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Turbulence- The Handmaiden Of Creativity- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD)

Turbulence- The Handmaiden Of Creativity- This post is informed by conversations with Dr. Bruce Sawhill, Stanford educated theoretical physicist & mathematician.


Turbulence: The Handmaiden Of Creativity


We recently came across the following image, taken by a NASA probe near Jupiter.


NASA flyby image of Jupiter


It struck us as very painterly, though it is not the work of any human artist nor of any common materials.

It is Nature being Nature. It cannot do otherwise.


The laws of physics do not negotiate nor make exceptions. Even so, the Universe is more diverse than we can know or imagine. How such rigidity can enable such complexity remains one of the grand mysteries of existence.


The NASA image is an image of a stupendously huge and inhospitable environment, weather systems thousands of miles across containing winds of supersonic speeds, all occurring at temperatures of hundreds of degrees below zero.

As frail human beings, we couldn’t live in that environment unprotected for a fraction of a second. As a physicist, Bruce sees a classic example of turbulent fluid in motion.


Turbulence & Vincent van Gogh


Then we realized that the image from outer space evoked memories of an actual human artist, Vincent van Gogh. 

In his Starry Night painting, van Gogh infuses turbulence into a calm scene, a quiet starry night above a small village.


Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh


Vincent van Gogh died at age 37, a victim of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. 

The painter of turbulent paintings had a turbulent life marked by mental illness—He suffered from a cascading cluster of conditions.

Researchers in psychology have long mused over Van Gogh’s illnesses.

Some think he had a mood disorder in combination with borderline personality disorder leading to alcoholism and malnutrition, then leading to alcohol withdrawal and severe depression.

A seizure disorder cannot be ruled out.


Mental Illness & The Muses


Bruce has often joked that there are several forms of societally acceptable mental illness that are sufficiently benign and useful to be tolerated by society at large. These include mathematics, music, and art.

Between us we’ve got some experience with all three, in addition to psychiatry to try and make some sense of it all. It certainly makes for interesting conversations!


Why is turbulence visually appealing? 


Smooth, laminar flow is often more desirable because it is quieter, more efficient, and more controllable in engineering applications, but it can be rather boring. 



Transition from laminar flow (bottom left) to turbulence in a smoke plume


If laminar flow is so much better, why are we fascinated with its seemingly dysfunctional opposite?

Turbulence is unpredictable and chaotic. Surprise is a powerful thing. Perhaps this is the secret as to why it often perceived as aesthetically pleasing. We can derive benefit from it under the right circumstances.


It is turbulent times in history that disturb the status quo, that upset the equilibrium, that create opportunity where none existed before. Turbulence allows new ideas, leaders, and technologies to emerge.


Turbulence & The Pandemic


The COVID-19 pandemic has generated turbulence at a societal level. The next years will be interesting ones.

Could it work the same way inside of our psyches, turbulence rearranging the orderly hierarchy of ideas and beliefs and sensibilities?

There is probably some truth behind the cliché of the tortured artist.


If there were never any turbulence, the world might descend into a timeless immortal frozen state of relationships and ideas, no change or novelty, no learning or transformation. For an individual it might look like some sort of drooling contentment.


If there were only turbulence without any contrasting stability, novelty would be constantly created but never able to gain a lasting foothold. Like a dream, it would be summed up as I had a great idea last night but I can’t remember it now.


Like so many complex systems, a sweet spot exists between these two poles. Enough turbulence to create novelty and possibility, enough laminarity to develop those possibilities into lasting creations.

I submit that our aesthetic sense is informed by the conscious and unconscious absorption and sensation of natural processes.


Turbulence is literally and figuratively in our brains and in our blood. It comes out in our creations and our ideas because just as Nature cannot do otherwise, neither can we.


With gratitude from my studio to yours,


Congratulations to my daughter, Kimy Pedersen. Her art is music. She is published internationally as a composer on Amazon as well as Sheet Music Plus.

Kimy’s book of original compositions, Modern Folk Tunes For Cello, hit #1 New Release in two categories: Cellos and Folk & Traditional Songbooks on Amazon. Its Best Sellers Rank is 63,190 out of over 48.5 million books on Amazon!


Click on the arrow to see see the images. You can order Kimy’s songbook HERE.


We are matching funds and donating to feed the hungry through Kimy’s Community Give/Take Fridge that she set up at our home after the CZU Lightning Fires devastated Santa Cruz last summer. Every day, Kimy supplies the fridge and pantry with foods she purchases and foods that are donated. Our neighbor was so moved by the project, he built Kimy a permanent structure to protect the fridge from the elements. Be a part of solving food insecurity. Make a difference. Get your Copy of the Songbook.

If you prefer individual sheet music, you can get them at Sheet Music Plus.


Click on the arrow to see the song titles. You can order Kimy’s sheet music for beginner and intermediate cello HERE.


Kimy Pedersen- 8 Compositions- Sheet Music

Kimy Pedersen- Composer



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