Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Internet Research Revolution

Big Data for the Little Guy

New Ways To Connect The Dots
Using Your Imagination With The Internet 

 This blog-article is part of a series of 4 lengthy blog-posts 
 about creativity, imagination and intuition in the computer age 
 -- along with the need to shape our future. See the other blog-articles in this series: 
 How To Be Intuitive: Intuition, Imagination and Discovery 
 The Work of the Imagination 
 Living With Rejection: Living the Creative Life 


Scientists are excited about the possibilities with Big Data. Big Data is a new buzz word that refers to the ability of computers to process massive amounts of data that can then lead to new scientific findings and insights. 

Computers and digital information is not only a tool, but it can discover and reveal things that were not possible before. One of the earliest examples was the exploration of fractal structures by Benoit Mandelbrot. His fractal geometry, of "the art of roughness" as he called it, could only be accurately and completely constructed with the help of computers.

Diagram of Big Data and chart of the growth of digital storage.
(Top) Big Data is a tool that is changing science.
(Bottom) Diagram of the huge growth in digital storage.
Big Data is being used today, for example, to construct ancient proto-languages and to also make predictions about the development of language in the future. In this study linguists are trying to construct 600 Asian proto-languages from a massive data base of 140,000 words. See: 
Scientists create automated 'time machine' to reconstruct ancient languages

But this blog-article is about something different. It is about the ability of the individual, the little guy. It is about intuitive people with hunches who can now explore their educated guesses in ways that were not possible just a few years ago. Big Data applies to them because now they have access to huge amounts of information via the Internet -- information that can be searched quickly and is easily available on any computer. Thinkers, writers, researchers with a hunch and imagination can now 'cut to the chase' and quickly zoom in on facts to support or develop an idea, if such evidence exists. 

With the power of the Internet a person's imagination can roam free. By "connecting the dots" in new and different ways, I believe major advances in science, art and technology can be achieved. These resources allow a researcher, inventor or artist to investigate an idea or a theory to its fullest. What follows are a number of personal examples from my own work.


In 1971 I was getting a Masters Degree in Communication. I worked as a research assistant for a professor in my department. He wanted me to find everything available about talk radio with a political slant.

So I spent many hours at the million volume UNC-Chapel Hill Wilson Library -- which was huge at the time -- going through hundreds of books. This was tedious work to say the least. 

The Louis Round Wilson Library is a library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.[
Wilson Library, UNC-Chapel Hill. 1 million volumes in 1970 was considered huge.

In the beginning I slogged my way through the card catalogues which were not very helpful. They contained brief descriptions which were often misleading or incomplete. However, I quickly learned a trick to speed things up: I would find one book that I was certain was relevant and then I would get permission to go to the stacks where the actual books were shelved on book cases and look at all the books that were in the same section. This worked because the Dewey Decimal System for libraries put books with similar subjects together.

This short cut meant that I could put my hands on dozens of promising books in an hour, open each one up, check their table of contents and their index and quickly skim one or two chapters to see if I was on the right track. However, I found that this particular topic had not produced much mention in books. It turned out that most information could be found in magazines and periodicals. So when a book referenced an article, I would locate back issues of that particular magazine, rifle through a stack of issues that were usually not in order and then find the article which might or might not be relevant. This often took fifteen minutes just to find one article -- something you could now do with a couple of clicks on the computer.

After a while I learned to follow references in one article that led to another article or look for mentions in articles of a particular author or radio host -- assuming that the Wilson library had a full set of those periodicals. It was a good exercise for me, as I learned to skim articles quickly to see if they had the information I needed -- and only then to read in depth. After a while I got a nose for determining which articles would be more substantial and worth my time. At the end of the semester, I had found plenty for my professor who was quite pleased with my work.


Now -- fast forward to the Internet. 

Today a million volume library sounds like peanuts. Within seconds Google can search tens of thousands of websites that are relevant to just my query and quickly hone in on the most worthwhile ones. And forget about reading descriptions of a book or an article -- I can target specific words and phrases that should appear. \ However, my skills I developed doing research at the Wilson Library years ago have paid off because I now employ a number of short cuts such as knowing which set of words to search for and which set of words to put quotes around. This means I can often find exactly what I want in minutes. And much of the information I want is quite obscure.

Also it does not matter if what I want is in a book or an article or a column or a blog or a PDF file or in a graphic image. All of these are available to me. Of course, with the Internet, I have to check the credibility of the source and that does take a bit of time.

But wait! There is even more -- with Google Maps I can zoom in on specific areas and also find correct names. With Google Translate I can get a crude translation of a page in just about any language. With Google Earth I can almost 'walk through' any place on Earth and grab a picture of it - with Google's permission. In addition Google Books and other such projects such as Gutenberg are putting a huge number of books online. 

"The Google Books initiative has been hailed for its potential to offer unprecedented access to what may become the largest online body of human knowledge and promoting the democratization of knowledge... 
"As of October 2015, the number of scanned book titles was over 25 million, but the scanning process has slowed down in American academic libraries. Google estimated in 2010 that there were about 130 million distinct titles in the world, and stated that it intended to scan all of them."

A principle player in this new power for thinkers, bloggers and researchers is the wonderful free online encyclopedia, Wikipedia. While it is not perfect, it does provide overview articles on just about any topic in straight forward easy to understand language, but in a way that is also professional. If there is an issue with a particular entry, the editors flag that at the top of the article. The overview these articles provide are also linked to a number of expert and professional articles as well as links to a full list of references stated in the article. However, as with any good research, crucial facts and definitions of concepts need to be verified with at least two different sources. Using Wikipedia as the only source would be a mistake.

At the same time it is hard to overstate the importance of Wikipedia. Articles which cover much of human knowledge, that are linked and divided into an understandable structure, are at the center of how Western civilization has evolved. In the 1700s in Europe one of the main changes in thought was brought about by the Encyclopedia Movement -- which in large part led to the Enlightenment and the democratic and more open societies we have today in the West. As of this writing Wikipedia now has over 5 million pages in English, with a total of 40 million articles in 293 languages -- making a significant collection of knowledge available to any one who has access to an Internet connection.

Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (that is, "Encyclopedia, or a systematic dictionary of the sciences, arts, and crafts")
(Left) This early French encyclopedia, first published in 1751, was crucial to the spread of the Enlightenment and more open ideas in the west.
(Right) A figurative, tree-like diagram, of human knowledge -- not unlike the tree structure that computer hard drives use today to organize information -- was part of the Encyclopedia and known at the tree of Diderot and d'Alembert, editors of the Encyclopedia (left)

In addition to Wikipedia its companion,, contains almost 34 million images, photographs and videos that are free and available for anyone can use. 

With this much information at my finger tips, it means I can do in hours what used to take a week. And even so my work back then would not be nearly as good as that which I can accomplish today.

So the Internet is a game changer. Big time. Not only can I find things quickly, I can copy the text and the necessary crediting info and then quote them quite easily. The tens of millions of public domain images and videos also adds another layer to my research. Often a picture says more precisely and directly what I need or is actual proof of a point I am trying to make. But this is just the start.

While the Internet has streamlined my research, even more importantly it has allowed me to make connections I never would have made when I was a graduate student. Because to me the real advantage is that I can now follow my hunches. In the years before the Internet, it took too much time to trace the development of a scientific idea, for example, that might lead nowhere. Now I can do a detailed search in a matter of hours. 

So today hunches have become a large part of the way I work. I have major hunches such as a hunch for a principal topic that I might write a number of blog-articles about -- and minor hunches such as looking for a telling quote or further documentation. 

The Internet also lets me make tons of notes, bookmark websites, put them in a program that allows me to structure and search them -- and then bring them up in a week or in a year as needed.


Perhaps the best way to explain this is to give you some examples:


One of my major aims for this blog about the human experience of time, DeconstructingTime, was to prove that prehistoric people were just as smart as we are today given the technology they had at the time. 

My first major Internet discovery had to do with the 15,000 year old cave paintings at the Cave of Altamira in Spain. My father had been to that cave in the 1920s before it was closed to the pubic. When I was a child he told me that he had to go into the totally dark cave to see the paintings on the walls and the ceilings.

Because of the Internet I was able to find a large picture of the wall paintings. One image in particular jumped out, a painting of a bison. It was an accurate depiction. Then it struck me: if this was painted inside a dark cave, the painting had to have been done from memory -- and the prehistoric man who did it had to have had an almost photographic memory and also be a skilled artist. He was not some stupid crude stereotypical caveman. 

 Bison paintings in the Cave of Altamira in Spain
Wall of mostly bison paintings in the Cave of Altamira in Spain.

So I researched the Altamira cave to double check the accuracy of what my father had said. But then my intuition kicked in. Could I search the Internet to find a photograph of a bison that looked similar to the painting? I had a hunch I could. And if I could, it would prove that the stone-age painter was a highly accomplished artist able to draw an accurate painting on a cave wall from memory. 

And voila: I not only found exactly what I was looking for but in a similar pose as the painting in the cave. When you look at the two together it is remarkable how accurate that cave drawing is.

Comparison of cave painting of a bison at Altamira and photograph of a modern European bison.
(Top) Cave painting of a bison at Altamira.
(Bottom) Photograph of a modern European bison.

This blog has proved to be one of my most popular posts, with almost 1600 page views in the three year. This was my first article based on this kind of research -- and this early success encouraged me to do more of these.
See my blog-article: 
The Genius of Cavemen


Another idea I wanted to prove was that technology had to be imagined first before it could become a reality. I wondered if I could use the Internet to prove my point.
Apollo 17 Command Module as it orbited the moon.
Apollo 17 Command Module as it orbited the moon.

In the 1960s & 1970s I had closely followed the US space race and moon explorations. Then a few years ago I watched the animated 1902 movie by Méliès entitled A Trip to the Moon on YouTube. Something in that very early sci-fi film struck me but I was not sure what it was. I went back and looked at it again and it hit me: it was the design of the capsule that was being loaded into a large gun to be shot to the moon. On a hunch I still framed a colorized picture at the only point when I could see the entire module and then screen grabbed that picture. 

While I was not sure, I wanted to see how similar this capsule was to the actual command modules that were used by NASA in their the moon missions. When I researched the Internet I found not one but two NASA images that proved exactly what I was trying to say. The fictional capsule and the actual command module were strikingly similar -- which helped prove my point that early fiction and imagination had laid the ground work for the moon landing many years later.

Photo from the 1902 animated movie A Trip to the Moon compared to an early NASA design for the command module that would go to the moon.
(Top) Screen grab from the 1902 animated movie A Trip to the Moon of the moon capsule. 
(Bottom) Early NASA design for the command module that would go to the moon.

See my blog-article: 
The History of the Future


Another hunch: 
As you know this blog is about the human experience of time. In doing my research I began to wonder if someone had gone from an unconscious state to a conscious one -- a person who was intelligent and articulate. My hunch was that their perception of time would be quite different. 

It turned out that the deaf, dumb, blind Helen Keller was such a person who went from not knowing words to suddenly grasping their meaning. It happened when she was almost seven years old, so she had a full memory of the transition when it occurred. When she learned words her sense of time changed completely -- which she stated explicitly.

Helen Keller with her teacher.

(Left) Helen Keller as a child with her teacher.
(Right) Helen Keller as a grown woman who graduated from Radcliffe.

The birth of language for her, mean that time suddenly existed which it had not before.

The following is an edited composite of things she said:
Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness...and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. 
Once I knew only darkness and stillness.
My inner life, then, [ED: before consciousness] was...without past, present, or future.
It was not night—it was not day. . . . . . 
But vacancy absorbing space, 
And fixedness, without a place; 
There were no stars—no earth—no time—

After she understood words and language, time itself opened up for her.

See my blog-article about this: 
Time & Consciousness



When taking the required Western Civilization course as a freshman at UNC-Chapel Hill, my professor mocked the Earth centric astronomy of Ptolemy, even though it had been fairly accurate and had worked reasonably well for about 1500 years. The sun centered Copernican revolution had pushed this old outdated way of thinking aside, he told us, and in turn ushered in the new age of science and technology. To prove his point, he showed us a diagram of Ptolemy's complicated circles within circles known as epicycles and then the fairly simple modern view of the solar system with planets moving in simple ellipses. 

At the time I thought this was a misunderstanding of the scientific process. It was clear to me that more sophisticated science was built on the science that had come before it. The fact that Ptolemy's calculations were close was a major accomplishment and not something to be ridiculed.

Sometime later, I saw a diagram of clock gears that I found fascinating but was not sure why. Then I realized I was struck by the similarity of the gearing to the diagram of Ptolemy's circles within circles that I had seen in my history class many years earlier.

In 1989, before the Internet, I wrote a series of essays. I put forward the idea that the discredited geocentric theory was not only useful for astronomy but had led to a sophisticated understanding of gearing in complex machines. I knew that early clocks (I had just read a book about time) were basically planetariums -- so I was quite sure that the mechanics of these clocks were based on the gearing of circles as described by Ptolemy. I also knew that clocks were a key machine for the Industrial age. But in the 1980s this was as far as I could go with the idea. 

Comparison of Ptolemy's model of planetary movement around the Earth, Gears inside a clock -- early large clocks also included the movement of the planets, sun and moon, Gearing for an early steam locomotive.

(Left) Simplified diagram of Ptolemy's model of planetary and solar movement around the Earth.
(Middle) Gears inside a clock -- early large clocks also included the movement of the planets, sun and moon.
(Right) Gearing for an early steam locomotive.

However, now because of the Internet and Wikipedia, I was able to follow the geocentric model from its inception with the astronomer Ptolemy to the modern day. To my surprise there was a virtually unbroken trail of ideas, concepts and yes, mechanisms for a period of about 2000 years. Because of the Internet I believe I was able to prove that this discredited idea was, in fact, a major factor in both scientific thinking and critical to the development of clocks in particular and then later to machines. It played a major role in the industrial revolution. So instead of being an outmoded and useless ancient way of thinking, it was a vital component to scientific thought and technology -- right up to today.

See the footnote for what I wrote before the Internet was available.

See my blog-article:
How the Discredited Geocentric Cosmos
Was a Critical Component of the Scientific Revolution



The Ptolemaic universe has become a cliche for bad astronomical ideas. It described the sun, moon, and planets moving around the Earth in perfect circles, and circles within circles called epicycles. This idea was superseded by Copernicus who put the sun at the center of the solar system. His idea was refined by Kepler who described the planet's orbits as ellipses, not circles.

So Ptolemy was discredited. When I studied astronomy, Ptolemy's ideas, when they were mentioned at all, were described in disparaging terms, as foolish ideas that finally got corrected by the modern world.

But first of all, it does look as though the sun and the moon and the planets move around the Earth, so it was not foolish to assume this. Secondly his system was fairly accurate. It described the movements of the heavenly bodies reasonably well and was useful for the buildup of knowledge, the accurate observations, the necessary data so essential to astronomy or any science. The fact that his system was accurate gave astronomy a basis for Copernicus to work with. Now Copernicus's system of putting the sun at the center also used perfect circles, and epicycles, about as many as Ptolemy. So Copernicus did not totally refute Ptolemy, in fact he used a number of his ideas. Thus it really took a third genius, Kepler, to make the final discovery, that the heavenly bodies moved in ellipses, not circles.

But I have discovered through my own independent research that there is more to this story. Ptolemy's system was so precise, machines could be made which would accurately imitate the movement of the planets, sun, and moon. Some people referred to these as astronomical clocks. They were created based on Ptolemy's understanding of epicycles. These machines became an essential component for the creation of clocks. And clocks became the "key machine of the modern industrial age" according to the book A History of the Machine by Strandh.

Twenty years before he discovered his theories, Kepler was driven by the desire to prove that the solar system ran like a clock, the very clock that might not have existed without Ptolemy.

Monday, November 14, 2016

How To Be Intuitive: Intuition, Imagination and Discovery

Intuition, Imagination and Discovery

 This is part of a series of blogs about creativity, imagination, 
 and the need to shape our future. See these previous blogs:

There comes a point where the mind takes a leap 
— call it intuition or what you will — 
and comes out upon a higher plane of knowledge, 
but can never prove how it got there. 
All great discoveries have involved such a leap.
Albert Einstein

Intuition is often both a clear thought and a strong feeling at the same time -- it is a thought that literally *hits* you with its importance and often comes unexpectedly, out of the blue. 

Archimedes getting into his bath just before the Eureka moment

The most famous intuition story is about Archimedes and his Eureka moment. Eureka roughly translated means 'I've found it'. Archimedes was trying to figure out whether a crown was made of pure gold or contained some silver as well. So he needed to determine the density of the irregular shape of the crown. After struggling with the problem, he put it aside for a while. Then later sitting in his bathtub -- all at once in a flash -- he understood how to measure the volume of the crown by the water that was displaced, the key information he needed to make his calculation. He realized that the volume of water that rose when he got into the bath was equal to the volume of his body and therefore he could measure the volume of an object no matter how intricate. The story goes that he screamed, "Eureka" and was so excited he jumped out of his bath and ran naked though the streets of his city.

In our logical number driven world, intuition is frequently dismissed as not fitting with our modern rational outlook, but nothing could be further from the truth.

Einstein's great insights and Newton's as well -- two key thinkers whose ideas were/are critical for the creation of our modern world -- were originally flashes of intuition that then took years to work out, years to understand how to do the math on paper.

In his early twenties Newton saw an apple fall and suddenly in a flash connected the force that caused it to fall to the Earth with the force that affected the orbit of the moon -- a story that appears to be mostly true. Nevertheless his central work that described the necessary calculations and formulas, Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687), would not be published for another 20 years -- as  it took him that long to come up with the correct math.

A page from Isaac Newton's Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687)
in which he gave a detailed explanation of the forces of gravity.

One unique aspect of intuition is that while it feels true, how you arrived at that idea or any obvious proof of its truth is often missing. And finding that rational logical proof can be a lengthy process. 

As a teenager Einstein fantasized about riding a beam of light. He invented what came to be known as 'mind experiments'. For example, if he were traveling at the speed of light and looked into a mirror, would he see his reflection? Yet it would be ten years before he could work out the math for his Special Theory of Relativity.

“Imagination is the highest form of research.” 
“I never made one of my discoveries through the process of rational thinking” 
Albert Einstein

I believe that intuition needs to be and can be developed just as becoming skilled at math is learned. As I said about imagination -- there are ways to markedly increase your ability to imagine and the same is true for intuition.

Yet intuitions can often be wrong. So how do you know when a feeling is something you should explore or ignore?

Like much of human thought, intuition can be tested. I follow my intuitions often, but at the same time test them to see if my thought process plays out the way I think it should in the real world. Over time I have learned when to trust things and when not to -- and also to become more aware of the things that were triggering my educated guesses.

I think of myself as having a 'tool box' for my creative and imaginative thinking. Sometimes my approach is simply information gathering, sometimes logical, sometimes intuitive, sometimes I imagine several scenarios and pick the one that seems to have the best chance of succeeding. Being able to fully imagine several outcomes is often quite helpful when I need to make a decision. In hindsight my method really combines all of these -- as I use each tool when the situation requires it. And when one tool does not work, I change to another.

Perhaps one of the oddest aspects of intuition is that it is both active and passive. On the one hand you are looking for something (active) on the other hand intuition requires that you be receptive to thoughts that come into your mind (passive), as though from somewhere else. This is a key part of intuition -- to both move and be moved, to search and to be found. Again this is a bit at odds with out modern mindset, but this is how it works.

(Left) By chance as he walked near a blacksmith's shop, the ancient Greek mathematician Pythagoras heard a musical harmony when different sized blacksmith hammers hit an anvil. 
(Right) This sudden insight led to his understanding of the mathematical relationship between notes and became the basis for Pythagorean tuning.

The normal workday requires focus and attention while tuning out distracting elements. Intuition requires a more receptive and listening frame of mind. Neither approach is right or wrong -- they are simply tools in your tool box that give you the flexibility to try different approaches.

Intuition did not come naturally to me. I was brought up in a quite strict rational, logical, left brain environment. I had to teach myself to be intuitive but then test my intuitions against reality -- as intuition must pass the reality test just as logic does. 

Intuition is the supra-logic that cuts out all the routine processes of thought 
and leaps straight from the problem to the answer.
Robert Graves

Here are some examples of my intuitive thinking.

One of my first successes happened when I was sixteen. During summer vacation I went to New York City convinced I could find a sublet apartment for little money. This was just a guess on my part and everyone said it was impossible. After staying with friends and spending a week searching, it looked like I was wrong. Then I decided to go to every laundromat in the area and look at their bulletin boards. And guess what? I found a small hand written note for a summer sublet, a very tiny apartment that today would be about $400 a month, that I then rented for two months.

Here is another example:

I knew at an early age that I wanted to write and had worked on my writing up through my years in college. But when I had almost completed my bachelors degree in English and was enrolled in the Honors Program for Creative Writing, I also knew that I wanted to do something more. So I made a deliberate effort to find another art form to compliment my writing. I wanted to do something quite different -- something that required less thought, something that I could do with my hands. 

A principle goal during that time was to discover a visual way of working -- as I felt that reading and writing were not enough. However, I had been told by my father and others that I was not visual. Yet my intuition was that they were wrong.

But where to start? 

I could not draw -- it was just not something I could do as I had tried many times. But I liked working with my hands. For example, in eighth grade in a shop class, I had designed and built a simple tray out of plywood and molding. The tray not only worked well but was almost indestructible -- as I continued to use it for the rest of my life.  

Then I remembered constructing a model of the Wright Brother's first airplane, known as the Wright Flyer -- out of balsa wood and tissue paper -- for a history project in grade school. I built it with balsa strips to frame the wings and then stretched and glued tissue paper over the frame. There were no plans, so in addition I had to draw a design best as I could from old photographs. But perhaps more importantly, I remembered a feeling of extreme satisfaction when I had completed the model.

Then having just seen the Calder retrospective in New York -- the man who invented mobile sculpture -- I decided to make some simple mobiles out of balsa and tissue paper. In a sense I was picking up where I had left off nine years before when I had made the Wright Brother's plane. And voila! Making these mobiles was exactly what I had been looking for. I found that I enjoyed working with my hands as it put me in a different frame of mind -- quite different from reading, writing and doing research.

(Left)The Wright Brothers first airplane, the Wright Flyer
(Right) An example of a mobile (not by me) based on Calder's work

Now flash forward a couple of years: After I made the initial mobiles, one hands-on creation led to another. Then all of a sudden I had a camera in my hands and it was like a revelation -- it was what I had been looking for. Composition, positioning myself for a shot, and darkroom developing gave me the tactile visual art form I needed. So I have been working with photography ever since. 

(Left) One of my first successful photographs on film -- of water and reflections in a pool near my house. I developed the negative and made the print.
(Right) 30 years later: a digital photograph taken from a van while moving in the rain in traffic -- in which I used all my photographic skills (depth of field, camera movement, close-up focus, long exposure).

That is just one story about using my intuition but I could tell you many more. Because of my intuitions I found the house that I now live in 30 years ago, I met my wife, I developed my particular type of photography that I in part invented called time-flow photography and I started working with computers in 1983 -- when no one thought they were that important for individuals. And today as I work with my art photography, my intuitions guide me every step of the way. 


I do believe intuitive thoughts and ideas will come about in different ways for different people and different disciplines. But I think the following general approach would apply to many. 

When you are tackling a problem gather as much information as you can, have a clear idea of what you want to accomplish, imagine a number of scenarios, brain storm a bit and come up with some possible solutions -- but then put everything aside and go do something else for a while. It is often when you let go that the unconscious process of problem solving occurs and that out of the blue the correct solution comes to you -- like a flash. 

The Eureka Moment is also known as the Aha Moment 
Years ago I was friends with a scientist whose specialty was the 'Aha Moment'. She emphasized that her studies showed intuition was not a logical process that cranked out an answer, but rather one that required struggling with a problem and then letting go for a while. As this next link explains, intuition often requires immersion followed by incubation before the Aha Moment can occur.
Here is a recent study about how the brain comes up with an Aha solution.
This article goes into detail about how your off-time is often the best time for intuitive solutions.

To go back to Archimedes, I am quite sure he had been wrestling with the problem of how to determine the density of an irregular object when he finally gave up. While I do not know for sure, I imagine that sometime later while thinking about something else he took a bath. Then in a relaxed state he saw the water rising as he got into the bathtub and BANG, it came to him. He realized the volume of the water that rose was equal to the total volume of his body. And that with an irregular object if he factored in its weight in relation to the volume it displaced, that would give him the density. Eureka!

There are no rules here -- we're trying to accomplish something.
Thomas Edison


Reason and Intuition:
Reason and intuition are often seen as opposites. But, as a philosophy teacher pointed out, when used to their fullest extent they can almost be the same. The mistake is to equate reason with logic. Logic is mechanical and rigid -- reason is flexible. The teacher suggested, for example, that when considering a problem you fully imagine the problem and walk yourself through it in your mind. Out of that imagining would emerge the solution. And this process could be thought of as reasoning or as being intuitive. 

What that man creates by means of reason 
will pale before the art of inspired beings. 

Inspiration is closely related to intuition -- as an idea that encourages you to act can come out of the blue, for no reason. Again, I feel it is important to pay attention to such ideas and to do something when they occur no matter whether you are at work or at the beach. I have carried a notebook with me since I was 20 years old; I find the simple act of writing an idea or making a drawing on paper gives such ideas a reality. Later when I have time, I go over my notes in my notebook and decide which ideas I want to work on. Otherwise, like a dream, these thoughts can vanish and if you do not pay attention to them, they will stop coming to you -- a variation on 'use it or lose it'. As a creative person you want to encourage ideas; finding a way to pay attention and to record them will help keep your ideas flowing.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Work of the Imagination

The Work of the Imagination
A Crisis of Imagination: 
We Must Imagine the Future to Survive

This is part of a series of blogs about creativity, imagination, 
and the need to shape our future. See these blogs:
Living With Rejection: Living the Creative Life
How To Be Intuitive: Intuition, Imagination and Discovery

What is now proved was once only imagined.
William Blake
  Yet even Blake could not have imagined the impact human technology would have on the Earth as a whole.

No society has ever yet been able to handle the temptations of technology...
We have to learn to cherish this Earth and cherish it as something that's fragile, that's only one, it's all we have. We have to use our scientific knowledge to correct the dangers that have come from science and technology.
Margaret Mead
We are all interested in the future, 
for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives.
Plan 9 From Outer Space (Directed by Ed Wood) :)

The future of humankind is now directly tied to our imagination. Whether we know it or not, we have taken on the task of managing the Earth itself. With the effect that technology has had and will have on the environment, we must learn to imagine a world that we are now in charge of.

“Imagination is the highest form of research.” 
"I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world."
 "Logic will get you from A to Z; imagination will get you everywhere."
Albert Einstein

While we have abundant data from satellites, photographic imaging, temperature readings, the rate of glacier melting, etc., this is only the beginning. This is merely data. This data must be combined in sophisticated ways to create knowledge. And then with a foundation of knowledge we must begin to imagine what our world will look like in 50 years or 100 or when our great-grandchildren are alive. For the first time in our history we must look at ourselves and monitor our effect on the world's climate. 

The task is huge. it requires people who can think across a number of disciplines -- which takes many years of study, many more than it takes to get a standard advanced degree in only one subject. Then it requires that people think 'outside the box' to find a way that we can live with and mitigate the impact of human technology on the Earth.
The old bond between humans and nature has been permanently altered by technology. The task of the 21st century artist and inventor is to forge a new relationship between humans and the world, since our fate is inseparable from that of the Earth.
Rick Doble (1999)

This is a tall order. But a key is the ability to imagine what the future could be. As I wrote in my blog The History of the Future , the future must first be imagined before actual working inventions, concepts and formulas can be created. I call this initial thinking 'The Work of the Imagination'. 

(Top) 1902: Still from the Méliès Sci-Fi film: A Trip to the Moon. The command module that held the astronauts was inserted into a super-gun to send it to the moon. 
(Bottom) 1964: A NASA drawing of the command module that would take astronauts to the moon.  (NASA)
The similarity in the shape between the module in the 1902 film fantasy and the actual NASA design is remarkable.
1972: The Apollo 17 actual command module floating above the moon in 1972. Notice the similarity in shape and even the similarity in construction with the Sci-Fi module (above) in the Méliès 1902 film, A Trip to the Moon.


The Imagination Connection Between:
Jules Verne's novel From the Earth to the Moon (1865)
and the Apollo landing on the Moon in 1969
Book cover of an English translation of Verne's novel of 1865.

"During their return journey from the moon, the crew of Apollo 11 made reference to Jules Verne's book during a TV broadcast on July 23, 1969. The mission's commander, astronaut Neil Armstrong, said, 'A hundred years ago, Jules Verne wrote a book about a voyage to the Moon. His spaceship, Columbia [sic], took off from Florida and landed in the Pacific Ocean after completing a trip to the Moon. It seems appropriate to us to share with you some of the reflections of the crew as the modern-day Columbia completes its rendezvous with the planet Earth and the same Pacific Ocean tomorrow.' " 

NOTE: In Jules Verne's novel the command module was shot into space by Americans from a location in Florida just as the Apollo 11 mission had done. In the novel the method for firing the command module into space was with a Columbiad super-gun.

Now many of the things imagined will not be built or will not work, but from a world community of imaginary technologies and outcomes, the necessary ideas and technologies could emerge.

I find that few men of imagination are not worth my attention. 
Their ideas may be wrong, even foolish, but their methods often repay a close study.
Stephen Jay Gould

Late Breaking News!

NOW! On October 5, 2016 the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to three nanotechnology scientists who have made great advances in designing microscopic machines known as molecular machines or nanomachines. The idea of such machines first appeared in a 1966 science fiction  movie, Fantastic Voyage. This concept was so farfetched everyone assumed it was pure fantasy. In the movie a tiny submarine, smaller than a white blood cell, was placed into an important scientist's body so that his damaged brain could be fixed. This is a contemporary example of the importance of imagination -- and that what has been proven must first be imagined.  


However, we live in time that is quite self-conscious. And the constant comments and chatter that people now experience on their cell phones and social media has put an additional damper on this kind of thinking. I call this a 'Crisis of Imagination'.

Think I am exaggerating, consider these lyrics from a popular contemporary song.

Stressed Out  (2015) by Twenty One Pilots
Album: Blurryface
I wish I found some better sounds no one's ever heard
I wish I had a better voice that sang some better words
I wish I found some chords in an order that is new
I wish I didn't have to rhyme every time I sang

I was told when I get older all my fears would shrink
But now I'm insecure and I care what people think

My name's Blurryface and I care what you think

I am not sure why Blurryface thought his fears would go away when he got older. As teachers know, kids often become quite critical as they grow up and lose the ability to draw or paint with the freedom they had when they were younger. As many people have pointed out, from Picasso to Einstein, this is neither necessary or desirable.

Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.
Pablo Picasso

The Supertramp's Logical Song of 1979 says it best:
(Album: Breakfast in America)
When I was young, it seemed that life was so wonderful,
A miracle, oh it was beautiful, magical.
And all the birds in the trees, well they'd be singing so happily,
Joyfully, playfully watching me.
But then they send me away to teach me how to be sensible,
Logical, responsible, practical.
And they showed me a world where I could be so dependable,
Clinical, intellectual, cynical.

The effort to make young people logical and clinical as they grow has been around for a long time. However, I do believe that our era today is more self-conscious than when I was growing up. I also believe that this can put a damper on 'thinking outside the box' or on fledgling ideas that are often rudely criticized before they have a chance to develop.

However, I also believe the ability to reach out to the creative and imaginative side can be recovered. Like anything, to be able to imagine you must do the work. Don't use it and you lose it. Like exercising muscles, you must use your imagination on a regular basis. And the more you use, it the easier it is to see new things in your mind.

Plan 9 From Outer Space was the winner of the Golden Turkey Award as the "Worst Film of All Time" and Ed Wood (writer, director and producer) as "Worst Director." Ed Wood is now admired for his perseverance as a moviemaker in spite of overwhelming obstacles. Oddly it was the Golden Turkey Awards that brought him out of obscurity and a reevaluation of his work; his relentless enthusiasm in spite of damning criticism has earned him a respect that he was never given in his lifetime.

Part of learning to imagine requires that you do not let others influence your ideas in a negative way. First of all you do not have to share your work unless you want to. Second when you do share your work pay attention to the attitude behind any comments. Did the person 'get' what you were trying to do; did they have their own agenda and see what you were doing as a threat or as incompatible with their preconceptions. Were they constructive or were they jealous? Everyone has their own point of view which affects how they see things -- but some people can be more objective than others.


In a limited way all of us use our imagination often. We use it when we think about an upcoming party on Saturday or when we think about our home when we are away. Imagination is always there, but is often used for everyday tasks rather than creative tasks.

So how could a person add to, develop and enhance their ability to imagine?

When I was teaching a short story creative writing class, I assigned the following exercise: I asked each person to go back to a house or place that they had known as a child and fully describe it. I asked them to walk through the place in their mind and to use all of their senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell etc. I asked them to touch the walls, look out the windows, smell the food in the kitchen, sit in a chair. No one that I taught over a number of years had any problem with this exercise and for many they felt it opened a door to the imagining they needed to write a good short story.

In a personal example, I built a small studio out in the woods of our property. I drew a crude drawing of what I wanted with measurements  (I really cannot draw) but it was good enough to tell the builder exactly what I wanted. Then I went into the woods, cleared the area where the studio was to be and put stakes in the ground at each corner with a string from stake to stake. Then I put an actual chair on the ground in the middle and looked out through the imagined windows, sat at the imagined desk and grabbed a book from an imagined bookcase. When the building was finished it was exactly as I had imagined it and it felt quite comfortable.

"To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk."
Thomas Edison

(Left) A MAGIC BULLET: In the early 1900s physician and scientist Paul Ehrlich imagined an ideal medicine, a 'magic bullet', that would attack harmful diseases but would avoid hurting the normal body. This idea has been a key concept in the development and discovery of a number of modern medicines, such a cancer drugs and antibiotics.

(Middle) WAR OF THE WORLDS: Robert Goddard was inspired by the fictional novel War of the Worlds of H. G. Wells which he read in 1898 at the age of 16. Considered the father of American rocketry, in this picture taken in 1926 he was standing next to the first liquid-propellant rocket -- an essential element of modern rocketry.

(Right) 2-WAY WRIST RADIO: In 1946 a 2-Way Wrist Radio was introduced in the Dick Tracy comic strip. In 1964 this turned into a  2-Way Wrist TV that Dick Tracy wore. A small wireless portable easy to use communication device such as this became a central idea that led to the development of cell phones.


I have always been interested in ancient peoples and cultures; I had what I called my 'museum' starting when I was ten years old. I collected all kinds of things from different time periods including Indian arrow heads and a Neolithic stone ax. My Dad encouraged me and brought me things from his travels around the world. And he told me a story of going into the Cave of Altamira -- which was open at the time -- and seeing the Paleolithic paintings on the cave walls. Ever since then I have been fascinated by this time in human history.

When I started writing this blog, one of my themes was that ancient people were just as smart as modern people, given the technology of their time. I was quite sure about this based on the quality of the 15,000 year old cave paintings at Altamira which were beautiful, had remained in good condition and also contained realistic drawings of bison.  

In my research for this blog I came across articles about the Neolithic passage-tomb at Newgrange in Ireland. Although people had been aware of it for centuries, it was only about 50 years ago that a dedicated archaeologist realized it was aligned with the winter solstice sunrise. As I read more about Newgrange, what I call 'bells and whistles' went off in my head -- a sign that there was something very significant about this new stone-age structure. My intuition and my imagination were starting to kick in.

Photograph of Newgrange showing how the light moves down the passageway. 

Used with permission: photo by Anthony Murphy,

So I collected photographs of Newgrange, read reports, and put together data about the way the sun entered the passageway. Next I imagined myself in that passageway as the sun entered it around the time of the winter solstice. The light came in, advanced down the opening, reached to the back and then receded -- an event that took about 17 minutes. As a photographer with 40 years experience I could see all of this quite clearly in my mind.

After much research and putting together data from various studies, I came to the conclusion that the Neolithic people at Newgrange, 3000 years before Greece or Rome, had built a precise instrument that could determine the day of the winter solstice in real time -- which the Greeks or Romans could not do. Whether I am right or not remains to be seen -- but there is a way to definitely prove it.  

Here is the link to this article which I first posted it on this blog:
Computing the Winter Solstice at Newgrange: 
Was Neolithic Science Equal To or Better 
Than Ancient Greek or Roman Science?

To my delight my article has been well received and reprinted at the official Newgrange website in Ireland.

So that is my story but here is another one by a master inventor with a detailed explanation of how he was able to imagine and then build a number of sophisticated electronic devices.


The American Magazine
April, 1921
Making Your Imagination Work for You
An Interview With Nikola Tesla

Two great men who lived by their imagination: 
(Left) Nikola Tesla "in front of the spiral coil of his high-voltage Tesla coil transformer" in 1896. 
(Right) Mark Twain playing with electricity in Tesla's lab in 1895.

By that faculty of visualizing...I have evolved what is, I believe, a new method of materializing inventive ideas and conceptions. It is a method which may be of great usefulness to any imaginative man, whether he is an inventor, business man, or artist.
Some people, the moment they have a device to construct or any piece of work to perform, rush at it without adequate preparation, and immediately become engrossed in details, instead of the central idea. They may get results, but they sacrifice quality.
Here, in brief, is my own method: After experiencing a desire to invent a particular thing, I may go on for months or years with the idea in the back of my head. Whenever I feel like it, I roam around in my imagination and think about the problem without any deliberate concentration. This is a period of incubation.
Then follows a period of direct effort. I choose carefully the possible solutions of the problem. I am considering, and gradually center my mind on a narrowed field of investigation. Now, when I am deliberately thinking of the problem in its specific features, I may begin to feel that I am going to get the solution. And the wonderful thing is that if I do feel this way, then I know I have really solved the problem and shall get what I am after.
This feeling is as convincing to me as though I already had solved it. I have come to the conclusion that at this stage the actual solution is in my mind subconsciously, though it may be a long time before I am aware of it consciously.
Before I put a sketch on paper, the whole idea is worked out mentally. In my mind, I change the construction, make improvements, and even operate the device. Without ever having drawn a sketch, I can give the measurements of all parts to workmen, and when completed these parts will fit, just as certainly as though I had made accurate drawings. It is immaterial to me whether I run my machine in my mind or test it in my shop.
The inventions I have conceived in this way, have always worked. In thirty years there has not been a single exception. My first electric motor, the vacuum tube wireless light, my turbine engine, and many other devices have all been developed in exactly this way.
 One of Tesla's inventions, the electric induction motor of 1888, 
that he first imagined in detail in his mind.