Spread the love

Creativity & History- Chance & The Inevitable- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

Creativity & History- Chance & The Inevitable- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

Creativity & History: Chance & The Inevitable


Last week we talked about history in the context of science fiction, revisiting an old Star Trek episode where people escaped the end of their world by hurling themselves into the past through a kind of time portal, the Atavachron.

A question that nitpickers always come up with in regards to these stories is, Wait a minute! Doesn’t going back in time change history and thus generate inconsistencies?

The question remains unanswered but a topic of lively debate.

The novelist Ursula LeGuin addressed a similar question in her book The Lathe of Heaven, where a psychiatrist discovered a patient that could have “effective dreams.” These are dreams in which a patient wakes up to find his dreamt world retroactively self-consistent.

That means that if the patient dreams about all dogs being blue, he wakes up to find the world full of blue dogs and nobody is at all surprised about this because it has “always been so.”


Effective Dreamers


At the end of the novel, the author opines that perhaps we are all effective dreamers, continuously pulling the rug out from under each other, perhaps on a smaller scale.

Artists get to have effective dreams, they create self-consistent worlds of their own. They’re like LeGuin’s psychiatrist, able to have one foot in the collective world and one foot in their own, the adjacent possible.


Internal Models


We all have our own viewpoints and internal models of the world, and they are continuously colliding with each other, creating a swirling and changing collective vision. In a word, history.

LeGuin’s psychiatrist is either amoral or a compulsive scientist, as he cannot resist the urge to suggest dreams under hypnosis to the patient. They become increasingly radical and transformative, culminating in a massive depopulation of the Earth because the psychiatrist thinks that it is too crowded.

Somehow the psychiatrist is outside of the self-consistent realities being generated, as he can remember that things were different before his suggestions to the patient. He is an artist with a very large canvas.


The Nature Of History & Creativity


The nature of history and the nature of creativity are very similar. They are both full of “frozen accidents,” a term invented by the Nobel-Prize winning molecular biologist Francis Crick. (one of the discoverers of the structure of DNA, the “double helix”)


Rosalind Franklin


The original understanding of the molecular structure of DNA belongs to Rosalind Franklin. Her work in X-ray crystallography revealed the helical structure of DNA. She should have been awarded the Nobel Prize along with Watson and Crick, but wasn’t. A topic for another blog post.


Evolution & Random Search


Evolution is full of the results of random search generated by genetic and environmental processes, and some of those searches stick, producing persistent features. Perhaps that’s all there is to life—only frozen accidents, nothing deterministic at all.


DNA image from electron microscope


Re-running The Tape


This begs the question, “What if we could re-run the tape? Would history repeat itself?”  Our understanding of random processes indicates the answer is “probably not.”

In the old Star Trek episodes, aliens were startlingly similar to humans in most cases, with a few highly imaginative and compelling exceptions. They had two legs and one head, ears and mouths and noses and arms, and communicated acoustically in most cases.

Perhaps this had to do with the makeup budget. But, if it turns out to be prescient, it may have had to do with the laws of physics.

The implication of this alien morphology was that human-like creatures are somehow inevitable, that the “re-running the tape” of evolution on myriad other worlds produces very close to the same result.

Since we haven’t encountered alien life yet (or we have, but were unable to recognize it) the question remains open.



Standard Issue Alien



Does this mean that history (and, by extension, creativity) is completely outside the purview of science? Science is about repeatability.

If one remembers back to high school physics days of rolling balls down inclined planes and timing the results with a timer of some sort, no teacher would accept doing this experiment just once. You had to do it many times to convince yourself of consistency.

Gravity was not random, it was very predictable.

But developing an understanding of history in a scientific context is not a hopeless endeavor. It tuns out that “predicting” does not always follow “understanding.” And this may have lessons for the creative process as well.

One of Nancy’s favorite quotes is from the Bay Area artist Michael Cutlip, “When I go into my studio, if I know what’s going to happen, it’s all over.”

Nancy was a chemistry major in college before going to medical school. One of the things that chemistry majors encounter are these funny pictures of atoms.  They don’t look like the pictures of atoms that look like little solar systems that we’ve all seen.

They are fuzzy.



Standard Atomic Depiction


Fuzzy Atoms


The reason that they are fuzzy is that they are probabilistic—any experiment to look at the positions of parts of an atom (electrons and nucleus) reports back specific locations in space. 

But each experiment gives a different result!

When you perform large numbers of experiments, some positions are more likely than others. The fuzzy pictures of atoms are plots that show the statistics of experiments—some locations are much more likely than others, so they are depicted as more opaque.

The statistical results are predicted by our current level of understanding of atomic structure, namely quantum mechanics.



Quantum Mechanical view of Atom with probabilty clouds



So science is able to create a useful understanding of atoms that is not strictly deterministic, meaning it doesn’t make accurate predictions of the result of the next experiment.

Even a statistical prediction is valuable.


Intuition & Probabilistic Structures


I think we are comfortable with this concept in an intuitive way—We realize that everything from the stock market to horse racing has a probabilistic structure, and that is the root of betting on things.

Betting implies inconsistent views of the world meeting up. If everybody believed exactly the same thing, and that belief was accurate, there would be no place for betting. No windows at horse tracks, no stock market, etc.



dice rolling



And probably no art or creativity.

If there is a science of creativity and history, it is more similar to evolutionary biology or quantum physics than it is to the “majestic clockwork” of Newton’s old-school (“classical”) physics.



Newton's cradle toy

Newton’s cradle toy



The elements of chance and not-knowing are not just a necessary evil, they are the engines of novelty.


Think of this the next time you put brush to canvas.


With gratitude from our studio to yours,

Nancy & Bruce


If you enjoyed this post, you’ll love the books. You can find them on Amazon or read about them HERE.







Spread the love