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Creativity & Illusion- Nancy Hillis MD and Bruce Sawhill PhD

Creativity & Illusion- Nancy Hillis MD and Bruce Sawhill PhD

Creativity & Illusion


It’s the New Year and we’re back!

The temptation today is to write about American politics or perhaps COVID or some other disease of the body and mind, but we will resist this temptation. Instead, Bruce will turn to one of his heroes for insight into more permanent things, the inimitable Einstein.


Reality is an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.

Albert Einstein


Young Albert Einstein


Bruce’s Story


People have wrangled over what this quote meant ever since it surfaced in the general consciousness, including whether or not it was actually uttered by Albert himself.

The provenance of the quote is entirely appropriate to wonder about, given its substance.

The Department of Nitpickage would say Einstein said the following, if he said anything:

Die Realität ist nur eine Illusion, wenn auch eine sehr hartnäckige.

The most common interpretation is that all we know is in our minds, and is therefore an illusion. 

But I will take a different tack, a more literal one. What if Einstein was talking about what we call the “physical Universe?” 

When we walk across a floor or grab an object, we have a sense of solidity.  But we have learned over centuries and millennia that solid objects are made out of atoms, too small to individually see.  

And, furthermore, each atom is not a solid round hard sphere, a Platonic object, but rather a tiny fuzzy solar system, composed mostly of empty space and weird abstract quantum mechanical wave functions.


The Vastness Of Space


When I was a kid about eight years old, I wanted to understand the vastness of space. I wanted to know what “big” really meant. So I set out to build a scale model of the solar system. 

I knew you could buy them, with colored wooden balls on sticks mounted on a board, but when I put Earth at eye level and looked at Venus, it was far bigger than the moon appears in the sky. If that were true, I would have noticed it by now.

Something was off.



Plastic Solar System Model


I didn’t yet understand that Venus occupying a quarter of the night sky would not only keep me up at night with the sunlight playing on its roiling clouds, but thousand foot tides would scour the Earth clean. At least I wouldn’t have to go to school.


Planet Venus


I took out a standard piece of notebook paper and set out to draw it in proper proportion, kind of like artists learning how to draw in perspective. 


Note Pad


I needed to scale the drawing so the entire solar system would fit on the page. That meant I had to turn 3.7 billion miles (5.9 billion km, the distance from the Sun to Pluto before Pluto was unceremoniously demoted from planet-hood by heartless astronomers) into 11 inches (28 cm), the length of the long side of a piece of notebook paper.

This meant making things about 20 trillion times smaller than actual size.

I quickly discovered that even the Sun was going to be merely a pinprick and all of the planets way too small to see. The piece of notebook paper wasn’t useless though, I needed both sides of it for all the zeroes in the calculations. 

So, limited by my human perceptions, I had to go bigger.


Cash Register Paper

Cash Register Paper


I bought a roll of adding machine tape (similar to what cash registers use to generate paper receipts currently) about 400 feet long.

I now only had to make things 63 billion times smaller to fit the drawing on to the tape, a big improvement. An inch represented a million miles.

The Sun was now the size of a coin, like a quarter or euro.  Earth, Mercury, and Venus were dots, but the orbit of the moon was visible, the size of a penny in diameter. Jupiter and Saturn were tiny little circles.

I laid the tape down the street, past a few houses, and walked back and forth, feeling the vastness of empty space in squeaky sneakers. 

I wonder in retrospect what the neighbors thought. “It’s that weird neighbor kid, but it doesn’t look like delinquent activity so we’ll go back to watching Bugs Bunny on the television with rabbit ears.”

As I walked back and forth, I realized that if you weren’t looking for them, it would be easy to miss just about everything in the expanse of white paper. This brought to mind a quote of the author DH Lawrence:


What the eye doesn’t see and the mind doesn’t know, doesn’t exist.

D.H. Lawrence


I later found that there is a “Sagan Walk” in Ithaca, New York (home of Cornell University and the late astronomer Carl Sagan) that is also a scale model of the Solar System, about thirteen times bigger and 30 years later than the one I made.


Walking Model of Solar System-Ithaca, New York


Back To Atoms


The proportions of atoms are kind of like the solar system—vast amounts of empty space, a little bit of volume taken up by nuclei and electrons. If I scaled those up like I scaled the solar system down, there’d be lots of white and a few dots.

If things aren’t weird enough already, here’s where they get weirder.

If one starts digging into what nuclei are made out of, one gets to quarks and gluons. If one starts digging into those, one starts getting into hypothetical objects called “superstrings.” (I’m not making this up, but colleagues did) 

Endless hierarchies even come up in the world of living things. Augustus De Morgan wrote his poem Siphonaptera, inspired in turn by Jonathan Swift, who was no doubt inspired by someone else: 


Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite ’em,


And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum.


And the great fleas themselves, in turn, have greater fleas to go on;


While these again have greater still, and greater still, and so on.


But what about superstrings at the bottom of the pile?  They are abstract objects, pure geometry and energy, wiggling and moving in such a way as to generate the hierarchy of everything larger, the illusion of reality.

Richard Feynman cut to the chase:


Things are made of littler things that jiggle.

Richard Feynman


Richard Feynman

Richard Feynman


Plato, Pythagoras & Art


We have come full circle to Plato and Pythagoras. The root of reality is line and space and geometry and proportion, preferably set to music using the same principles. 

Art doesn’t seem so peripheral any more, does it?

Why not just start with line and space and geometry and dispense with all of the above hoo-hah. It’s tempting, but a little restraint is in order. As Carl Sagan said,


It’s important to have an open mind, but not so open your brains fall out.

Carl Sagan



Carl Sagan, astronomer


With gratitude from my studio to yours,




She Made It- Elle Zimmerman interviews Nancy Hillis, MD

She Made It- Elle Zimmerman interviews Nancy Hillis, MD


Catch my interview on Elle Zimmerman’s podcast: Mastering Discomfort To Find Your Creative Self. 


The Artist’s Journey: Bold Strokes To Spark Creativity is named by BookAuthority as one of the Top 100 Books On Creativity.


The Artist’s Journey: Creativity Reflection Journal is a self-help journal to spark your imagination with prompts, poetic musings and stories to help you activate the inner sources of your creativity,


The Artist's Journey Creativity Reflection Journal

The Artist’s Journey Creativity Reflection Journal



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