A very special friend of mine got me a ticket to the Connecticut Forum’s Vision & Brilliance last weekend. The talk was nothing short of mind-blowing. I made a weekend out of it (visiting Hartford for the first time) and did lots of note-taking and writing. The result is a bit of an organizational issue, but I’ve done my best to share as much as I could without being too overwhelming.
The forum’s host, John Dankosky of WNPR’s Where We Live, correctly defined the night as an “awesome nerd-fest.” He said it’s never wrong to ask stupid questions, and tonight he’d have no trouble with that. The forum consisted of Neil deGrasse Tyson, Neri Oxman, and Neil Gaiman, who in a nutshell represent Science/Astrophysics, Art/Design, and Imagination/Writing, or, if you’ll allow me, Past, Present, Future.
I wrote down as much as I possibly could, and have collected and tried to organize it all here. Each section below is my attempt to summarize and paraphrase the (many) key points of the event.
Neil deGrasse Tyson sees himself as the world’s most popular astrophysicist, which is basically true. He has 3 of the top 10 Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) Threads of all time and a very popular Twitter Account. Tyson says it is his life’s work to “Bring the Universe down to earth.” He has perfected his sound bytes, which tie perfectly into the current attention span of the internet.
Tyson is extremely passionate about his work (along with Gaiman and Oxman). Here is an amazing (10 minute) lecture he gave on his passion back in ’06, that gives you a sense of his charisma and love for the Universe, as well as why he feels large rather than small when he looks up.
Tyson talked about this at the forum too. Like Carl Sagan said we were Star Stuff, Tyson says we are Star Dust. Literally, every atom, every molecule in our bodies came from another start, millions (Is that the right scale?) of years ago. We are made up of dust from the stars, and, in the time since then, we’ve evolved enough to ACTUALLY FIGURE THAT OUT. We are so large, and we look out into space. When we look up and wonder about it, we are wondering about ourselves. We should be very proud and stand tall. We have come so far.
Other points Tyson made:
- It is empirically false that we need to be religious to be moral.
- On design: people say nature is beautiful, but is it really? We can now design better than nature.
- Science’s progress can be defined by our creation of tools that are not even a part of our senses. Example: our ability to detect the ultraviolet and X-Ray wavelengths of light. We have extraordinary sensory powers, due to science. Nature is a limitation on the truly creative mind.
- The idea of finding ‘other’ intelligent life is audacious and ridiculous. It implies that we ourselves are intelligent. Look at our almost genetic equals, the ape. They are only as smart as our toddlers. Imagine the beings that are one step genetically beyond us, assuming other beings have evolved in the same way. We would be insignificant. [Gaiman note: “I’d still trust the chimp to outlive the naked human in the woods.”]
- For a positive spin, we have a powerful tool: the collective human intelligence. We don’t have to discover and define fire, or physics, or language with every new life. We are teaching ourselves to learn it faster and in better ways. [Gaiman note: “We are standing on the shoulders of giants.”]
Neri Oxman is studying, practicing, and teaching form-finding at MIT’s Media Lab. She is beautiful and brilliant; it was wonderful to see Tyson gawk (or is it balk?) at the things she was saying. Given how complex her ideas were, she did a wonderful job of articulating them. Here is an excellent (20 minute) lecture she gave that I could not look away from.
Oxman says we are in the eye of a hurricane: we are between the industrial revolution and a new way of thinking about “making.” She talked about how design is changing from designing a form directly to designing a process to create a form. She is studying nature and it’s methods for “making” (bones changing in different gravities, glowworm silk that is stronger than steel, etc.), and applying it to other processes. Some of what she is doing has to do with modifying/designing constraints under which processes take place.
For me, this stuff was mind-blowing. The MIT Media Lab is bringing together imaginative designers, materials science engineers (among other engineers/scientists), and computer programmers to push the frontier of “making.” Oxman also talked about going back to look at the history of design, especially bringing a design perspective to ancient mythologies (Ex: the wings of Icarus).
Here are some more points Oxman made:
- Rather than a problem solver, she pushes herself to be a “Problem Seeker.”
- Art informs our experience of the world, especially on an emotional level. It can be an emotional connection between members of humanity, connected across time.
- Vision and brilliance is: Condensing an expression to bring about a thought or idea that we didn’t know existed.
- The story of design is the story of augmented human power.
- 3D printing: Wake Forrest can now 3D printed cartilage. Oxman believes we will soon be 3D printing buildings.
- Oxman went on to talk about the future of design and making: 4D printing. How can we design objects and materials to change over time, depending on their environment, for our benefit? She also talked about the current downsides of 3d printing: Wasted negative space, the fact that nature doesn’t produce in perfect cartesian layers the way printers and computers currently “think.”
- Harvard has a lung on a chip, for drug testing. Can we develop a human on a chip?
- Never, ever lose that sense of a beginner’s mind in what you are doing.
Neil Gaiman is one of my very very favorite writers. He wrote the first graphic novel to be a New York Times Bestseller. He has written short fiction, novels, comic books, graphic novels, films, TV Shows, pretty much everything. My favorite book by him is a collection of stories: Smoke and Mirrors.
On stage, as on the page, Gaiman is a storyteller. He talked about wanting to be a writer since he was a kid, then corrected himself, saying it was too much work. Really, he wanted to have written The Lord of the Rings.
He tells all writers to keep writing. He cursed the publishers who turned down his early manuscripts, but, looking back, is very grateful to them. They saved him the embarrassment of having to hunt down every printed copy and burn it. He quoted Ray Bradbury’s idea that everyone is full of 1 million crappy words, and once you get them out, you’re fine.
After being repeatedly rejected, he decided to become a journalist overnight. He wanted to be published, so he journaled about publishing. A brilliant idea.
Gaiman talked about where stories come from. He said writers hate to be asked where their ideas come from, and typically respond with a mean, sarcastic lie, because we don’t have any idea. He said stories come from the confluence of two ideas. You daydream, and let your mind wonder and wander, and when two ideas come close, there they are, and there’s the story. He talked about gazing up at the stars and just thinking, something Tyson was happy to hear about. [“The Universe called you, Neil,” in reference to the inspiration for Gaiman’s novel: Stardust]
He also talked about the importance of reading and imagining. At a convention for science fiction in a China, engineers wondered why they were making so many things that were being designed elsewhere. After looking into it, the Chinese engineers found that many of the engineers that were designing (rather than producing) had read fiction as children, especially science fiction. Reading fiction is so important! It boosts your imagination, which makes a creative difference in innovation, among other things.
Big points made as a group:
Do what you love and love what you do! Obvious but also VERY important.
Tyson: when you really, truly love it, you’ll sometimes work to the exclusion of personal hygiene. And then your friends ask you about vacation. Vacation? From what I love? They don’t understand. Also, Listen and be Persistent: How much brilliance has been lost due to lack of listening (on one side) or lack of persistence (on the other)?
Gaiman told a story about a girl who wanted to be a director, who was discouraged because there are many directors already. Gaiman: Yes, but there is only one YOU. You are the ONLY one who can bring your personal vision and creativity to the world. [See 1:57 of this for the whole thing.]
Talk of geniuses.
An intersting point about Picasso and Einstein. They were contemporaries, and between Cubism and Relativity, they were really talking about the same thing: the juxtaposition of space and time. WHAT!? Yes.
Talk of Newton’s supreme intellectual curiosity and Michelangelo’s vision: releasing the prisoners from the blocks.
Talk of the growing cumulative human intellect, as aided by writing, sparked a concept in my head of everyone’s personal cumulative intellect: a collection of one’s thoughts, work, and writing. This is related to another idea that I believe in: writing as learning. When you sit down to write something, you force yourself to articulate what you think it is, and it is etched into your brain, giving you a much more thorough understanding of it. It’s not always about the output of writing (i.e. the document or the blog post) as much as the idea itself and it’s depth in your mind.
On the apocalypse.
Tyson: sign over your friends’ assets to yourself before the 21st. The idea of the “end of the earth” is hubristic; the earth will survive, it’s human life we have to worry about. An asteroid will certainly one day come for us. Until then, we’ll be watching the skies.
Who’d you want to be for a day?
Tyson: Isaac Newton. Look at everything he did BEFORE he was 26.
Gaiman: The man living next door to John Wilmot, a great Restoration Poet who was also continually drunk and philandering.
Oxman: A tree. And it wasn’t a joke, I don’t think.
Tyson on bringing together a collision of ideas to produce something greater than the parts.
Oxman on the importance of sharing information as a group to create knowledge.
Gaiman on de-mythologizing the creative process.
This was a bit long, and not quite exactly about writing, but definitely about Getting It Write, and, I think, worth anyone’s attention.