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The Adjacent Possible: The Science Of Creativity- Phase Transitions (Episode 1)

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Show Notes


Excerpt: History matters. The path matters. At each point you have options available to you. This is the adjacent possible – what am I going to do next? Which many people could think of as the fundamental question of life.


00:00:00 Welcome to the adjacent possible phase transitions episode one. I’m Dr. Nancy Hillis, and I’m here with Dr. Bruce Sawhill Stanford educated theoretical physicist and mathematician. And we’re going to talk about the fascinating topic of the adjacent possible, what it is and how it can affect your art and your creativity. And then we’ll move into the exciting area of phase transitions.

00:00:35 So welcome Dr. Sawhill. Well, thank you, Dr. Hillis. I’d love to hear about the adjacent possible. Well, I will do my best. The adjacent possible is, well, it’s a, it’s a term that comes out of the Santa Fe Institute from Dr. Stuart Kauffman from myself, from Dr. Jim Crutchfield and a number of other people who all started thinking about how systems explore places they’ve not been before.

00:01:07 And this is inspired by biology, but it, it has to do with, with lots of things, with lots of different kinds of systems. And so with the adjacent possible is, is kind of it’s things that our system can do that it hasn’t done yet, but that are very close to things that it has done. And so I want to distinguish this from very simple systems,

00:01:32 like flipping coins. Let’s say you’re, you’re, you’re flipping a coin and you’ve done it a hundred times and you do it the a hundred and first time, well, a hundred and first time doesn’t care. Anything about the hundredth time. It’s, it’s, it’s got a lobotomy in a sense that it has no memory. It can’t, it doesn’t matter.

00:01:50 And it doesn’t remember what happened before. And so the adjacent possible in our context is not about what happens on the hundred and first time it has to do with systems where, what happened before matters. And if you’ve ever played the game of Jenga, as this often comes up in my thoughts, is that adding a new, removing a stick changes, what you can do next.

00:02:18 So how you got somewhere like complex systems that were all at least have seen before, like Jenga or playing chess history matters how you got somewhere matters, the path matters. And so at each point you have some options available to you. And this is, this is the adjacent possible, what am I going to do next? Which many people could think of is really the fundamental question of life,

00:02:43 because all there is is now, and I’m contemplating what you’re going to do next, which is the next now, right? And so it’s like the initial starting conditions affect what happens next. That’s right. Where you begin- and we a lot in here about beginning, about zero to one, the biggest movement is from nothing to something zero to one mathematically,

00:03:08 rather than something to something one to two, two to three, three to four, that interval is enormous and has big implications for artists. So you begin, you start somewhere and start anywhere and you make a move. And my understanding is that when you make that move, you bring to visibility that which was invisible before. And not only that, but it also didn’t even exist before you made that move.

00:03:42 Right? The set of possibilities didn’t exist. Since I’m a very late to the sport of surfing, but I have learned how to do it in a pretty bad kook-like like sort of way, but enough to enjoy it. That is when you are trying to ride a wave that you successfully get up on it, but the wave is the wave is changing and your adaptation to it is changing.

00:04:06 And so you are what you do changes your set of options in the next moment. And you’re continuously stepping into the adjacent, or being propelled into the adjacent possible on a surf board. And then this comes up in many other ways, if you’re in a creative pursuit like art or music or writing, it’s a lot easier to edit something that exists than to edit something that doesn’t exist.

00:04:33 So if I have a melody, I can say, well, this E-flat up here. I don’t really like that. I think I’m going to make that a G instead. So a lot easier to do that than it is to just look at blank paper and, and create the melody. So starting is so important. It sort of fires up the adjacent possible once you’ve started,

00:04:55 right? So that’s a such a powerful concept. So get in there and just start, you can start anywhere, but begin. And then we want to not only start, explore and experiment, but what we’re really talking about here is evolving your art as artists. That’s right. And evolution makes a lot of starts. Most of them don’t survive. Most of them are erased by history.

00:05:28 You know, we’ve got a whole ecosystem of creatures, millions, and millions of different forms of life. I wish I could be like Carl Sagan and say, billions and billions. That’s actually probably right. And there’s all these different forms of life, but they’re probably dwarfed by the number of forms of life that have come and gone. And this is true in creative pursuits.

00:05:53 There is a lot of by-catch, there’s a lot of stuff that’s or set aside in the process. And I think rather than viewing that as failures, it is an essential part of the search process. Yes, this is so important in art, many starts miles of canvas, ugly art, exploring, searching, and exploring and continuing. And in that process that fuels and feeds the emerging series,

00:06:29 the emerging, the emergence of something new coming through by going in and doing that and not worrying about so-called mistakes, because indeed they’re really important for evolving your art. A friend of a friend once said to me, tried to encapsulate Buddhist philosophy and it was Hang on tightly. Let go lightly. And so the hang on tightly part is to be committed to your creative process,

00:06:58 but let go lightly is not to be overly attached to any single piece of the process, be attached to the whole process, but not to any particular one. And lots of starts enable you to do that because you can say, well, I’ve got 57 other ones. And so you keep all these around and maybe most of them, and you might pick one up,

00:07:22 you haven’t looked at in days, months, even years and say, oh, I see what I could do next. I see the adjacent possible here. And the adjacent possible may have been generated by some other creative work than the one you’re working on. It doesn’t have to necessarily come from the one you’re working on. It’s kind of an ensemble effect. Well,

00:07:45 you really getting out of the importance too, of the intersection of the different things in your life that you’re interested in, whether it’s nature, composing music or listening to music, dance, literature, poetry, colors, whatever it is, science and the intersection of all these pieces will show up in your work because your work will reflect you.

00:08:15 It reflects your art and your life. And so it can’t help, but do that. Your particular lexicon of mark-making your particular gestural expression, your particular history, aesthetic sensibility, the things you love, the things you don’t love, all of that shows up in your art. And this can even arise in things we don’t traditionally think of as artistic and creative,

00:08:41 like computer programming. Let’s say that you want to create a program, some code that does a certain thing, and the thing might be pretty complicated and you don’t know how you’re going to do it. Well, what I said earlier about it’s easier to modify something than nothing is you create a code that does the simplest thing that maybe says hello world. And then,

00:09:03 which is, you know, the classic test for all, all coding systems. So you create something that says hello world, and then you start modifying it. Well, I’d like to say for it to say hello world, if it’s after 6:00 PM on Tuesday and so on, and these are, these are kind of adjacent possible. Sometimes things proceed from a blueprint.

00:09:26 You have a whole list of requirements, and sometimes they proceed organically, you know in general, what you want to do, but you don’t really know how you’re going to do it, which is kind of more how artistic creativity works. And then there’s a lot of things in between. You might have a melody in your head, but you don’t know what instruments are going to play it and how it’s going to be transformed.

00:09:47 You maybe have the melody, but that isn’t enough for a piece. And so you start, you put, write that down and then the adjacent possible you start running in your head Well I could transform it like this, I could orchestrate it like this. I could lay this track over it and so on. Right? And so you’re really listening to the kind of creative impulses that show up that can be subtle and easily missed or dismissed.

00:10:13 And you’re really noticing that. And you’re also playing with constraint, with a few things, not everything, not every color in your studio, not every idea at the same time, but a few things that you are going to explore deeply working with constraint and the infinity of possibilities within that constraint, on that Tuesday, or this idea for the composition, even as you don’t know where it’s going to go,

00:10:43 something is, there’s a nidus there, there’s a seed that is driving it, and then you don’t know where it’s going to go. It might be. I want to go in with continuous line mark-making that’s my constraint. And, I don’t know where it’s going to go. So I hope to access the adjacent possible one foot in the noun, one foot in the unknown,

00:11:07 and I’m working with something that’s evolving. So Dr. Hillis is of course, an expert on art and I have some significant musical background. I’m thinking of a historical event, which is the creation of 12 tone music. This is something that started with Arnold Schoenberg around between 1900 and 1910. And this was very threatening. The idea that all tones are created equal,

00:11:37 that there could be music without tonal centers, that the idea of keys was to be thrown out the window. So early experimenters in 12 tone music created some very strict rules about how to do it. They, they had, they came up with rows, which was a sequence of tones that in some order include all 12. And that a piece of music was composed of these tone rows that could be inverted,

00:12:05 you know, reflected, turned upside down. They could be run backwards, or they could be run backwards and inverted. So you had this, you open the door a crack to a world with no conventional tonality, but in order to help you find your way, your, your length of string in the cave of the Minotaur,

00:12:25 you created these very strong rules as to how you navigate. And as people became comfortable with 12 tone music, they actually moved away from strict 12 tone music and started incorporating some of its elements, but also elements from tonality and then elements from different traditions of music. And so this is kind of music evolving by the adjacent possible. Fantastic. That’s so fascinating.

00:12:54 And how you see this across genres, music across history, across time as, as, as things evolve and continually change. So there’s also, you know, we open this up with the concept and we haven’t gone there yet of the phase transition. So let’s talk about how the adjacent possible connects up with phase transitions, which is a concept that I learned in organic chemistry years ago.

00:13:29 Will you talk about that? Well, phase transitions, it’s a, it’s a very broad field. It does have its roots in physics and chemistry and materials like ice turning to water is a phase transition. And this was certainly observed a lot throughout history. And then people started to think about it more analytically, especially in the 19th century,

00:14:00 and started to develop mathematics, to try to understand what goes on when things change form. But I think the vernacular way of thinking about a phase transition is a sudden systemic change. And now that we live in an area in an era of climate change, that one of our fears is that there could be a sudden large and irreversible change in our environment and the world.

00:14:33 the ecology of the earth is a lot more complex than something like a sample of ice in a lab. Ice is all one thing. It’s in a controlled environment. You carefully dial the temperature and watch what happens to it, which it melts or freezes on which direction you come at it from. But you know, what makes this very compelling and threatening is, well, in a lab,

00:15:01 you can repeat the experiment as many times as you want under controlled conditions. Well we have kind of uncontrolled conditions. And furthermore, the experiment is too expensive to do. We can’t actually create a hundred Earths and see what happens to a bunch of them. Oh, maybe all life dies out in 13 of them and everything’s fine in 11 of them. And then in between,

00:15:24 and the rest, we can’t do that. We’re trying to do it inside of computers, which is very helpful. Makes, makes the invention of computers worthwhile just by itself. Are you modeling there? Yeah. Simulation and modeling. Now, if you’re an artist or a musician you can afford to do experiments. You know, it’s okay to, to throw out something that you make.

00:15:52 And there, there are some exceptions. If you’re building St Peter’s Basilica, or you’re building the Sydney Opera House to have it fall down and have to start over, it’s doable, but it’s extremely expensive. So you really would like to avoid it. But if you’re painting on 24 by 24 inch canvases or writing popular songs, and one doesn’t work out,

00:16:16 it’s not the end of the world. So there are phase transitions that, you know, that cost a lot and are experiments that are associated with phase transitions that cost a lot or too much. And then the ones that you are free to do, but phase transitions are about influences on influences. If you think of a little bit of a block of ice getting near the point of melting,

00:16:42 well, maybe a little pocket of it melts first and as such, it influences the lattice, the regular structure of water atoms around it. And then they start joining the club, they start falling into and it starts, starts melting. You know, this is, this is an, an influence that is contagious, that’s catching on. And of course, in this age of COVID,

00:17:08 we also think about phase transitions in COVID. Many of you have heard of the R number, which is if the R number is above one, each infected person is likely to infect more than one other person. And, you know, to make a simple mathematical example, if R is 2, one person infects two, this is statistical. It’s not that every sick one person infects two it’s on average.

00:17:38 And then those would infect two each or four or eight. And you see, it gets big, very fast. It’s exponential. That’s the definition of an exponential as something that gets multiplied at every time step. So, I mean, that’s a, that’s the nature of a connected system where you could have a phase transition. If R, this number for analyzing COVID, is less than one on average,

00:18:07 you infect less than one person. Let’s say, in fact, a half, of course there’s no such thing as a half a person. But what it means is that, that you might infect one and somebody else infects zero. So it averages out to a half and you can follow that line of reasoning and see that it will,

00:18:24 it will die out. And that’s what we’re hoping is going to happen of course, in all kind of very destructive and widespread diseases. So phase transitions have this kind of behavior where they either go all in, like spread and all the ice melts or all the ice freezes. It’s very, it’s kind of hard to stay poised, right at the edge. Phase

00:18:52 transitions, at least the conventional kind in chemistry and most others don’t like to stay right at the edge. There are some counter examples that are fascinating and will take some doing to talk about, but I think we’ll do that in another broadcast, Right. So it’s very interesting where with a phase transition, the curve of that, you’re, you’re going along,

00:19:16 you’re going along and it’s relatively flat or kind of rising slightly on this graph. And then all of a sudden it goes up very steeply and then it comes out into a different state, a different place. And I find this very interesting, I always found this very interesting the steep movement on that curve, but it’s, it seems like it’s immediate, that it’s like that.

00:19:46 And in that moment, it is, but there was, there were things going on moving it to that direction. Well, it has to do with accumulating connectivity and connectivity can come in many forms. So one form is that you imagine a bunch of points, like dots on a sheet of paper, and then you close your eyes and you pick two,

00:20:10 or maybe the ones that your fingers are closest to and draw a line between them. And then you do it again. And you create, you keep track of, you almost could think of these as little bits of string or something, but you, you want to see what’s the largest number of points that are connected. So if you have several lines and you can go from point A to point B,

00:20:32 then there happens to be another line that goes from B to C, you’ve got three dots that are connected. And so if you start with a hundred dots and then you start laying down links between them, what happens is that at first you just have all these isolated pairs. So your biggest piece of the graph has two dots in it. You know,

00:20:55 there might be 20 of those with two dots, but then you start using up your budget of dots. And so you start reusing them. And so then you start ending up with threes and fours and fives and sixes because you have connections on connections. And this is metaphorically. what goes on as you develop a creative practice is that your experience starts accumulating.

00:21:19 And the joke is that experiences is that which allows you to recognize a mistake when you make it again. And it’s not just true for mistakes. This is true for accumulated experience is that after awhile, this probably comes up as a, as a physician that, oh, you’ve seen this patient. You’ve seen a patient present in this way before. So it gives you a quick way to access.

00:21:46 I should look, I should look here because this is the most likely thing. The connections start feeding on the connections and they start knitting together. And what happens is that as you accumulate knowledge or connections, for a long time nothing happens. They’re just disconnected facts. But when they start knitting together, it goes fast. And I often wondered why artists,

00:22:09 when I might observe them over many years, toil in obscurity. And I think, well, they’re making good art, but there’s something where they’re learning all the creative efforts, all the different paintings or pieces of music or writings, they start to feed off of each other. And eventually, you’re not copying each other, but what you’ve learned from all the things you’ve done before start really giving you a jet boost in new creativity.

00:22:40 Well, it’s interesting this idea of the knitting together, it’s almost like it coalesces and it’s, it’s the story for example, of an artist who’s going along for years, trying to get to perhaps minimalist art, but, that’s maybe their dream, but they’re still working in this way. That’s more complex. And then, but they’re moving along. And then when it seems like not much is happening,

00:23:06 I think there’s, there’s a lot happening under the surface in this low part of the curve, flat kind of flatter part of the curve. And then it changes. It takes you to another state. And in that movement, that’s, that’s akin to the breakthrough in art where you’re trying to break through, or you have a breakthrough that comes up suddenly,

00:23:29 and you’re not even trying to break through, but something breaks through. And that’s that steep part where all this knits together and coalesces and takes you to another place, another state. And I think in a way that’s akin to the adjacent possible because we’re moving along, making moves and it’s taking you somewhere new, it’s taking you to another state. And so anyway,

00:23:53 I think it’s a very interesting thing. What we’re really talking about here is the science of creativity in these talks on these episodes. This is what we’re talking about. And so we’re going to cover a vast sea of material in, in future episodes that connect basically with the science of creativity. And so I think it’s fascinating. Is there anything else about phase transitions or anything else that you’ve said here you want to,

00:24:24 to let us know about Dr. Sawhill before we finish up today? Well, they’re, they’re very generally applicable even as something as perhaps superficially non-creative as business has phase transitions in it. A business is, is a kind of organism and it lives in an environment and it, you know, it wants to keep on keeping on. And as a business grows,

00:24:53 it develops expertise, usually in the form of hiring people who know how to do stuff. And often these different sets of expertise eventually knit together. And then the business becomes a thing, an operating thing. It’s self-sustaining just like an organism is. And so it, it hits that steep part of the phase transition, all of a sudden it knits together and is profitable and chugging along.

00:25:20 And in fact business probably wouldn’t work at all without these phase transitions without these non-linearities, if there were no reason to accumulate talent or experience or knowledge or scale to get bigger then we wouldn’t have a business ecosystem like we do. Yeah. I want to circle back just for a moment and then we’ll finish up for today’s episode. I was thinking about when you were talking about these points,

00:25:48 these various points, I could imagine what came up in my mind was imagining a piece of paper or a board, a canvas, and imagining having little pins over this board and then connecting those pins with thread or line. And, and just seeing that literally in a piece of art knitting together over time organically. I think you had that in your 2019 workshop.

00:26:20 It was outside the art room that, that participants could be free to contribute. And there was a collection of pins and yarn that they could put together, and it was kind of a collective mixed media production. Right. And we, what was interesting about that it was collaborative. It invited everyone to add to this evolving piece and then we would see where it went over the five days over time.

00:26:49 And we had a time-lapse camera on the work up above looking down. So it’s very interesting. That kind of thing really informed by what we’re talking about here, which is the science of creativity. And so these are the kinds of things you can bring into your art as you explore various elements in your universe, in your world, from science, from mathematics,

00:27:16 from evolutionary biology, from creativity studies, from psychology, from nature and music and all of that. You can bring that into your art. So I hope you enjoyed this today. We’ll be back with episode two soon. Thank you so much, Dr. Bruce Sawhill. Thank you so much for inviting me. Okay. We’ll see you soon. Jump into the adjacent possible.






P.S. Flipping through pages of The Artist’s Journey: Bold Strokes To Spark Creativity



“One of the best Creativity books of all time” – BookAuthority


See the Artist Interview on Book Lover’s TV 


The Artist’s Journey by Nancy Hillis is a transformative guidebook that encourages readers do to away with self-doubt and dive deep into the world of abstract art as a method of fulfillment and self-expression. – Review by the Book Excellence Awards

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