Science

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Detailed views of some recent paintings that I hope suggest a layered and complex reality

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Science has always wrestled with the idea of an immaterial will, or agency, at work in the universe, and for centuries it was thought to be expressed through the “laws of nature.” God might be dead, but he rules on, or so it was thought, through his immutable laws. It turns out, however, that those laws are at best crude averages, rough generalizations. Take a more fine-grained look, or develop more sensitive instruments, and things get more interesting. At the smallest, quantum, level, there are no laws at all, only probabilities. An electron can be here, there, or both places at once, very much as if it had a choice in the matter…A hint of—dare I say?—animism has entered into the scientific worldview. The physical world is no longer either dead or passively obedient to the “laws.”

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The closer and more carefully we probe, the more [the universe] seethes with what looks like life—runaway processes driven by positive feedback loops, emergent patterns, violent attractions, quantum leaps, and always, as far ahead as we can see, more surprises. There may be no invisible creaturely “beings” afoot, either symbionts, parasites, or predators. But there are uncountable algorithms at work in the physical world, writhing and reaching, pulling matter and energy into their schemes, acting out of what almost seems to be an unquenchable playfulness.

These two passages are from one of my favorite recent reads, Barbara Ehrenreich‘s Living With a Wild God (which I wrote about in more detail here.) This book has been met with mixed reviews, and some of Ehrenreich’s longstanding fans of her approach—no bullshit, straight shooter—consider this book a wrong step into the mystical and the non-substantiated. For many, science is the religion of our era, and Ehrenreich has committed a heresy.

Whether the issue is science, politics, lifestyle, religious practice or art making, I am frustrated by the concept of dogma. There is not just one way to know or understand or do, and my inner agent provocateur gets called up when that is not acknowledged. Bring up the topic of crop circles or alien contactees around physicists and scientists, and they can’t depart your company fast enough. Once they are “Vaticanized” and ordained into their profession, spending any time in the mysterious (and at times mystical) fringe would be career suicide. Science has rules, regulations and practices, and if you break out you are marked.

And even though some have expelled Ehrenreich from the clan of the anointed, it may be that the reductionist/scientific stance is actually softening just a little. Ehrenreich describes how much the practice of science has changed over her lifetime, and her insights dovetail with those expressed by another scientist willing to step into the arena of the unanswered and unknowable, Alan Lightman. In his recent book, The Accidental Universe, Lightman (who is both a novelist and theoretical physicist) devotes an entire chapter to discussing what he terms the “spiritual universe.”

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We scientists are taught from an early age of our apprenticeship not to waste time on questions that do not have clear and definite answers. But artists and humanists often don’t care what the answer is because definite answers don’t exist to all interesting and important questions…For many artists and humanists, the question is more important than the answer.

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There are things we believe in that do not submit to the methods and reductions of science. Furthermore, faith and the passion for the transcendent that often goes with it have been the impulse for so many exquisite creations of humankind…The strong sense of the infinite, the belief in an unseen order in the world, the feeling of being in the presence of something divine are all personal.

Lightman has been part of a group of scientists and artists (centered in and around Cambridge MA) who explore contrasting beliefs and disparate ways of knowing. He and his friends are “fascinated by how science and religion can coexist in our minds.”

His solution has been to distinguish between the physical universe—that “constellation of all physical matter and energy that scientists study”—and the spiritual universe, the territory of religion and the nonmaterial. “All of us have had experiences that are not subject to rational analysis,” he writes. “Besides religion, much of our art and our values and our personal relationships with other people spring from such experiences.” For Lightman, the distinction between the physical and the spiritual universes mirrors the essential tension of the personal and the impersonal. While the spiritual universe is perceived by many to hover out just beyond our personal being, the evidence of that universe is extremely personal.

The personal and the impersonal, the willingness to acknowledge a multiverse of more dimensions than we can see or measure—these are expansions in thinking that have import on more than just the practice of science. As Ehrenreich put is so eloquently, the playfulness appears to be unquenchable, dogma be damned.

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Nowists United

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Joi Ito, my favorite nowist

The selection of Joi Ito as Director of the MIT Media Lab in 2011 was a departure from the norm. A former nightclub DJ and college dropout turned venture capitalist, Ito is a selfmade entrepreneur, visionary, “adventure capitalist”, tech guru. In recent interviews, Ito has shared his approach to innovation now that he is at the helm of one of the world’s top computing science labs. Reading his words is like encountering a blueprint for how I need (and want) to be and do in my studio. Creativity is creativity after all, but it is comforting—and less isolating—when science and art spill over into each other’s worlds.

Here are some excerpts from a recent post that demonstrate some of those commonalities:

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It has always been my opinion that “education” is something people do to you, whereas “learning” is something you do for yourself. Consequently, the only thing I learned in school was typing. In the old days, people like me who don’t have college degrees had a hard time thriving in society. But today, the ability to learn on your own or from your peers has become really easy. I think this change is leading to a fundamental disruption in education. Independent and lifelong learning are really starting to peak—there is an inflection point coming around how people learn.

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I don’t believe in futurists that much anymore—they are usually wrong. I’m calling myself a “nowist,” and I’m trying to figure out how to build up the ability to react to anything. In other words, I want to create a certain agility. The biggest liability for companies now is having too many assets; you need to learn how to be fluid and agile.

It’s kind of a spiritual thing. You want to have your peripherals wide open and adapt as quickly as you can. I think that will be an important survival trait of people and companies in the future…What I’m searching for are people and things that don’t fit anywhere: The misfits of society.”

A nowist. What a great word to also describe what a “trust the process” artist strives for. The ability to react to anything. To be agile. Fluid. And a bit of a misfit.

And yes, I would agree with Ito: It IS kind of a spiritual thing.

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Who needs a peacock’s tail when you can build this for your lady love? The bower created by a male bowerbird.

David Rothenberg is a jazz musician and a professor of philosophy. He has written a number of books, several of them focused on the interface between natural sounds (like the songs of birds and whales) with jazz and other musical forms. In his most recent and thought provoking book, Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science and Evolution, Rothenberg moves into the visual realm, exploring how beauty fits into the current concept of Darwinian evolution. Is beauty part of natural selection? Can its abundance in nature truly be explained by sexual selection?

Rothenberg makes a strong case for aesthetic selection. Beauty as a determiner. This is a delicious thought.

One of Rothenberg’s prime examples is the bowerbird. Each species creates a very particular style of bower, an undertaking that is extremely arduous. Amazingly, these structural—and very sculptural—creations are not nests nor are they used for anything “practical.” They are extravagant expressions designed to please the eye of the female bowerbird.

In many ways they seem to defy evolution since their sole purpose is to look good. But Rothenberg suggests that birds have their own aesthetic, similar to human “schools” of art, like abstract expressionism or cubism. And looking at the photographs of bowers below, how can anyone not think of our own human bowerbird, Andy Goldsworthy?

From the book:

The female satin bowerbirds do choose their mate after what they see in the bower and what they take in from the song and dance. But are they really evaluating the quality of their mate? Modern sexual selection theory says what they are looking for is good genes, while Darwin’s original sexual selection theory focused only on what the females like. Look what he has created—an artwork with style and substance, something no animal besides humans is known to do. Are we to brush all this effort off as a sign or a code for something more mundane and hidden? What if bowerbirds attract, mate and procreate for the propagation of bowers, not offspring? Look at the process as an example of aesthetic selection…

[These are] not structures to live in, but for the females to admire. They are built to be one thing—beautiful.

Rothenberg goes to to say that he does not believe evolution as we know it can explain art, but “a deeper consideration of art can enhance our understanding of evolution.”

He also writes this memorable line:

I believe our understanding of nature increases if we spend more time wondering about all this useless beauty.

This book is full of many treasures. I’ll be drawing from it in future posts.

Below, a sampling of different bowerbird offerings:

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Only one tree in my Brookline neighborhood is hosting a playful colony of shell-like parasols

My last post elicited several provocative comments and instigated a number of compelling conversations over the last few days. As a result I have continued to sit with several of ideas presented in The Tree, by John Fowles. It is winter in the Northeast after all, a season that inclines us to the warm fire, big armchair contemplation of our place in nature. And as the face of nature moves into its most extreme expression for us in this part of the planet, we meet it with preparation, protection and respect.

Here are a few more memorable paragraphs from the book. The selection below is actually from the introduction by the environmentalist writer Barry Lopez:

The Linnean mentality, which fussed endlessly to make nature seem categorical, serves in turn to introduce us to the differing approach of science and “the kind of experience or knowledge we loosely define as art.” Science pounces on chaos—on “unphilosophical, irrational, uncontrollable, incalculable” nature. Art perceives no threat, no great evil in unlimited chaos; the engagement with nature is personal, intimate, and without objective…

Fowles sets down what he believes is the most dangerous of all our contemporary forms of alienation—”our growing emotional and intellectual detachment from nature.” He suggests the remedy for this lies with recognizing the debit side of the scientific revolution, understanding especially the change it has effected in our modes of perceiving and experiencing the world as individuals.

“Science is centrally, almost metaphysically, obsessed by general truths…but all nature, like all humanity, is made of minor exceptions, of entities that some way, however scientifically disregardable, do not confirm to the general rule. A belief in this kind of exception is as central to art as a belief in the utility of generalization is to science.”

Lopez points to Fowles’ use of paradox to illuminate and explore. Paradox it seems is elemental to a discussion of these issues.

The key to this paradox is the distinction Fowles makes between art and science. There is not the space here to elucidate, which is perhaps the coward’s way out on this, but some paradoxes are forever unresolvable and therefore, like koans, provoking and valuable. The best books about nature, like this one, drive you back out there, to the inchoate, the chaotic, the unresolvable.

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Winter light in Amory Park, Brookline MA

James Elkins is a tireless advocate for seeing—not just looking, but seeing. A professor at the Art Institute of Chicago, Elkins writes books about art that anyone, artist or otherwise, will find compelling. His books (there are nearly 20) range from How to Use Your Eyes, Pictures and Tears: A History of People Who Have Cried in Front of Paintings, to Why Art Cannot Be Taught: A Handbook For Art Students.

This fall Elkins has done four posts on Huffington Post addressing a variety of art related topics like How to Look at Mondrian, How Long Does it Take To Look at a Painting?, Are Artists Bored by Their Work? and Looking at the Sky. Ice Halos: Divine Signals Or The Ultimate Art Installation?

There is much to be said in response to each of these postings. But given the recent snow storm that passed through Boston, this last topic is of particularly interest. After reading his article I feel as if I have been given a whole new set of tools with which to look at the winter light and sky.

Sampling:

Why choose ice halos? Why not start with landscapes, faces, or bodies–things that are more common in art? Because ice halos are a spectacular example of our blindness…ice halos are the exotic winter cousins of rainbows: both are caused by water suspended in clouds, but ice halos appear when the water has frozen into tiny crystals.

The halo [pictured] is called the twenty-two degree halo. (It should have a more spectacular name, but that’s science for you.) It appears mostly in the wintertime, when it is very cold and the air is dry…The twenty-two degree ice halo is very large; it is a different creature from the aureoles and brownish-blue coronas that sometimes form just around the sun or moon. Twenty-two degrees is double the spread of your hand at arm’s length, so the halo is a little overwhelming, as if it were somehow very close to you.


Twenty-two degree halo (Photo: James Elkins)

Elkins goes on to elucidate a variety of light phenomena that we have to train our eyes to see such as twenty-two degree parhelia, or “sun dogs,” and sun pillars. In researching this phenomenon Elkins read up on the scientific explanations. But his conclusions are similar to ones I have come to as well:

A number of physicists have worked on understanding ice halos, and in 1980 Robert Greenler wrote a book that explains virtually all of them…But in the end, it is a little sad to see nature explained so efficiently, so ruthlessly. My favorite parts of Greenler’s book are the moments when he admits defeat. I don’t mind the science: it’s interesting, but it has very little to do with the experience of looking. Sometimes I read about the latest observations and research, and other times I am more interested in what Keats called negative capability: I suspend my desire to understand all these things in terms of hexagons, reflection, and refraction. I no longer believe that my fascination is answered by diagrams of ice crystals.


Types of ice halos–a sky full! (Image: James Elkins)

No, diagrams don’t do it. Not in the least.

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Remember the jam experiment? Actually it was the work of Sheena Iyengar, a psychologist who convinced a luxury food store in Menlo Park to test customer responses to jam samples. Sometimes there were 6 choices, other times 24. What Iyengar discovered was that lots of options drew more shoppers over to the display, but after sampling the shoppers who chose from the smaller number were 10 times more likely to actually make a purchase. In other words, 30 percent versus 3 percent. Too many options appear to make it more difficult to make a buying choice.

This experiment has been co-opted and retold over and over again. Iyengar says that it quickly moved into the public domain and then other people would tell her what her research meant. “The study hardly seems mine anymore, now that it has received so much attention and been described in so many different ways,” she said. “From the various versions people have heard and passed on, a refrain has emerged: More is less. That is, more choice leads to less satisfaction or fulfillment or happiness.”

Iyengar has written a new book that takes that line of thinking to an even deeper, more nuanced place. From a review of Iyengar’s The Art of Choosing written by Virginia Postrel in the New York Times:

More choice is not always better, [Iyengar] suggests, but neither is less. The optimal amount of choice lies somewhere in between infinity and very little, and that optimum depends on context and culture. “In practice, people can cope with larger assortments than research on our basic cognitive limitations might suggest,” Iyengar writes. “After all, visiting the cereal aisle doesn’t usually give shoppers a nervous breakdown.”

Iyengar actually moves her research into interesting territory. For example she compares the issue of choice for religiously observant people versus those who have no imposed code of behavior. What she found was that the prevalence of rules does not rob people of a strong sense of their options. While those who follow a religious path have fewer choices, that commitment to a narrow code seems to empower them and give them a sense of control over their lives.

From the review:

Unlike “provocative” books designed to stir controversy, “The Art of Choosing” is refreshingly thought-provoking. Contemplating Iyengar’s wide-ranging exploration of choice leads to new questions: When is following custom a choice? How costly must a decision be to no longer qualify as a choice? Did Calvinism spur worldly achievement because its doctrine of predestination removed all choice about the hereafter? Do con­temporary Americans adopt food taboos like veganism because they crave limits on an overabundance of choices?

Human beings, Iyengar suggests, are born to choose. But human beings are also born to create meaning. Choice and meaning are intertwined. We use choice to define our identities, and our choices are determined by the meanings we give them, from advertising-driven associations to personal relationships and philosophical commitments. Some meanings we can articulate, while others remain beyond words. “Science can assist us in becoming more skillful choosers,” Iyengar cautions, “but at its core, choice remains an art.”

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Research continues in a pursuit of the how, why and where of who we are. A new book, The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You’ve Been Told About Genetics, Talent, and IQ Is Wrong, by David Shenk is reviewed by Annie Murphy Paul in the Sunday New York Times Book Review.

And for some reason I can’t resist reading whatever shows up on this topic. Genius is a curious thing, to be sure. (I have long been a fan of the optimistic world view reflected in the quote from John Kenneth Galbraith, “Genius is a rising market.”) But the attraction to this line of scientific inquiry is more than simple curiosity about why some minds are so extraordinary. Perhaps it is an underlying, often unstated but primal question that anyone who makes a painting or a poem or performs is constantly coming up against, like one’s face pressed against the glass: What makes it work? What makes it NOT work?

No hard, fast answers are available from Mr. Shenk, says Annie Murphy Paul. But some of his findings sound a lot like the moral code of my fearlessly hard working, tenacious pioneer ancestors—”put your shoulder to the wheel”, “try, try again”—but on steroids.

The secret to success? From Paul’s review:

The answer has less in common with the bromides of motivational speakers than with the old saw about how to get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice. Whatever you wish to do well, Shenk writes, you must do over and over again, in a manner involving, as Ericsson put it, “repeated attempts to reach beyond one’s current level,” which results in “frequent failures.” This is known as “deliberate practice,” and over time it can actually produce changes in the brain, making new heights of achievement possible. Behold our long rumored potential, unleashed at last! Shenk is vague about how, exactly, this happens, but to his credit he doesn’t make it sound easy. “You have to want it, want it so bad you will never give up, so bad that you are ready to sacrifice time, money, sleep, friendships, even your reputation,” he writes. “You will have to adopt a particular lifestyle of ambition, not just for a few weeks or months but for years and years and years. You have to want it so bad that you are not only ready to fail, but you actually want to experience failure: revel in it, learn from it.”

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According to the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, sexual fantasizing improves analytical skills. But daydreaming about love impacts your creativity.

This sounds downright Jill Bolte Taylor-esque. Left hemisphere versus right.

Melinda Wenner of Scientific American goes into more depth.

Previous research suggests that our problem-solving abilities change depending on our states of mind and that love—a broad, long-term emotion—triggers global brain pro­cessing, a state in which we see the big picture, make broad asso­ciations and connect disparate ideas. Sex, on the other hand—more specific and here and now—initiates more local processing, in which the brain zooms in and focuses on details. Researchers…wondered whether thinking about love might actually help people perform better on creative tasks, whereas imagining sex might prime people to do better on tasks requiring analytical thinking.

So researchers staged it this way: 30 participants were asked to imagine a “long, loving walk with their partners.” Another 30 were asked to imagine sex with someone they did not love. Then cognitive tests were administered.

As predicted, the love-primed ones per­formed much better on creative tasks and scored worse on analytical ques­tions, whereas the reverse was true of those who thought about sex. The researchers also subliminally primed a separate group of subjects to think about love or sex and got similar results.

“I was surprised about the strength of the effects,” says author Jens För­ster, a social psychologist at the University of Amsterdam. The re­searchers wonder whether the “big picture” perspective that lovebirds share strengthens their relationship, too, by helping couples overlook personal weaknesses and daily hassles.

So is this distinction prescriptive? In other words, when my partner Dave waxes particularly analytical, perhaps the proper response should be to give him that “you’ve been fantasizing again, haven’t you?” look…

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Another note in keeping with the theme of Science: It works, bitches (see the posting below):

The New Scientist has also reported on research into the “smell” of fear. While the article focuses on particular research testing “stress sweat” and the brain’s reaction to it, don’t we all have our own personal experience of the correlation between smell and fear as well? I certainly have experienced the differences that exist between groups of people who have collectivized their states of mind to very specific intentions.

Here are just a few personal observations to that point. Waiting with others to be called to serve on a jury, I have felt a very different collective “aura” than I experienced in a room with a similar sized group who were about to embark on a group meditation. That shift in the group aura has a number of components to it—vibration, “geometry” (for want of a better word) and odor. But the collective energy makes what can be very subtle more apparent.

I am energized by the hope that more of the great unmeasurables of life—like fear as a smell, energetic states, vibrational differences, love itself—become more scientifically substantiated. That makes those elements of life harder to dismiss and a bit less furtive.

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There are so many things about being horizontal that are worthy of praise. Look at what great things can happen in the supine position: Sex. Sleep. Meditation. And inspiration, something I came to understand from a novelist friend. While writing a complex trilogy, she would lie down whenever the direction wasn’t clear. In that position, images would come to her and the plot development would reveal itself.

So I tried that in the painting studio. Instead of arduously trying to paint through the inevitable blockages, I started experimenting with stepping away and just lying down for 10 minutes. Stopping the motion of habitual rhythms—of quieting my hands, arms and body for a brief period—had a palate-cleansing effect. I have been using this technique for years now.

The horizontal has usefulness in other domains as well. I have found a lot of marital mileage by discussing difficult topics with my partner when we are in bed rather than upright. I used to think it was the sheer power of our physical touching that kept discomforting content from creating a rift. I’m sure that’s part of it, but a new study reported in New Scientist suggests that being horizontal has its own meliorative influence. A new study found that emotional reactions to provocation vary depending on whether a subject is lying down or sitting up. This has led researchers to question the impact of horizontality on a number of medical procedures like MRIs. But the bottom line of the study is simple: Insults are better taken lying down.

Which makes me think of a great t-shirt slogan I saw while enjoying Shakespeare on the Common last night:

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This t-shirt is purchasable from xkcd.

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