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Memetic Barium & The Hundred Languages Of Creativity- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

Memetic Barium And The Languages Of Creativity- This post is informed by conversations with Bruce Sawhill PhD, Stanford educated theoretical physicist and mathematician.

Memetic Barium & The Languages Of Creativity


By now you are used to this blog taking you to strange and unusual places. This one is no exception.

Today’s “out there” concept is the idea of “memetic barium.”

It combines two wildly disparate ideas to generate a third one that addresses how we know what we know, a concept that is fundamental to the nature of creativity. 

Combinatorics, the mathematics behind the study of combinations, describes the enormous scope of possible ways of combining things.

A meta side note:


Combining two things to create a new third thing is one of the two pillars of generating novelty in the evolution of ideas, the other being mutation.


Firstly barium.

Barium is a dry, white, chalky, metallic powder that is mixed with water to make a thick, milkshake-like drink.

It is an X-ray absorber and appears white on X-ray imagery.

For those chemical sticklers, what is referred to as “barium” is actually barium sulfate. Barium is very difficult to keep in pure form because it likes to combine with other elements.


Barium sulfate powder


Barium is not toxic and does not bioaccumulate, which makes it overwhelmingly preferable to other good X-ray absorbers like lead or mercury.


Making The Invisible Visible


In plainer language, barium makes invisible things visible and identifiable.

Years ago, I was a radiology resident at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts. I was astonished by how we could see into the human body, into the previously unknown regions of our internal structures. It was like bringing light into the darkness.

Later, as a psychiatrist, I would look into the human psyche and find it to be compelling and mysterious.

When I left the Brigham to return to California to study psychiatry at Stanford, John Shillito, M.D., a neurosurgeon and éminence grise at the Brigham and Boston Children’s Hospital said:


You went from shadows to nuances.



Barium X-ray image of oesophagus (gullet) showing possible malignancy




On to memes.

A meme is an idea, behavior, or style that becomes widely disseminated and spreads by means of imitation from person to person within a culture.

It often carries symbolic meaning representing a particular phenomenon or theme.

A meme acts as a unit for carrying ideas, symbols, or practices, that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena with a mimicked theme. 


Memes & Mutations


Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes in that they self-replicate, mutate, and respond to selective pressures as they move and change in a population of people.

The word meme itself is a neologism coined by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, originating from his 1976 book The Selfish Gene.

While he had no idea of its future internet-related context, he used the word meme to describe an idea, behavior, or style that rapidly spreads from person to person in a culture.

In his book, he likened a meme’s spread to that of a virus. The word meme came from the Greek word mimeme, which means imitated thing.

The arrival of the Internet turned an obscure and academic concept into something familiar to many millions of people. The current manifestation of a meme is usually an online image accompanied by text that makes a point.

Memes are a worldwide social phenomenon. The more a meme resonates with people, the more they’ll share it and the farther it will spread.

Memes are usually funny, but often that humor is injected with wry political or social commentary. 


Memes, Creativity, Evolution & Ecology


We have discussed the similarity of creative processes to evolutionary biology and ecology in previous blog posts, so the connection of cultural patterns with evolution makes sense if you find resonance in our earlier posts.

The connection with ecology is weaker because the internet is not subject to the kind of geographical and habitat constraints that characterize much of ecology.

Memetics on the Internet is a new kind of ecology unencumbered by the conventional physical world of savannah and tundra.

Here is a self-referential example of a meme in honor of the concept’s creator:


Evolutionary Biologist Richard Dawkins, coiner of “meme.”


Memetic Barium


My partner Bruce Sawhill coined the term memetic barium and he will describe how this came about below.

The idea of memetic barium occurred to me when I was writing white papers on scientific and technological subjects for the purpose of generating interest in the Federal government to fund research and development.

Definition of a white paper: Even though the paper can be any color, a white paper is an authoritative report or guide that informs readers concisely about a complex issue and presents the writer’s philosophy on the matter.

It is meant to help readers understand an issue, solve a problem, or make a decision. It is really a kind of philosophical sales document.

In some sense, we all work in sales. We are continually engaged in the act of convincing, carefully crafting the suspension of disbelief.

After circulating the white paper in the appropriate governmental agency, me and my fellow scientists would look at “RFPs.” RFPs are Requests For Proposals, which is how the Federal government invites researchers to apply for funding.


Here’s where memetic barium comes in


We began to notice that some RFPs had familiar sounding words or phrases in them.

We then realized that it was very unlikely that these little “genetic snippets” of language had been accidentally happened upon.

What it meant was that the writer of the RFP had read our white paper and was quoting our language back to us. This meant they were interested! 

You’ve heard some of these snippets in previous blog posts, such as “satisfiability phase transition.” They are highly purposeful and extremely unlikely to be encountered randomly. 

We thought, “Why stop there?”, or as Robert Heinlein once said in his 1973 book Time Enough for Love,


Everything in excess! To enjoy the flavor of life, take big bites. Moderation is for monks.

Robert Heinlein


So we began consciously creating unlikely turns of phrase that we could then track and use to hone our efforts.

It worked well.

The turns of phrase were barium indicators of concepts (memes) that we could follow through the digestive tract of the Federal beast.

Upon considering the end result of the digestive tract, the metaphor ends here.


Robert and Virginia Heinlein


It reminds me of my pre-internet analysis of junk mail.

I wondered how they found me, and I was, as ever, fascinated by patterns and experiments to discover patterns.

So whenever I signed up for anything anywhere, I used a different middle initial, and that way I could create a family tree of advertising and thereby transform junk mail into a math problem. 


A Unique & Evolving Lexicon


What does this have to do with art and creativity?

When we go to a museum, we often (with experience) start to recognize the work of certain artists—Mondrian, Still, Pollock, Klee, Rodin, Rembrandt, Monet, etc., all have a “look.”

Artists and other creatives develop a lexicon of moves or expressive tropes that is unique to their psychology and position in history.

Historians of the arts can often track the evolution in time of these lexicons and create family trees of influence.

Stravinsky inherited from Tchaikovsky and Renoir from Rubens and Delacroix.


Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), Daniel In The Lion’s Den



Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863), Liberty Leading The People


In short, artists make themselves memorable by generating a unique and evolving lexicon that richly and dynamically expresses their personality, philosophy, aesthetics, life history and gestural expression while simultaneously connecting them to the cultural fabric around them.

They create their own memetic barium for others to know them by.  


With gratitude from my studio to yours,



P.S. Bruce and I were interviewed on the topic of Art & Complexity on the Jim Rutt Show. Catch the podcast episode HERE. 


Nancy Hillis & Bruce Sawhill- The Jim Rutt Show

Nancy Hillis & Bruce Sawhill- The Jim Rutt Show


Nancy Hillis & Bruce Sawhill talk to Jim about the commonalities & dynamics of complexity science & art: innovation & imitation, breaking rules, inseparability, phase transitions, combinatorics & restraints, aesthetics, process vs result orientation, simplicity, paradox, uncertainty, emergence, navigating the edge of order & chaos, known unknowns & unknown unknowns, making space for luck, and much more.

You can listen to the Jim Rutt Show episode here: Jim Rutt Show Episode 88


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