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Creativity & Fame: From Zero To Infinity- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

Creativity & Fame: From Zero To Infinity- This blog post is informed by conversations with Dr. Bruce Sawhill, Stanford educated theoretical physicist and mathematician.

Creativity & Fame: From Zero to Infinity


Fads are phenomena we’re all familiar with, from a particular child’s toy to a piece of popular music. 


My Little Pony child’s toy


The artist Andy Warhol famously said, “In the future, everybody will be world-famous for fifteen minutes.” We have come remarkably close to his prediction.


‘Marilyn Monroe’ by Andy Warhol


Of course Bruce is going to do some calculation about this, and he figures with 7 billion people living on the Earth for about 60 years each, each person, on average, can be famous once, for about 1/4 of a second.

If you blink, you miss it.




Fads & The Speed Of Information


One phenomenon of the Internet age is that fads seem to transpire faster and faster.

Information travels at the speed of light, and armies of pudgy thumbs tapping on greasy phone screens amplify and retransmit items of immediate interest, spelling be damned.


Phones and information


We observed this in action on this Thanksgiving, an American holiday that occurs on the 4th Thursday of November every year, a holiday to commemorate the first English settlement of what was to become the USA.

For those who are unfamiliar, Thanksgiving involves cooking and eating an utterly vast amount of food with a large group of extended family, most often centered around cooking a turkey. 

Personality differences, should they arise, are dissolved with sluicing gushers of alcohol.

Because of COVID, the gatherings were much smaller but we suspect the amounts of food were as much as ever, if not greater. COVID-19 has caused a lot of cooking to occur as a response to stress.


‘Freedom From Want”, Norman Rockwell-U.S. National Archives and Records Administration


Brining, Buttermilk & Blundering Brigades


A well-known food writer, Samin Nosrat, author of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking, published a recipe for turkey that included the step of brining said turkey in buttermilk before roasting it- a tradition coming out of the deep south.

Lots of buttermilk. Quarts of it.

In a flash, most stores in the entire country were stripped bare of buttermilk, a normally semi-forgettable item that is often sandwiched between other more abundant items on a non-prominent refrigerated shelf. 

The mighty capitalistic supply chain endeavored futilely to respond. 

One imagines setting in motion blundering brigades of behemoth bulbous buttermilk boats lumbering lugubriously across oceans, snorting plumes of diesel smoke as they pitch and yaw and roll in their foaming wallow.


Cargo ship at sea


But it is very hard for the world of physical things to catch up to the world of information and electronics. A tweet can go around the world many times in all directions before a ship can travel a mile in one direction.

And if it was hard for the ships to respond, imagine the dairy farmers!


“American Gothic”, Grant Wood


By the time those fictional boats could get anywhere, Thanksgiving was over and people were saying, “I’ll never eat that much again, at least for another year.”


Andy Warhol & The Fleetingness Of Fame


Andy Warhol’s observation is an example of something physicists do all the time. When they are discussing the behavior of a system in the physical world, it is usually described and modeled by equations.


If physics is the poetry of nature, math is the grammar.  


These equations usually have symbols that represent quantities, such as the mass or velocity of something.

To develop understanding around the system being discussed, physicists metaphorically “twiddle the knobs” to see what happens. 

What if the mass were infinite?  What if the velocity was zero?

And, being physicists, they push it as far as it will go, which is why zero or infinity come up a lot.

The physicist George Gamow, who we discussed earlier in our blog posts, wrote a book in 1939 called Mr. Tompkins in Wonderland, in which he made Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity more understandable to a lay audience by creating a fictional world where the speed of light was 10 mph rather than 670 million mph, its true value.

Andy Warhol observed the increasing fleetingness of fame and started thinking, ‘What if it tended towards zero?”

“Fifteen minutes” was his stand-in for “incredibly short.” Not being as mathematically inclined as Dr. Sawhill, he did not do the 1/4 second calculation, but that is where he was going.


Reductio Ad Absurdum 


Letting a mathematical quantity go to zero or infinity is a modern-day version of something much older, the reductio ad absurdum, which has roots in Greek philosophy.

Though not the original inventors of the idea, Euclid and Archimedes made extensive use of it—Starting with a premise and showing that it led to false or contradictory conclusions, the foundations of proof by negation.

Here’s two examples of reductio ad absurdum:


  • The Earth cannot be flat; otherwise, we would find people falling off the edge.
  • There is no smallest positive rational number because, if there were, then it could be divided by two to get a smaller one.


The moral of this story is that if we assume fame is extremely transitory, there is then no purpose in pursuing it because the satisfaction is so short-lived.


Inequitable Distribution


More likely, fame is inequitably distributed. A very few people have a whole lot of it, even fewer have it for a long time, most everyone else has little to none. 

And, of course, luck is involved, perhaps to an extreme degree.

Fame is what Bruce calls  a “short wavelength phenomenon.” That means it comes and goes quickly. To long-wavelength phenomena, short wavelengths are invisible and undetectable.





An example—Ten feet under the surface of the Earth, the temperature varies so little that it is impossible to tell if it is winter or summer outside, let alone day or night.

Changes in the cool ground are very gradual. This is why wine caves are a good idea for the development of vinous complexity, unstirred by wind and weather.


Wine cave


Advice to artists: It is a better bet to be like a wine cave than to pursue your 1/4 second. It will be better for you in the long run, and it comes with good wine.


With gratitude from my studio to yours,



P.S. Artists are loving the webinar I presented a few days ago. You can see it too.

I’m thrilled to invite you to my FREE Transformational online workshop “3 Massive Mistakes Even Professional Artists Make That Cause Them To Not Like Their Art”.

3 Massive Mistakes Webinar

In this workshop, you’ll learn the three vital studio practices that are at the core of creating as an artist to overcome inhibitions, activate your creativity, fall in love with painting again and create paintings that wow you.

Get all the details here: https://www.artistsjourney.com/sjm-workshop  



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