ذهن چند بعدی را بیدار کن - بخش پنجمکتاب: تسلط - رابرت گرین / فصل 16
ذهن چند بعدی را بیدار کن - بخش پنجم
- زمان مطالعه 59 دقیقه
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دانلود اپلیکیشن «زیبوک»
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- The High End
Yoky Matsuoka (see chapter 1, here) always had the feeling that she was different from others. It wasn’t so much how she dressed or looked, but her interests that set her apart. As a teenager in Japan in the early 1980s, she was expected to focus on a particular subject that she would transform into a career. But as she got older, her interests only widened. She had a love for physics and mathematics, but was attracted to biology and physiology as well. She was also a talented athlete with a future as a professional tennis player, until an injury cut this short. On top of it all, she loved working with her hands and tinkering with machines.
Much to her relief, when she began her undergraduate studies at the University of California at Berkeley, she fell upon a subject that seemed to open up all sorts of larger questions that would satisfy her voracious, wide-ranging interests—the relatively new field of robotics. After completing her undergraduate studies, curious to explore this subject further, she entered the masters program in robotics at MIT. As part of her work in the department, she was to help in the design of the large-scale robot they were building, and soon she chose to work exclusively on the design of the robot’s hands. She had always been fascinated by the complexity and power of the human hand, and with the chance to combine so many of her interests (mathematics, physiology, and building things), it seemed she had finally found her niche.
As she began her work on the hands, however, she realized yet again how different she was in her way of thinking. The other students in the department were mostly men, and they tended to reduce everything to questions of engineering—how to pack the robot with as many mechanical options as possible so it could move and act in reasonably human ways. They thought of their robot as intrinsically a machine. To build it meant solving a series of technical issues and creating a kind of moving computer that could mimic some basic thought patterns.
Matsuoka had a much different approach. She wanted to create something as lifelike and anatomically correct as possible. That was the real future of robotics, and to reach such a goal meant engaging in questions that were on a much higher level—what makes anything alive and organically complex? To her, it was as important to study evolution, human physiology, and neuroscience as it was to immerse oneself in engineering. Perhaps it would complicate her career path, but she would follow her own inclinations and see where they led.
In going about her design, Matsuoka made a key decision: she would begin by building a model of a robotic hand that would replicate the human hand as closely as possible. In attempting such an enormous task, she would be forced to truly understand how each part functioned. For instance, in trying to recreate all of the various bones of the hand, she came upon all kinds of seemingly irrelevant bumps and grooves. The bone at the knuckle of the index finger has a bump that makes it larger on one side. In studying this one detail, she discovered its function—giving us the ability to grasp objects in the center of the hand with more power. It seemed odd that such a bump would evolve expressly for that purpose. Probably it was some mutation that ended up becoming a part of our evolution, as the hand became increasingly important in our development.
Continuing in this line she worked on the palm of her robotic hand, which she had determined was in many ways the key to the design. For most engineers, robotic hands were designed for optimal power and maneuverability. They would build in all kinds of mechanical options, but to make it work they would have to pack all of the motors and cables in the most convenient place, the palm, rendering it completely rigid. After designing hands like this, they would then fob them off to software engineers to try to figure out to how bring back maneuverability. Because of the built-in rigidity, however, the thumb would never be able to touch the pinky, and engineers would inevitably end up with the same highly limited robotic hand.
Matsuoka started from the other end. Her goal was to discover what makes the hand dexterous, and it was clear that one critical requisite was to have a flexible, curved palm. Thinking on this higher level, it then became clear that the motors and cables had to be placed somewhere else. Instead of jamming the hand with motors everywhere so that everything could move, she determined that the most important maneuverable part of the hand was the thumb, the key to our grasping skills. That is where she would put more power.
She continued on this path, uncovering more and more of the details that went into the marvelous mechanics of the human hand. As she worked in this peculiar way, other engineers would scoff at her and her strange biological approach. What a waste of time, they would tell her. In the end, however, what she called her anatomically correct test-bed hand soon became the model for the industry, revealing whole new possibilities for prosthetic hands, vindicating her approach, and gaining her fame and recognition for her engineering skills.
This, however, was only the beginning of her quest to get at the organic nature of the hand and to literally recreate it. After graduating with a master’s degree in robotics, she returned to MIT to pursue a PhD in neuroscience. Currently, armed with deep knowledge about the neuro-signals that make the hand-brain connection so unique, she is pursuing the goal of creating a prosthetic hand that can actually connect to the brain, operating and feeling as if it were real. To reach such a goal, she continues to work on high-end concepts, such as the influence of the hand-brain connection on our thinking in general.
In her lab she has done tests to see how people manipulate ambiguous objects with their eyes closed. She studies how they explore them with their hands, and records the elaborate neuro-signals that are generated in the process. She wonders if there could be a connection between such exploration and abstract thought processes (perhaps involving similar neuro-signals), such as when we are confronted with a problem that seems difficult to solve. She is interested in building such exploratory sensations into the prosthetic hand. In other experiments, in which subjects move a virtual-reality hand, she has discovered that the more people are made to feel that the hand is literally a part of their bodies, the greater the degree of control they have. Creating such sensations will be a part of the ultimate prosthetic hand she is working on. Although its realization is years away, the design of such a neurologically connected hand will have technological consequences far beyond robotics.
In many fields we can see and diagnose the same mental disease, which we shall call technical lock. What this means is the following: in order to learn a subject or skill, particularly one that is complex, we must immerse ourselves in many details, techniques, and procedures that are standard for solving problems. If we are not careful, however, we become locked into seeing every problem in the same way, using the same techniques and strategies that became so imprinted in us. It is always simpler to follow such a route. In the process we lose sight of the bigger picture, the purpose of what we are doing, how each problem we face is different and requires a different approach. We adopt a kind of tunnel vision.
This technical lock afflicts people in all fields as they lose a sense of the overall purpose of their work, of the larger question at hand, of what impels them to do their work in the first place. Yoky Matsuoka hit upon a solution to this that propelled her to the forefront of her field. It came as a reaction against the engineering approach that prevailed in robotics. Her mind naturally works better on a larger scale, continually pondering the connections between things on high levels—what makes the human hand so weirdly perfect, how the hand has influenced who we are and how we think. With these large questions governing her research, she avoids becoming narrowly focused on technical issues without understanding the bigger picture. Thinking on such a high level frees the mind up to investigate from all different angles: Why are the bones of the hand this way? What makes the palm so malleable? How does the sense of touch influence our thinking in general? It allows her to go deeply into the details without losing a sense of the why.
You must make this a model for your own work as well. Your project or the problem you are solving should always be connected to something larger—a bigger question, an overarching idea, an inspiring goal. Whenever your work begins to feel stale, you must return to the larger purpose and goal that impelled you in the first place. This bigger idea governs your smaller paths of investigation, and opens up many more such paths for you to look into. By constantly reminding yourself of your purpose, you will prevent yourself from fetishizing certain techniques or from becoming overly obsessed with trivial details. In this way you will play into the natural strengths of the human brain, which wants to look for connections on higher and higher levels.
- The Evolutionary Hijack
In the summer of 1995, Paul Graham (see chapter 2, here) heard a story on the radio promoting the endless possibilities of online commerce, which at the time hardly existed. The promotion came from Netscape, which was trying to drum up interest in its business on the eve of its IPO. The story sounded so promising, yet so vague. At the time, Graham was at a bit of a crossroads. After graduating from Harvard with a PhD in computer engineering, he had fallen into a pattern: he would find some part-time consulting job in the software business; then, with enough money saved, he would quit the job and devote his time to his real love—art and painting—until the money ran out, and then he would scramble for another job. Now thirty-one-years old, he was getting tired of the pattern, and he hated consulting. The prospect of making a lot of money quickly by developing something for the Internet suddenly seemed very appealing.
He called up his old programming partner from Harvard, Robert Morris, and interested him in the idea of collaborating on their own startup, even though Graham had no clue where they would start or what they would develop. After a few days of discussing this, they decided they would try to write software that would enable a business to generate an online store. Once they were clear about the concept, they had to confront a very large obstacle in their way. In those days, for a program to be popular enough it would have to be written for Windows. As consummate hackers, they loathed everything about Windows and had never bothered to learn how to develop applications for it. They preferred to write in Lisp and have the program run on Unix, the open-source operating system.
They decided to postpone the inevitable and wrote the program for Unix anyway. To translate this later into Windows would be easy, but as they contemplated doing this, they realized the terrible consequences it would lead to—once the program was launched in Windows, they would have to deal with users and perfect the program based on their feedback. This would mean they would be forced to think and program in Windows for months, perhaps years. This was too awful a prospect, and they seriously considered giving up.
One morning Graham, who had been sleeping on a mattress on the floor in Morris’s Manhattan apartment, woke up repeating certain words that must have come to him from a dream: “You could control the program by clicking on links.” He suddenly sat bolt upright, as he realized what these words could mean—the possibility of creating a program to set up an online store that would run on the web server itself. People would download and use it through Netscape, clicking various links on the web page to set it up. This would mean he and Morris would bypass the usual route of writing a program that users would download to their desktop. It would cut out the need ever to have to dabble in Windows. There was nothing out there like this, and yet it seemed like such an obvious solution. In a state of excitement he explained his epiphany to Morris, and they agreed to give it a try. Within a few days they finished the first version, and it functioned beautifully. Clearly, the concept of a web application would work.
Over the next few weeks they refined the software, and found their own angel investor who put up an initial $10,000 for a 10 percent share in the business. In the beginning, it was quite hard to interest merchants in the concept. Their application server provider was the very first Internet-run program for starting a business, at the very frontier of online commerce. Slowly, however, it began to take off.
As it panned out, the novelty of their idea, which Graham and Morris had come upon largely because of their distaste for Windows, proved to have all kinds of unforeseen advantages. Working directly on the Internet, they could generate a continuous stream of new releases of the software and test them right away. They could interact directly with consumers, getting instant feedback on their program and improving it in days rather than the months it could take with desktop software. With no experience running a business, they did not think to hire salespeople to do the pitching; instead, they made the phone calls to potential clients themselves. But as they were the de facto salespeople, they were also the first to hear complaints or suggestions from consumers, and this gave them a real feel for the program’s weaknesses and how to improve it. Because it was so unique and came out of left field, they had no competitors to worry about; nobody could steal the idea because they were the only ones who were insane enough to attempt it.
Naturally, they made several mistakes along the way, but the idea was too strong to fail; and in 1998 they sold their company, named Viaweb, to Yahoo! for $50 million.
As the years went by and Graham looked back at the experience, he was struck by the process he and Morris had gone through. It reminded him of so many other inventions in history, such as microcomputers. The microprocessors that made the microcomputer possible had originally been developed to run traffic lights and vending machines. They had never been intended to power computers. The first entrepreneurs to attempt this were laughed at; the computers they had created looked hardly worthy of the name—they were so small and could do so little. But they caught on with just enough people for whom they saved time, and slowly, the idea took off. The same story had occurred with transistors, which in the 1930s and ’40s were developed and used in electronics for the military. It was not until the early 1950s that several individuals had the idea of applying this technology to transistor radios for the public, soon hitting upon what would become the most popular electronic device in history.
What was interesting in all of these cases was the peculiar process that led to these inventions: generally, the inventors had a chance encounter with the available technology; then the idea would come to them that this technology could be used for other purposes; and finally they would try out different prototypes until the right one fell into place. What allows for this process is the willingness of the inventor to look at everyday things in a different light and to imagine new uses for them. For people who are stuck in rigid ways of seeing, the familiarity of an old application hypnotizes them into not seeing its other possibilities. What it all really comes down to is the possession of a flexible, adaptable mind—something that is often enough to separate a successful inventor or entrepreneur from the rest of the crowd.
After cashing in on Viaweb, Graham hit upon the idea of writing essays for the Internet—his rather peculiar form of blogging. These essays made him a celebrity among young hackers and programmers everywhere. In 2005 he was invited by undergraduates in the computer science department at Harvard to give a talk. Instead of boring them and himself by analyzing various programming languages, he decided to discuss the idea of technology startups themselves—why some work, why some fail. The talk was so successful, and Graham’s ideas so illuminating, that the students began to besiege him with questions about their own startup ideas. As he listened, he could sense that some of their concepts were not far off the mark, but that they badly needed shaping and guidance.
Graham had always intended to try his hand at investing in other people’s ideas. He had been the beneficiary of an angel investor in his project, and it was only right to return the favor by helping others. The problem was where to begin. Most angel investors had some related experience before they began investing, and they tended to start out on a small scale to get their feet wet. Graham had no such business experience. Based on this weakness, he hit upon an idea that at first glance seemed ridiculous—he would synchronously invest $15,000 in ten startups all at once. He would find these ten prospects by advertising his offer and choosing the best among the applicants. Over the course of a few months he would shepherd these novices and help guide them to the point of launching their idea. For this he would take 10 percent from any successful startup. It would be like an apprenticeship system for tech founders, but it really had another purpose—it would serve as a crash course for him in the investing business. He would be a lousy first investor and his pupils would be lousy entrepreneurs, making them a perfect match.
Yet again he recruited Robert Morris to join him in the business. A couple of weeks into the training, however, he and Morris realized that they were actually on to something powerful. Because of their experience with Viaweb they were able to give clear and effective advice. The startup ideas they were shepherding looked quite promising. Perhaps this system they had adopted as a way to learn quickly was an interesting model in itself. Most investors only handle a few startups a year; they are too overwhelmed with their own businesses to handle much more. But what if Graham and Morris were to devote their time exclusively to this apprenticeship system? They could mass-produce the service. They could fund hundreds instead of dozens of such startups. In the process they would learn in leaps and bounds, and this exponentially increasing knowledge would lead to increasing numbers of successful startups.
If it really took off, not only would they make a fortune, but they would also have a decided impact on the economy, unleashing into the system thousands of savvy entrepreneurs. They called their new company Y Combinator and considered it their ultimate hack to change the shape of the world’s economy.
They coached their apprentices in all of the principles they had learned along the way—the benefit in looking for new applications of existing technology and needs that are not being met; the importance of maintaining the closest possible relationship with customers; the need to keep ideas as simple and realistic as possible; the value of creating a superior product and of winning through craftsmanship, as opposed to fixating on making money.
As their apprentices learned, they learned as well. Oddly enough, they discovered that what really makes successful entrepreneurs is not the nature of their idea, or the university they went to, but their actual character—their willingness to adapt their idea and take advantage of possibilities they had not first imagined. This is precisely the trait—fluidity of mind—that Graham had identified in himself and in other inventors. The other essential character trait was supreme tenacity.
Over the years, evolving in its own way, Y Combinator has continued to grow at an astounding rate. It is valued now at $500 million, with the clear potential for further growth.
We generally have a misconception about the inventive and creative powers of the human mind. We imagine that creative people have an interesting idea, which they then proceed to elaborate and refine in a somewhat linear process. The truth, however, is much messier and more complex. Creativity actually resembles a process known in nature as evolutionary hijacking. In evolution, accidents and contingencies play an enormous role. For instance, feathers evolved from reptilian scales, their purpose being to keep birds warm. (Birds evolved from reptiles.) But eventually, those existing feathers became adapted for the purpose of flying, transforming into wing feathers. For our own primate ancestors living in trees, the form of the hand largely evolved out of the need to grasp branches with speed and agility. Our early hominid ancestors, walking on the ground, found this intricately developed hand quite useful for manipulating rocks, making tools, and gesturing in communication. Perhaps language itself developed as a strictly social tool and became hijacked as a means of reasoning, making human consciousness itself the product of an accident.
Human creativity generally follows a similar path, perhaps indicating a kind of organic fatality to the creation of anything. Ideas do not come to us out of nowhere. Instead, we come upon something by accident—in the case of Graham, a radio announcement that he hears, or questions from the audience after a lecture. If we are experienced enough and the moment is ripe, this accidental encounter will spark some interesting associations and ideas in us. In looking at the particular materials we can work with, we suddenly see another way to use them. All along the way, contingencies pop up that reveal different paths we can take, and if they are promising, we follow them, not sure of where they will lead. Instead of a straight-line development from idea to fruition, the creative process is more like the crooked branching of a tree.
The lesson is simple—what constitutes true creativity is the openness and adaptability of our spirit. When we see or experience something we must be able to look at it from several angles, to see other possibilities beyond the obvious ones. We imagine that the objects around us can be used and co-opted for different purposes. We do not hold on to our original idea out of sheer stubbornness, or because our ego is tied up with its rightness. Instead, we move with what presents itself to us in the moment, exploring and exploiting different branches and contingencies. We thus manage to turn feathers into flying material. The difference then is not in some initial creative power of the brain, but in how we look at the world and the fluidity with which we can reframe what we see. Creativity and adaptability are inseparable.
- Dimensional Thinking
In 1798 Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt in an attempt to transform it into a colony, but the invasion bogged down as the British, seeking to block the French, became involved. A year later, as the war dragged on, a soldier working on the reinforcement of a French fort near the town of Rosetta dug into the ground and hit a rock. In extracting the rock, he discovered that it was some kind of relic from ancient Egypt—a slab of basalt covered in writing. Napoleon had been motivated to invade Egypt partially by his intense curiosity for all things Egyptian, and had taken along with his troops French scientists and historians to help analyze the relics he hoped to find.
In looking at the slab of basalt, which came to be known as the Rosetta stone, the French savants grew excited. It contained text written out in three different scripts—on the top, Egyptian hieroglyphs; in the middle, what is known as demotic (the language and script of the common people of ancient Egypt), and on the bottom, ancient Greek. In translating the ancient Greek, they discovered that the text was a mundane proclamation celebrating the reign of Ptolemy V (203–181 B.C.). At the end of the text, however, it stated that the proclamation was to be written out in three versions, meaning that the content was the same in the demotic and the hieroglyphic. With the ancient Greek text as the key, it suddenly seemed possible to decipher the other two versions. Since the last known hieroglyphs had been written in A.D. 394, anyone who could read them had long died off, making it a completely dead and untranslatable language and leaving a seemingly unsolvable mystery as to the content of so many of the writings in temples and on papyri. Now, perhaps, these secrets could finally be revealed.
The stone was carted off to an institution in Cairo, but in 1801 the English defeated the French in Egypt and threw them out. Knowing of the extremely high value of the Rosetta stone, they hunted it down in Cairo and shipped it off to London, where it remains to this day in the British Museum. As drawings of the stone began to be passed around, intellectuals from all parts of Europe became involved in a competition to be the first to decipher the hieroglyphs and unlock the mysteries. As they began to tackle the puzzle, some progress was made. Certain hieroglyphs were outlined in a rectangle, known as cartouches. It was determined that these cartouches contained the names of various royal figures. One Swedish professor had been able to make out the name of Ptolemy in the demotic, and speculated on the sound values the characters might have. But the initial enthusiasm for deciphering the hieroglyphs eventually died out, and many worried that they would remain undecipherable. The further anyone got with the puzzle, the more questions that were raised about the kind of writing system represented by the symbols themselves.
In 1814 a new figure entered the fray—an Englishman named Dr. Thomas Young—who quickly became the leading candidate to be the first to decipher the Rosetta stone. Although a medical doctor, he was a man who had dabbled in all the sciences and was considered something of a genius. He had the blessing of the English establishment and full access to all of the various papyri and relics the English had confiscated, including the stone itself. Furthermore, he was independently wealthy and could devote all of his time to the study. And so, throwing himself into the work with great enthusiasm, Young began to make some progress.
He had a computational approach to the problem. He counted the number of times a particular word, such as “god,” appeared in the Greek text, then found a word that appeared the same number of times in the demotic, assuming they were the same word. He did everything he could to make the letters in demotic fit his scheme—if the apparent equivalent word of “god” seemed too long, he would simply deduce that certain letters were meaningless. He assumed that the three texts went in the same order, and that he could match words by their location. Sometimes he guessed right; most often he got nowhere. He made some key discoveries—that demotic and hieroglyphs were related, the one being a kind of loose handwritten form of the other; and that demotic used a phonetic alphabet to spell out foreign names, but that it was mostly a system of pictograms. But he kept hitting dead ends, and he never got close to trying his hand at the hieroglyphs. After a few years, he essentially gave up.
In the meantime, there appeared on the scene a young man who seemed to be an unlikely candidate to succeed in this race—Jean-Francois Champollion (1790–1832). He came from a small town near Grenoble. His family was relatively poor, and until the age of seven Champollion had no formal education. But he had one advantage over all the others: from his earliest years he had been drawn to the history of ancient civilizations. He wanted to discover new things about the origins of mankind, and for this purpose he took up the study of ancient languages—Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, as well as several other Semitic languages—all of which he mastered with remarkable speed by the age of twelve.
Quickly his attention was drawn to ancient Egypt. In 1802 he heard about the Rosetta stone, and he told his older brother that he would be the one to decipher it. The moment he began to study the ancient Egyptians, he experienced a vivid identification with everything that had to do with the civilization. As a child, he had a powerful visual memory. He could draw with exceptional skill. He tended to see the writings in books (even books in French) as if they were drawings instead of an alphabet. When he first laid eyes on hieroglyphs they seemed almost familiar to him. Soon his relationship to hieroglyphs bordered on a fanatical obsession.
To really make progress, he decided he would have to learn the language known as Coptic. After Egypt became a Roman colony in 30 B.C., the old language, demotic, slowly died out, and was replaced by Coptic—a mix of Greek and Egyptian. After the Arabs conquered Egypt and converted it to Islam, making Arabic the official idiom, the remaining Christians in the land retained Coptic as their language. By Champollion’s time only a few Christians remained who still spoke the ancient language, mostly monks and priests. In 1805 just such a monk passed through Champollion’s small town, and he quickly befriended him. The monk taught him the rudiments of Coptic, and when he returned a few months later, he brought Champollion a grammar book. The boy worked at the language day and night, with a fervor that others saw as madness. He wrote his brother: “I do nothing else. I dream in Coptic…. I am so Coptic, that for fun, I translate into Coptic everything that comes into my head.” When he later went to Paris for schooling he found more monks, and he practiced to the point where he was told that he spoke the dying language as well as any native.
With only a poor reproduction of the Rosetta stone at his disposal, he began to attack it with various hypotheses, all of which were later proven quite wrong. Unlike the others, however, Champollion’s enthusiasm never dampened. The problem for him was the political turmoil of his time. An avowed son of the French Revolution, he finally came to support the cause of Napoleon just as the emperor lost power. When King Louis XVIII came to the throne as the new French king, Champollion’s Napoleonic sympathies cost him his job as a professor. Years of grinding poverty and ill health forced him to abandon his interest in the Rosetta stone. But in 1821, finally rehabilitated by the government and living in Paris, Champollion returned to the quest with a renewed energy and determination.
Having been away from the study of hieroglyphics for some time, he came back with a fresh perspective. The problem, he decided, was that others were approaching decipherment as if it involved some kind of mathematical code. But Champollion, who spoke dozens of languages and could read many dead languages, understood that languages evolve in a haphazard manner, influenced by the influx of new groups into a society and shaped by the passage of time. They are not mathematical formulas, but living, evolving organisms. They are complex. He now approached the hieroglyphs in a more holistic fashion. His goal was to figure out exactly what kind of script it was—pictograms (literally the picture representing the thing), ideograms (the picture representing ideas), some kind of phonetic alphabet, or perhaps a mix of all three.
With this in mind, he tried something that strangely enough no one had thought of—he made a comparison of the number of words in the Greek and hieroglyphic sections. He counted 486 words in the Greek text, and 1,419 hieroglyphic signs. Champollion had been operating under the assumption that hieroglyphs were ideograms, each symbol representing an idea or word. With such a discrepancy in number, this assumption was no longer possible. He then tried to identify groups of hieroglyphic symbols that would constitute words, but this numbered only 180. He could find no clear numerical relationship between the two, and so the only possible conclusion from all of this was that hieroglyphic writing is a mixed system of ideograms, pictograms, and a phonetic alphabet, making it more complex than anyone had imagined.
He next decided to attempt something that anyone else would have thought insane and useless—to apply his visual powers to the demotic and hieroglyphic texts, looking exclusively at the shapes of the letters or signs. In doing so he began to see patterns and correspondences—for instance, a particular sign in the hieroglyph, such as the depiction of a bird, had a rough equivalent in demotic, the image of the bird becoming less realistic and more like an abstract shape. Because of his incredible photographic memory, he could identify hundreds of these equivalences between symbols, although he could not say what any one of them meant. They remained merely images.
Armed with this knowledge, he went on the attack. On the Rosetta stone, he examined the royal cartouche in the demotic that had been previously identified as containing the name of Ptolemy. Knowing now many equivalent signs between hieroglyphs and demotic, he transposed the demotic symbols into what they should look like in the hieroglyphic version, to create what should be the word for Ptolemy. To his surprise and delight, he found such a word—making this the first successful decipherment of a hieroglyph. Knowing that this name was probably written out in phonetics (as would be all foreign names), he deduced the sound equivalences in both demotic and hieroglyph for Ptolemy. With the letters P T L now identified, he found another cartouche in a papyrus document that he was certain would have to be that of Cleopatra, now adding new letters to his knowledge. Ptolemy and Cleopatra had two different letters for T. For others this might prove baffling, but to Champollion he understood that it merely represented homophones—much as the f sound in “phone” and “fold.” With growing knowledge of letters he proceeded to decipher the names of all of the royal cartouches he could find, giving him a treasure trove of alphabetic information.
Then in September 1822 it all became unlocked in the most surprising way, in the course of one day. A temple had been discovered in a desolate part of Egypt whose walls and statues were covered in hieroglyphs. Accurate drawings of the hieroglyphs fell into Champollion’s hands, and in looking at them he was struck by something curious—none of the cartouches corresponded to the names he had already identified. He decided to apply the phonetic alphabet he had developed to one of them, but could only see the letter S at the end. The first symbol reminded him of the image of the sun. In Coptic, which was a distant relative of ancient Egyptian, the word for sun is Re. In the middle of the cartouche was a trident symbol with three prongs that looked eerily like an M. With great excitement he realized this could be the name Ramses. Ramses was a pharaoh of the thirteenth century B.C., and this would mean that the Egyptians had a phonetic alphabet dating back who knows how far in time—an earth-shattering discovery. He needed more proof to assert this.
Another cartouche in the temple drawing had the same M-shaped symbol. The first symbol in the cartouche was that of an ibis. With his knowledge of ancient Egyptian history, he knew that the bird was the symbol of the god Thoth. This cartouche could now spell out Thot-mu-sis, or Thuthmose, yet another name of an ancient pharaoh. In another part of the temple he saw a hieroglyphic word that consisted entirely of the equivalent letters of M and S. Thinking in Coptic, he translated the word as mis, which means to “give birth.” Sure enough, in the Greek text of the Rosetta stone he found a phrase referring to a birthday, and identified the equivalent of it in the hieroglyph section.
Overwhelmed by what he had found, he ran through the streets of Paris to find his brother. He shouted upon entering the room, “I’ve got it!” and then fainted, falling to the floor. After nearly twenty years of a continuous obsession, through endless problems and poverty and setbacks, Champollion had uncovered the key to the hieroglyphs in a few short months of intense labor.
In the aftermath of his discovery, he would continue to translate one word after another and figure out the exact nature of the hieroglyphs. In the process he would completely transform our knowledge and concept of ancient Egypt. His earliest translations revealed that hieroglyphs, as he suspected, were a sophisticated combination of all three forms of symbols, and had the equivalent of an alphabet far before anyone had imagined the invention of an alphabet. This was not a backward civilization of priests dominating a slave culture and keeping secrets through mysterious symbols, but a vibrant society with a complicated and beautiful written language, one that could be considered the equal of ancient Greek.
When his discovery was broadcast, Champollion became an instant hero in France. But Dr. Young, his main rival in the field, could not accept defeat. He spent the ensuing years accusing Champollion of fraud and plagiarism, unable to conceive of the idea that someone from such a modest background could pull off such an amazing intellectual feat.
The story of Champollion versus Dr. Young contains an elemental lesson about the learning process, and illustrates two classic approaches to a problem. In the case of Young, he came to the hieroglyphic puzzle from the outside, fueled by the ambition to be the first to decipher the hieroglyphs and gain fame in the process. To expedite matters, he reduced the writing system of the ancient Egyptians into tidy mathematical formulas, assuming that they represented ideograms. In such a way, he could approach decipherment as if it were a computational feat. To do so, he had to simplify what ended up being revealed as an extremely complex and layered system of writing.
For Champollion, it was the opposite. He was fueled by a genuine hunger to understand the origins of mankind, and by a deep love of ancient Egyptian culture. He wanted to get at the truth, not gain fame. Because he saw the translation of the Rosetta stone as his Life’s Task, he was willing to devote twenty or more years to the job, or whatever it took to solve the riddle. He did not attack the problem from the outside and with formulas, but rather went through a rigorous apprenticeship in ancient languages and Coptic. It ended up that his knowledge of Coptic proved the decisive key to unraveling the secret. His knowledge of languages made him understand how complex they can be, reflecting the complexity of any great society. When he finally returned to the Rosetta stone with undistracted attention in 1821, his mind shifted to the Creative-Active. He reframed the problem in holistic terms. His decision to first look at the two scripts—demotic and hieroglyph—as purely visual was a stroke of creative genius. In the end, he thought in greater dimensions and uncovered enough aspects of the language to unlock it.
Many people in various fields tend to follow the Young method. If they are studying economics, or the human body and health, or the workings of the brain, they tend to work with abstractions and simplifications, reducing highly complex and interactive problems into modules, formulas, tidy statistics, and isolated organs that can be dissected. This approach can yield a partial picture of reality, much in the way that dissecting a corpse can tell you some things about the human body. But with these simplifications the living, breathing element is missing. You want to follow instead the Champollion model. You are not in a hurry. You prefer the holistic approach. You look at the object of study from as many angles as possible, giving your thoughts added dimensions. You assume that the parts of any whole interact with one another and cannot be completely separated. In your mind, you get as close to the complicated truth and reality of your object of study as possible. In the process, great mysteries will unravel themselves before your eyes.
- Alchemical Creativity and the Unconscious
The artist Teresita Fernández (b. 1968) has long been fascinated by alchemy—an early form of science whose goal was to transform base materials into gold. (For more on Fernández, see here.) Alchemists believed that nature itself operates through the constant interaction of opposites—earth and fire, sun and moon, male and female, dark and light. By somehow reconciling these opposites, the alchemist believed he could discover the deepest secrets of nature, gain the power to create something out of nothing, and turn dust into gold.
To Fernández, the art of alchemy resembles in many ways the artistic and creative process itself. First, a thought or idea stirs in the mind of the artist. Slowly he or she transforms this idea into a material work of art, which creates a third element, a response in the viewer—an emotion of some sort that the artist wishes to provoke. This is a magical process, the equivalent of creating something out of nothing, a kind of transmutation of dirt into gold—in this case, the artist’s idea becoming realized, and leading to the stirring of powerful emotions in the spectator.
Alchemy depends on the reconciliation of various opposite qualities, and in thinking about herself, Fernández can identify many contrary impulses that are reconciled in her work. She is personally drawn to minimalism—a form of expression that communicates through the most minimal amount of material. She likes the discipline and rigor this paring down of materials imposes on her thinking process. At the same time she has a streak of romanticism, and an interest in work that produces strong emotional reactions in viewers. In her work, she likes to mix the sensual with the austere. She has noticed that expressing this and other tensions within herself gives her work a particularly disorienting and dreamlike effect upon viewers.
Since childhood, Fernández has always had a peculiar sense of scale. She would find it odd and disturbing that a relatively small space or room could evoke a much larger and even a vast space by its layout or the arrangement of windows. Children are generally obsessed with scale, playing with miniaturized versions of the adult world, yet feeling as if these miniatures represent real objects that are much larger. We generally lose this interest as we get older, but in Fernández’s piece Eruption (2005), she brings us back to an awareness of the potentially disturbing emotions that can be evoked by playing with our sense of scale. The piece is a relatively small floor sculpture in the shape of a blob that resembles an artist’s palette. It consists of thousands of clear glass beads layered on the surface. Below the beads lies an enlarged image of an abstract painting, which makes the beads reflect various colors, giving the piece the distinct look of the mouth of a bubbling volcano. We cannot see the underlying image, and we are not aware that the beads themselves are clear. Our eye is simply drawn into the effect, as we imagine much more than is actually there. In the smallest of spaces she has thus created a feeling of a deep and vast landscape. We know it is an illusion, but are moved by the sensations and tensions that the piece creates.
In making work for an outdoor public space, artists generally go in one of two directions—creating something that blends into the landscape in an interesting way, or instead making something that stands out from the surroundings and calls attention to itself. In creating her piece Seattle Cloud Cover (2006)—at the Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle, Washington—Fernández navigated a space between these two opposite approaches. Along the length of an outdoor pedestrian bridge spanning railroad tracks, she placed large colored glass panes, laminated with photographic images of clouds. The panes, which also extend overhead, are semitransparent and are marked with hundreds of clear polka dots at equal lengths that reveal bits of the sky above. As people walk along the bridge, they see above them realistic photographic images of clouds, often standing out against the usual grey skies of Seattle, or sometimes brightened by the sun, or turning kaleidoscopic at sunset. Moving over the bridge, the alternation between real and unreal makes it hard for us to distinguish between the two—a surreal effect that causes powerful feelings of disorientation in the viewer.
Perhaps the ultimate expression of Fernández’s alchemy can be experienced in her piece Stacked Waters (2009) at the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, Texas. For this commission, she was confronted with the challenge of creating a striking piece for the vast open space of the museum’s multi-layered atrium, an entryway to the rest of the museum. The atrium is generally bathed in bright light from the large skylights on the ceiling. Instead of struggling to create a sculpture for such a space, Fernández attempted to invert our whole experience of art. When people enter a museum or gallery space, it is most often with a sense of distance and coldness; they stand back and view something for a few moments, then move on. Aiming for a more visceral contact with the viewer than a traditional sculpture could provide, she decided to use the cold white walls of the atrium and its constant flow of patrons as the basis for her alchemical experiment.
She covered the walls with bands of thousands of highly reflective acrylic strips, saturated in swirls of color from shades of blue to white. The overall effect from standing in the atrium is that of being immersed in an enormous pool of blue water that shimmers from the sunlight above. As people ascend the stairs, they can see in the acrylic strips their own reflections, which are oddly distorted, similar to the effect of seeing things through water. Viewing the strips from up close, it is clear that it is all an illusion created by the most minimal amount of material, and yet the feel of water, the sense of being immersed, remains palpable and strange. The spectators thus become actual parts of the artwork itself, with their own reflections helping to create the illusion. The experience of moving through this dreamlike space makes us conscious once more of the tensions between art and nature, illusion and reality, coldness and warmth, wet and dry, and provokes a powerful intellectual and emotional response.
Our culture depends in many ways on the creation of standards and conventions that we all must adhere to. These conventions are often expressed in terms of opposites—good and evil, beautiful and ugly, painful and pleasurable, rational and irrational, intellectual and sensual. Believing in these opposites gives our world a sense of cohesion and comfort. To imagine that something can be intellectual and sensual, pleasurable and painful, real and unreal, good and bad, masculine and feminine is too chaotic and disturbing for us. Life, however, is more fluid and complex; our desires and experiences do not fit neatly into these tidy categories.
As the work of Teresita Fernández demonstrates, the real and the unreal are concepts that exist for us as ideas and constructions, and thus can be played with, altered, commanded, and transformed at will. Those who think in dualities—believing that there is such a thing as “real” and such a thing as “unreal,” and that they are distinct entities that can never become blended into a third, alchemical element—are creatively limited, and their work can quickly become dead and predictable. To maintain a dualistic approach to life requires that we repress many observable truths, but in our unconscious and in our dreams we often let go of the need to create categories for everything, and are able to mix seemingly disparate and contradictory ideas and feelings together with ease.
Your task as a creative thinker is to actively explore the unconscious and contradictory parts of your personality, and to examine similar contradictions and tensions in the world at large. Expressing these tensions within your work in any medium will create a powerful effect on others, making them sense unconscious truths or feelings that have been obscured or repressed. You look at society at large and the various contradictions that are rampant—for instance, the way in which a culture that espouses the ideal of free expression is charged with an oppressive code of political correctness that tamps free expression down. In science, you look for ideas that go against the existing paradigm, or that seem inexplicable because they are so contradictory. All of these contradictions contain a rich mine of information about a reality that is deeper and more complex than the one immediately perceived. By delving into the chaotic and fluid zone below the level of consciousness where opposites meet, you will be surprised at the exciting and fertile ideas that will come bubbling up to the surface.
In Western culture, a particular myth has evolved that drugs or madness can somehow lead to creative bursts of the highest order. How else to explain the work that John Coltrane did while hooked on heroin, or the great works of the playwright August Strindberg, who seemed clinically insane? Their work is so spontaneous and free, so far beyond the powers of the rational, conscious mind.
This is a cliché, however, that is easily debunked. Coltrane himself admitted that he did his worst work during the few years he was addicted to heroin. It was destroying him and his creative powers. He kicked the habit in 1957 and never looked back. Biographers who later examined the letters and journals of Strindberg discovered a man who was quite histrionic in public, but who in private life was extremely disciplined. The effect of madness created in his plays is very consciously crafted.
Understand: to create a meaningful work of art or to make a discovery or invention requires great discipline, self-control, and emotional stability. It requires mastering the forms of your field. Drugs and madness only destroy such powers. Do not fall for the romantic myths and clichés that abound in culture about creativity—offering us the excuse or panacea that such powers can come cheaply. When you look at the exceptionally creative work of Masters, you must not ignore the years of practice, the endless routines, the hours of doubt, and the tenacious overcoming of obstacles these people endured. Creative energy is the fruit of such efforts and nothing else.
Our vanity, our passions, our spirit of imitation, our abstract intelligence, our habits have long been at work, and it is the task of art to undo this work of theirs, making us travel back in the direction from which we have come to the depths where what has really existed lies unknown within us .
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