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Creativity- Moving The Earth With Archimedes & Stravinsky- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

Creativity- Moving The Earth With Archimedes & Stravinsky- This blog post is informed by conversations with Dr .Bruce Sawhill, Stanford educated theoretical physicist and mathematician.

Creativity: Moving The Earth With Archimedes & Stravinsky


The Greek philosopher Archimedes once said, “Give me a firm place to stand and a lever and I can move the Earth.” He was enamored of the idea of the lever and its ability to multiply force.


Archimedes with lever and Earth


What’s not said is at least as important as what was said, as his quote has many implications.

The first implication is that of a fulcrum.  A lever will not work without a fulcrum to rest it on. Once that is taken care of, the actual act of moving the Earth is straightforward and procedural.

As children we played on teeter-totters or seesaws, which is exactly the principle of lever and fulcrum.


Children on teeter-totter


Other issues with Archimedes’ lever are quantitative.  How much does one want to move the Earth?  How fast?

This has implications for how long it might take and how strong the lever needs to be. These quantities are potentially extreme. 


The Center Of Mass


Archimedes also introduced the concept of “center of mass” and its associated mathematical properties. 

The center of mass is like an imaginary fulcrum placed in such a way that an object or collection of objects would balance on it.  If you were trying to move the Earth around this fulcrum, you would be very far from the fulcrum and the Earth would be very close.

The center of mass has interesting properties. Imagine a cloud of objects moving through space, far from any outside influence but able to act on each other via gravity, electric charges, etc.

No interaction of any part of the system with any other part can change the motion of the center of mass because of Newton’s Third Law:


Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

Isaac Newton  


All motions in the system cancel out relative to the center of mass.


You Can Move The Earth


Archimedes did not realize it because he did not have the benefits of Newton’s Universal Law of Gravitation, but if he had, he would have realized that you could move the Earth just by jumping up and down, no levers needed. 

That’s because the system of you + Earth has a center of mass. It’s very close to the center of the mass without you present, but *not exactly* the same. 

If you jump up, the Earth has to move in the opposite direction to keep the center of mass in the same place. You have moved the Earth! Far too small a distance to measure and very short-lived.

This is not just a thought experiment, all the dams on Earth have raised water high enough to change the rotation of the planet measurably with trillions of tons of water.

Here’s a clip of two objects rotating around a center of mass. Neither of the objects are in the center.


Two bodies orbiting a common center of mass (red cross)


In recent conversations about “moving the Earth,” Archimedes has come up literally and metaphorically.


Influence & The Lever


In terms of humans wanting to have an outsized influence on society, the analogy of the lever seems appropriate if one wants to have a lasting effect not achievable by just jumping up and down. 

If one exerts a force at a great distance from the fulcrum, it has the possibility of influencing a large system closer in. Political extremism or shocking and controversial artworks can have this effect by getting a lot of other people talking and thinking, a kind of leverage that can move a mass of people.


I believe the hardest aspect of moving the Earth in one’s life is not the act of finding a lever and pushing it, it is arranging to place your fulcrum somewhere, a kind of existential real estate play.


History is full of people who had a hard time finding the fulcrum spot, and that’s just the ones we know about. Finding a place to stand is not as hard, since you have to stand somewhere.


Igor Stravinsky & Radical Departures


The composer Igor Stravinsky wrote a ballet, The Rite of Spring, which premiered in Paris in 1913, following successes of The Firebird and Petruschka in 1910 and 1912.

It was a radical departure from previous classical music, full of strange dissonances and even stranger rhythms. It provoked a “near-riot” and fistfights in the audience.

If Stravinsky had written nothing else, he’d be remembered for that. 


Sketches of Maria Pilz dancing Sacrificial Dance from Rite of Spring



But he did not create the work in a vacuum.

There was no doubt some strategy involved. Stravinsky’s successes with the first two more musically conservative ballets established a kind of fulcrum placement.

He bore down with The Rite of Spring after that and moved the musical Earth.


Stravinsky & Combinatorics


The music critic Alex Ross has described the irregular process whereby Stravinsky adapted and absorbed traditional Russian folk material into the score.


He “proceeded to pulverize them into moving bits, pile them up in layers, and reassemble them in cubistic collages and montages.”

Alex Ross


This description of Stravinsky’s creative process echos earlier blog posts about combinatorics as well as the artistic phase transition of the first decades of the 20th century.


Stepping Into The Unknown


Somehow creative spirits working in music, literature, art, and science all cooperated to place a fulcrum that accomplished a civilization-wide intellectual restructuring, without knowing exactly what they were doing. 

They did what creatives and innovators do, they stepped into the unknown, and like Stravinsky, they did not forget their past.

And a parting fact that perhaps explains why good ideas come in the shower: Archimedes also discovered the idea of displacement- that one can measure the volume and weight of an object (like himself or the king’s crown) by immersing it in water. (Rumor has it that Archimedes came up with this principle while taking a bath.)

This is when he shouted, ‘Eureka!,” meaning “I found it!”


Archimedes’ bathtub displacement discovery, NEMO Science Museum



May you “find it” in your artistic pursuits.


With gratitude from my studio to yours,



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