Science for Artists

Inspiration and Truth

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Graph from page 51

Excerpt from What Technology Wants by Kelly, Kevin (Book – 2010) page 50-51
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’).

… Sometimes a trait advantageous for one problem will turn out to be advantageous for a second, unanticipated problem. For instance, feathers evolved to warm a small, cold-blooded dinosaur. Later one, these same feathers, once installed on limbs for warmth, proved handily for short flights. From this heat-conservation innovation came unplanned wings and birds. These inadvertent anticipatory inventions are called exaltations in biology. We don’t know how common exaptations are in nature but they are routine in the technium. The technium is nothing but exaptations, since innovations can be easily borrowed across lines of origin or moved across time and repurposed.

Niles Eldredge is the cofounder (with Stephen Jay Gould) of the theory of punctuated, stepwise evolution. His professional expertise is the history of trilobites, or ancient arthropods that resemble today’s pill bugs. As a hobby he collects cornets, musical instruments very similar to trumpets. Once Eldredge applied his professional taxonomic methods to his collection of 500 cornets some dating back to 1825. He selected 17 traits that varied among his instruments—the shape of their horns, the placement of valves, the length and diameter of their tubes—very similar to the kinds of metrics he applies to trilobites. When he mapped the evolution of cornets using techniques similar to those he applies to ancient arthropods, he found that the pattern of the linages were very similar in many ways to those of living organisms. As one example, the evolution of cornets showed a stepwise, progress, much like trilobites. But the evolution of musically instruments was also very distinctive. The key difference between the evolution of multicellular life and the evolution of the technium is that in life most blending of traits happens “vertically” in time. Innovations are passed from living parents down (vertically) through offspring. In the technium, on the other hand, most blending of traits happens laterally across time-even from “extinct” species and across lineages from nonparents. Eldredge discovered that the pattern of evolution in the technium is not the repeated forking of branches we associate with the tree of life, but rather a spreading recursive network of pathways that often double back to “dead” ideas and resurrect “lost” traits. Another way of saying the same thing. Early traits (exaptations) anticipate the later linages that adopt them. These two patterns were distinct enough that Eldredge claims one could use it to identify whether an evolutionary tree depicted a clan of the born or of the made…

But by far the greatest difference between the evolution of the born and evolution of the made is that species of technology, unlike species in biology, almost never go extinct. A close examination of as supposedly extinct bygone technology almost always shows that somewhere on the planet someone is still producing it. A technique or artifact may be rare in the modern urban world but quite common in the developing rural world. For instance, Burma is full of oxcart technology; basketry is ubiquitous in most of Africa hand spinning is still thriving in Bolivia. A supposedly dead technology may be enthusiastically embraced by a heritage-based minority in modern society, if only for ritual satisfaction. Consider the traditional ways of the Amish, or modern tribal communities, or fanatical vinyl record collectors. Often old technology is obsolete, that is not very ubiquitous or is second rate, but it still may be in small-time use.



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The Willat Effect – hedonic change caused by side-by-side comparison of similar things

Painting by Katarina Countiss

The Willat Effect – hedonic change caused by side-by-side comparison of similar things

By at 10:46 am Tuesday, Oct 18

After just having read Seth Roberts’ blog post about The Willat Effect (the hedonic change caused by side-by-side comparison of similar things), it was interesting to see 31.

I discovered the Willat Effectwhen my friend Carl Willat offered me five different limoncellos side by side. Knowing that he likes it, his friends had given them to him. Perhaps three were homemade, two store-bought. I’d had plenty of limoncello before that, but always one version at a time. Within seconds of tasting the five versions side by side, I came to like two of them (with more complex flavors) more than the rest. One or two of them I started to dislike. When you put two similar things next to each other, of course you see their differences more clearly. What’s impressive is the hedonic change.The Willat Effect supports my ideas about human evolution because it pushes people toward connoisseurship. (I predict it won’t occur with animals.) The fact that repeating elements are found in so many decorating schemes and patterns meant to be pretty (e.g., wallpapers, textile patterns, rugs, choreography) suggests that we get pleasure from putting similar things side by side — the very state that produces the Willat Effect. According to my theory of human evolution, connoisseurship evolved because it created demand for hard-to-make goods, which helped the most skilled artisans make a living. Carl’s limoncello tasting made me a mini-connoisseur of limoncello. I started buying it much more often and  bought more expensive brands, thus helping the best limoncello makers make a living. Connoisseurs turn surplus into innovation by giving the most skilled artisans more time and freedom to innovate.

Via BoingBoing

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But, Is it Art? Words from Feynman

 Excerpt from “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!”: Adventures of a Curious Character by Feynman, Richard P. (Book – 1997) page 260. Note: I left a cliffhanger. Read this book. It’s inspirational.

But is it Art?

Once I was at a party playing bongos, and I got going pretty well. One of the guys was particularly inspired by the drumming. He went into the bathroom, took off his shirt, smeared shaving cream in funny designs over his chest, and came out dancing wildly, with cherries hanging from his ears. Naturally, this crazy nut and I became good friends right away. His name is Jirayr Zorthian; he’s an artist.

We often had long discussions about art and science. I’d say things like, “Artists are lost; they don’t have any subject! They used to have religious subjects, but they lost their religion and now they haven’t got anything. They don’t understand the technical world they live in; they don’t know anything about the beauty of the real world—the scientific world—so they don’t have anything in their hearts to paint.”

Jerry would reply that artists don’t need to have a physical subject; there are many emotions that can be expressed through art. Besides, art can be abstract. Furthermore, scientists destroy the beauty of nature when they pick it apart and turn it into mathematical equations.

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Creativity, Words from Blackmore

Painting by Katarina Countiss

Excerpt from The Meme Machine by Blackmore, Susan J. (Book – 2000) page 239

Tamarisk has written a science book. This suggests that she consciously authored the book, but there is another way of looking at it Tamarisk is a gifted writer because the genes have created a brain that handles language well, and a determined individual who likes solitary work; because she was born into a society that values books and pays for them; because her education gave her the opportunity to discover how good she was at science; and because she has spent years studying and thinking until new ideas came out of the combinations of the old. When the book was completed it formed a new complex of memes; variations on old ones and new combinations created by the complicated processes inside a clever thinking brain. When asked, Tamarisk might say that she consciously and deliberately invented every word herself (though she is quite likely to say that she has no idea how she did it). I would say that the book was a combined product of genes and memes playing out their competition in Tamarisk’s life.

The view of creativity is alien to many people. In discussions of consciousness it is common to raise the issue of creativity, as though it somehow epitomizes the power of human consciousness. How could we create great music, inspiring cathedrals, moving poems, or stunning paintings unless we have consciousness? How could we create great music, inspiring cathedrals, moving poems, or stunning paintings unless we have consciousness? – people ask. This view of creativity betrays a commitment to a false theory of self and consciousness, or to Dennett’s Cartesian Theatre (225). If you believe that you live inside your head and direct operations, then creative acts can seem especially good examples of things that “you” have done. But, as we have seen, this view of self does not hold up. There is no one inside there to do the doing – other than a bunch of memes.

I am not saying that there is no creativity. New books are written, new technologies invented, new gardens laid out, and new films produced. But, the generative power behind this creativity is the competition between replicators, not a magical, out-of-nowhere power such as consciousness is often said to be. The creative achievements of human culture are the products of memetic evolution, just as the creative achievements of the biological world are products of genetic evolution. Replicator power is the only design process we know of that can do the job, and it does it. We do not need conscious human selves messing about in there as well.

Of course selves are not irrelevant. Far from it. By virtue of their organization and persistence, selfplexes are powerful memetic entities that affect the behavior of the people who sustain them, and of all those who come into contact with them. But as far as creativity is concerned selves can often do more harm than good, for creative acts often come about in a state of selflessness, or loss of self0cinciousness, when the self seems to be out of the way. Artists, writers, and runners often say they are at their best when acting spontaneously and without self-consciousness. So selves have effects but not as the originators of conscious creativity.

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When you pay for art, what are you paying for?

Painting by Katarina Countiss

Excerpt from The Meme Machine by Blackmore, Susan J. (Book – 2000) page 173

If the idea of exchanging goods for taking on memes seems unfamiliar, we might think of the bartering of memes that goes on all around us. We are used to the idea of paying for the information we want, by buying books or newspapers, paying our TV licence, or buying tickets to the cinema, but if people want to impose their ideas on us, then they have to pay to get our attention, like advertisers and politicians do.

Insight and Outlook: An Inquiry into the Common Foundations of Science, Art and Social Ethics by Koestler, Arthur (Book – 1949) p.286-287

The artist and his work do not provide the current like an electric company, only the installation; the current has to be generated by the consumer. We know that emotion cannot be handed on from a person or an object to another person, like food or money. We tend to fall into the mistake of taking a metaphor at its face value, and believe that the stage play literally “provides’ us with a thrill against cash payment for our seats, and that emotions are thus traded like wares. What we buy on the market of Art—a picture, a book, or a seat in the stalls—is however, not an emotion, but a set of stimuli deigned to elicit integrative impulses in us and to canalize them in such a way as to lead them to satisfaction—while otherwise they would remain frustrated, or look for coarser outlets. For our nervous system constantly generates all kinds of tensions which run through our minds like stray eddies and erratic currents. The set of stimuli proved by the work of Art draws energy from this tension-generating organic source and leads it to catharsis. It does not drain something that it has previously pumped in; it draws, as it were, on the consumer’s own reservoir of integrative energy.

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What is Art?

Photo  by Katarina Countiss

List from The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, & Human Evolution by Dutton, Denis (Book – 2009)

Cluster Criteria: Aspects of Art (and non-art)

  1. Direct pleasure
  2. Skill and virtuosity
  3. Style
  4. Novelty and creativity
  5. Criticism
  6. Representation
  7. Special focus
  8. Expressive individuality
  9. Emotional saturation
  10. Intellectual challenge
  11. Art traditions and institutions
  12. Imaginative experience


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Like Moths to a Flame

go pieces arranged in a pattern painting by Katarina Countiss

go pieces arranged in a pattern

Painting by Katarina Countiss

Excerpt from The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, & Human Evolution by Dutton, Denis (Book – 2009) page 102

[To borrow a charming analogy] from Eckart Voland…With the arts, perhaps we should regard ourselves like the moths who have succeed in inventing a lantern in order to have fun circling it. If the arts are like the lantern, the Darwinian question is why we worked so hard to invent them and why we have such fun circling them in the first place. The evolved adaptations are there to be discovered, and so are their extensions into our artistic and aesthetic lives.

Excerpt from The God Delusion by Dawkins, Richard (Book – 2006) page 172-173

Moths fly into the candle flame, and it doesn’t look like an accident. They go out of their way to make a burnt offering of themselves. We could label it “self-immolation behavior” and, under that provocative name, wonder how on earth natural selection could favour it. My point is that we must rewrite the question before we can even attempt an intelligent answer. It isn’t suicide. Apparent suicide emerges as an inadvertent side-effect or by-product of something else. A by-product of… what? Well, he’s one possibility, which will serve to make the point.

Artificial light is a recent arrival on the night scene. Until recently, the only night lights on view were the moon and the stars. They are at optical infinity, so rays coming from them are parallel. This fits them for use as compasses. Insects are known to use celestial objects such as the sun and the moon to steer accurately in a straight line, and they can use the same compass, with reversed sign, for returning home after a foray. The insect nervous system is adept at setting up a temporary rule of thumb of this kind: “Steer a course such that the light rays hit your eye at an angle of 30 degrees.” Since insects have compound eyes (with straight tubes or light guides radiating out from the centre of the eye like the spines of a hedgehog), this might amount in practice to something as simple as keeping the light in one particular tube or ommatidium.

But the light compass relies critically on the celestial object being at optical infinity. If it isn’t, the rays are not parallel but diverge like the spokes of a wheel. A nervous system applying a 30-degree (or any acute angle) rule of thumb to a nearby candle, as though it the moon at optical infinity, will steer the moth, via a spiral trajectory into the flame. Draw it out for yourself, using some particular acute angle such as 30 degrees, and you’ll produce an elegant logarithmic spiral into the candle.

Though fatal in this particular circumstance, the moth’s rule of thumb is still, on average, a good one because, for a moth, sightings of candles are rare compared with sightings of the moon. We don’t notice the hundreds of moths that are silently and effectively steering by the moon or a bright star, or even the glow from a distant city. We only see moths wheeling into our candle, and we ask the wrong question: Why are all these moths committing suicide? Instead we should ask why they have nervous systems that steer by maintaining a fixed angle to light rays, a tactic that we notice only where it goes wrong. When the question is rephrased, the mystery evaporates. It was never right to call it suicide. It is a misfiring byproduct of a normally useful compass.