shifted his easel a little way back, engaged in a passing yokel to stand as a model, and enlarged his picture into the sketch shown asX2 (FIGURE 2).

Figure 2.

But still he was dissatisfied. With the remorseless logic of a lunatic (or genius— you may take your choice) he argued thus:

This picture is perfectly correct as far as it goes. X2 represents the real world as I—the real artist—suppose it to be, and X1 represents that world as an artist who was unaware of his own existence would suppose it to be No fault can be found in the pictured world X2 or in the pictured artist, or in that pictured artist’s picture X1. But I—the real artist—am aware of my own existence, and am trying to portray myself as part of the real world. There pictured artist is, thus, an incomplete description of me, and of my relation to the universe.

So saying, he shifted his easel again, seized his brush and palate, and, with a few masterly strokes, expanded his picture into X3 (FIGURE 3).

Of course, he was still dissatisfied. The artist pictured in X3 is shown as an artist who, though aware of something which he calls himself, and which he portrays in X2, is not possessed of the knowledge which would enable him to realize the necessity of painting X3—the knowledge which is troubling the real artist. He does not know, as the real artist knows, that he is self-conscious, and, consequently, he pictures himself, in X2, as a gentleman unaware of his own existence in the universe.

The interpretation of this parable is sufficiently obvious. The artist is trying to describe in his picture a creature equipped with all the knowledge which he himself possesses, symbolizing that knowledge by the picture which the pictured creature would draw. And it becomes abundantly evident that the knowledge thus pictured must always be less the than the knowledge employed in making the picture. In other words, the mind which any human science can describe can never be an adequate representation of the mind which can make that science. And the process of correcting that inadequacy must follow the serial steps of an infinite regress.

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The Evolution of the Theory of Evolution

unicorn skull painting by Katarina Countiss
Painting by Katarina Countiss

Excerpt from Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life by Dennett, Daniel Clement (Book – 1995) page 38-39

Problems in science are sometimes made easier by adding complications. The development of the science of geology and the discovery of fossil of manifestly extinct species gave the taxonomists further curiosities to confound them, but these curiosities were also the very pieces of the puzzle that enabled Darwin, working alongside hundreds of other scientists, to discover the key to its solution: species were not eternal and immutable; they had evolved over time. Unlike carbon atoms, which for all one knew, had been around forever in exactly the form they now exhibited, species had births in time, could change over time, and could give birth to new species in turn. This idea itself was not new; many versions of it had been seriously discussed, going back to the ancient Greeks. But there was a powerful platonic bias against it: essences were unchanging, and a thing couldn’t change its essence, and new essences couldn’t be born – except of course, by God’s command in episodes of Special Creation. Reptiles could no more turn into birds than copper could turn into gold.

It isn’t easy today to sympathize with this conviction, but the effort can be helped along by a fantasy, consider what your attitude would be towards a theory that purported to show how the number 7 had once been an even number, long, long ago, and had gradually acquired its oddness through an arrangement where it exchanged some properties with the ancestors of the number 10 (which had once been a prime number). Utter nonsense, of course. Inconceivable. Darwin knew that a parallel attitude was deeply ingrained among his contemporaries, and that he would have to labor mightily to overcome it. Indeed he more or less conceded that the elder authorities of his day would tend to be as immutable as the species they believe in.

A Book Review The Panda’s Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History by Gould, Stephen Jay (Book – 1980)

Summary: In this series of essays, Gould talks about evolution. He covers theories about dinosaurs, encephalic quotients and Larmarckian notions of taking your evolution by the horns so to speak. Gould emphasizes that science is quintessentially a human endeavor and there will always be biases towards on theory or another depending on the cultural climate.

Review: At first, I couldn’t stand this book. His essays would initially present something that made a good fair of sense and then towards the middle, Gould would say “However, that is totally wrong.” Or something like that. I was scared to finish reading this book because I felt like I was getting a lot of incorrect theory in my head, but the point of his essays are that there is merit in being reasoned in wrongness. The connections made by the method are sometimes incorrect, but the method has merit.

Favorite part: “Species are the units of nature’s morphology.” P.213 This was the end sentence of a great chapter describing that species are subjective to the time they are in because species are changing and evolving all the time. I connected this to culture. And how there is no “authentic” culture, but what we can observe in the moment, and from our worldview.

Wine-pairing: The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. This is an interesting book about a particular slant of evolution. One can see how our culture’s point of view can mesh well with this individualistic theory.

Book Review via PandaProse