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Creativity-THe Universe_And-Nine Billion Names-Nancy Hillis MD and Bruce Sawhill PhD

Creativity, The Universe & Nine Billion Names- This post is informed by conversations with Bruce Sawhill PhD, Stanford educated theoretical physicist and mathematician.

Creativity, the Universe & Nine Billion Names


For years Bruce has been working at starting a company. For months we worked on fixing up our house before it falls down in a toxic cloud of lead paint and termite excreta.

Small details of one’s life.

Both of these projects are nearing their endpoints, or rather transition points to a new phase. It feels exciting and scary, the unknown unknown written in the language of life.

Whatever is coming next will be different. 


Arthur C. Clarke


Arthur C. Clarke

Arthur C. Clarke


It reminds us of a story by one of our literary heroes, Arthur C. Clarke, the science fiction writer perhaps most famous for his short story The Sentinel that became the basis for the Kubrick movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey.  

That movie, seen at the tender age of 10, utterly transformed Bruce’s life.

In less than three hours, he received marching orders as to what to do with the rest of his life (become a musician, mathematician, and physicist) and all that remained was to execute the plan.


The Nine Billion Names Of God


Clarke wrote another short story in 1953 called The Nine Billion Names of God. This is relevant to our sequence of blog posts because it has to do with combinatorics and constraint, a topic so many-faceted we return to it again and again.


Rongbuk Monastery and Mt Everest

Rongbuk Monastery and Mt Everest


In Clarke’s story, a monastery of Tibetan monks are engaged in a truly monk-like task- writing down all of the possible names of G-d. This involves enumerating (listing) all possible combinations of alphabetic symbols and eliminating the ones that are gibberish.

They are doing this because it is foretold that the purpose of the Universe is to enumerate the names of G-d, and that the Universe will end when this task is complete.


Combinatorics & Constraint


This project has already been underway for 300 years, using a special language created for the purpose. In this language, all of the possible names consist of nine or fewer symbols, with certain combinations considered nonsensical that must be filtered out to reveal the true names.

This is reminiscent of the story of Michelangelo releasing the figure from the marble, cutting everything away that was not the figure. 


Bruce Sawhill- David- The Accademia

Bruce Sawhill- David- The Accademia


This should sound familiar from our previous conversations on combinatorics and constraint. There is a large number of possible sequences of nine unspecified symbols.

If we knew how many different symbols were to be considered, we could calculate the number of possible sequences before filtering, but we will assume it is somewhere between ‘huge’ and ‘ginormous,’  but as ever, just shy of ‘infinite.’


The Suspension Of Disbelief


But Mr. Clarke deftly sidesteps this question of language details, since almost any answer would face withering criticism. Many things are best left abstract.


This is the hallmark of good fiction—the suspension of disbelief.

It is also the hallmark of good art. We build worlds unto themselves out of symbols, shapes, or tones that we create, and they must have a kind of self-consistency to stay in our consciousness and not be discarded by our nonsense filters.


The Dalai Lama, upon hearing of Clarke’s story, was amused and entertained. 

Why nine symbols? What are the symbols? All this remains unanswered.

The monks and their scribes figure it will take 15,000 years to work through this list, so they have no time to waste, allowing for sleep, childhood, senility, reproduction, death, war, pestilence, civilizations rising and falling and so forth. 


What kind of symbols would one use that would stand the test of 15,000 years?


The monks hear about a recent invention called a “computer” (remember, this is 1953, there were perhaps a dozen on Earth) that can do things terribly quickly, perhaps thousands per second.

The monks don’t believe in work for work’s sake unless it brings enlightenment, so they engage two Western engineers from a research lab to help them with their project.

They don’t tell them about the “Universe ending” part, just the enumeration part. 

The scientists figure such a project might be good publicity, though they have doubts about the purpose of it, figuring it is superstitious nonsense.

Their speedy computer will compress 15,000 years to 3 months, a speedup factor of about 60,000. 


UNIVAC 1953- Museum of Science, Boston, Massachusetts

UNIVAC 1953- Museum of Science, Boston, Massachusetts


A technological spoiler:  Current computers, even common laptops, are about a million times faster than this fictional computer of 1953. The 15,000 years could now conceivably be compressed to seven or eight seconds. 


The Meaning Of The Project


The monks eventually tell the engineers the purpose of the project- that a legend says the universe will end when all the names of G-d are written down.

To this end, they adjust their computer program to finish running after they have left the monastery because they don’t want to be around when the program finishes and nothing happens.

The two engineers are on the long trek away from the monastery when the program finishes, riding horseback on a still and starry night towards an airfield where an airplane awaits to take them on the long journey home.


Starry night in Himalayas

Starry night in Himalayas


One of the scientists looks up and observes, “one by one, without any fuss, the stars were going out.”

The story, along with the fictional Universe, ends here.


Instability Of The Vacuum


The story precedes the widespread fascination of Western cultures with Eastern cultures that came in the following decade, so it has a kind of charming naïveté, but it also presages discoveries and theories in theoretical physics that came later. 

One of these ideas is the “instability of the vacuum,” a mind-bending concept that says the very structure of space and time itself might be unstable, like a bucket on the edge of a shelf.

A sufficiently energetic disturbance could cause space-time itself to transition to a more stable state, releasing staggering amounts of energy in the process and generating a blast wave spreading out at the speed of light from the initial disturbance.

You would never see such a wave coming or be able to tell any of your friends in time, as nothing (as far as we know) travels faster than the speed of light.


What Does This Have To Do With Creativity?


What does any of this have to do with creativity? I mean besides combinatorics, constraint, having faith in your process, and suspension of disbelief? 

There is an old saying that is originally either German or Chinese:


Find joy in your life, it is later than you think.


And creativity is one of the best ways to find joy. 


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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