Science for Artists

Inspiration and Truth

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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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Nabokov, Professional Scientist and Amateur Author

Painting by Katarina Countiss

Excerpt from The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister’s Pox Mending the Gap between Science and the Humanities By Gould, Stephen Jay (Book – 2003) page 163.


If this first example of the fusions of unum cites a case so intermixed and intermediate that the conventional labels of “art” and “science” lose all mean as distinct modes of inquiry, then a second form of fusion, less intense but far more common, uses the ordinary skills and sensibilities of the “other” side to enhance effective argument in a “home” domain of conventional expertise (often beyond the explicit notice of more parochial practitioners). I have already discussed how such preeminent figures as Charles Lyell and Sigmund Freud advanced their causes by employing an uncommon gift for writing powerful and stylish prose. I only point out that humanists explicitly value good writing as a primary desideratum of their enterprise, whereas most scientists tend to dismiss stylistic matters as essentially irrelevant to their work.)

My favorite example in this second category of unum cites the fascinating case of a great literary figure of the twentieth century (and also more than a merely competent biologist) who followed an important norm of science in his literary work, in full knowledge of what he did, why he so proceeded and how his writing would be enhanced thereby. Nonetheless, nearly all literary critics have failed to understand either the strategy or the reasons (even though the author stated his aims, explicitly and often), and have maintained their stubborn allegiance to a conventional “literary” explanation that the author himself loathed and rejected. An ironic tale indeed, well fit for the full range of lessons, from moral to political.

Vladimir Nabokov worked from 1942 to 1948 as curator of lepidoptery (butterflies and moths) in the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University, three floors above the office that I have occupied in the same building for thirty-five years. He was a skilled and fully professional specialist on the taxonomy and natural history of the Polyommatini, popularly known as “blues,” and he published several respected technical monographs on this large group of Latin American butterflies. In fact, as his biographers often remark, before 1948, when he began to teach literature at Cornell, Nabokov earned his primary living, and spent most of his time, as a biologist– and he would justly have been labeled as a professional scientist and amateur author.

We can scarcely doubt Nabokov’s love for his first profession as eloquently expressed in a 1945 letter to his sister.

Following the fate of many scientists who spent years in ceaseless scrutiny and drawing of delicate anatomical features under the microscope, Nabokov’s vision became so impaired that he could no longer pursue the detailed work he loved. Yet, and poignantly, he stated in a 1975 interview, long after he had ceased his biological research, that the lure and passion remained as strong as ever:

Since my years at the Museum of Comparative Zoology in Harvard, I have not touched a microscope, knowing if I did, I would drown again in its bright well. Thus I have not, and probably never shall, accomplish the greater part of entrancing research work I had imagined in my young mirages.

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An Artistic Method

Sculpture by Simon Schubert

Art and science are about exploration. (this article via BoingBoing) At the Maker Faire in San Francisco,  Stephen Voltz and Fritz Grobe who are famous for their viral Coke and Mentos videos, delivered a talk  on their approach to innovation as it applies to performance art. Their method follows the 1-10-100 principle.

It takes one experiment to spark a concept. By experiment 10 one should have fleshed things out and have defined a direction. By experiment 100 one hopes to have found something that is sublime… The four rules that they espouse are: 1) seek variation – explore the possibilities. 2) be obsessive – keep focused until one finds something special.3) be stubborn – don’t give up until you work through the problems. 4) set limits and work within them – unconstrained innovation meanders and wonders, only by setting limits does it force one to dive into the depths of a concept. Their thoughts are somewhat reminiscent of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, where the key idea is to have an obsession with quality and to always have a good pot of coffee close at hand.