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Creativity, Turbulence & Holism- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

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

Creativity, Turbulence & Holism


Last week we discussed the following image, taken by a NASA probe near Jupiter.


NASA flyby image of Jupiter




A remarkable characteristic of this image is that, if I didn’t tell you what the scale was, it would be hard for you to guess.

It could be a colorized version of milk swirling in tea in a teacup, or it could be gigantic storms big enough to swallow Earth without a hiccup.

It’s the latter.


Physical & Existential Turbulence


Last week we brought up the subject of turbulence, of both the physical and existential kinds. 

From the viewpoint of a physicist, turbulence occupies a special niche.  

Many other aspects of physics can be enormously simplified.  A huge variety of phenomena can be easily and transparently explained by Newton’s Laws, for instance.


Galileo’s Experiment


The transparency part comes from situations in which it is easily possible to separate out motion from surroundings, such as a falling object in an otherwise stationary background, like Galileo’s famous 1591 experiment of dropping two balls of different masses off of the leaning tower of Pisa to see if they’d hit the ground at different times.


Tower of Pisa, Italy

Tower of Pisa, Italy


But how do you know which details are important and which are extraneous?


The Art Of Science


This is the art of science.

For Newton’s Laws describing a ball’s flight, we need to know its velocity and the strength and direction of the gravitational field it is moving in. The color, ownership, surface roughness, and mass may matter in different contexts, but they can be dispensed with in this particular case.


Art, Science & Decision


The separation and identification of critical features is a cutting away, a decision about what matters, from the Latin decidire, to cut away.


Decision comes up in art just as much as it comes up in science.


The Art of Science comes up when seeking to understand turbulence in particular.

Turbulence also obeys Newton’s Laws with some modifications — a specialized version of them adapted to fluid flow called the Navier-Stokes equations that account for viscosity and compressibility. 

The equations don’t *explain* viscosity and compressibility, those are just assumed and come from a nuanced understanding of how atoms of a material in motion interact.

You could say they are inherited, they come in a box with “no user serviceable parts inside” as far as those equations are concerned


The fact that we can “inherit” a whole set of characteristics from other subsets of science is a feature of science that has allowed it to make progress, to make sense of the physical world.


Scientists are always creating abstractions in this process of sense-making, just like artists.

The semantic philosopher Alfred Korzybski said:


A map is not the territory it represents, but if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness.

Alfred Korzybski


The British statistician George E.P. Box said,


All models are wrong but some are useful.

George E.P. Box


It turns out there’s a big difference between writing down an equation and solving it.

An equation is a form of constraint, such as x – 2 = 4 constrains x to be 6. That particular equation was easy to solve because you could just add 2 to both sides and get x all by its lonesome on the left side of the equals sign.

But sometimes getting x by itself is not at all obvious. It can’t easily be separated out.

Most scientists who study fluid flow feel that the Navier-Stokes equations do a good job of describing what goes on in Nature. The challenge is solving them, particularly where turbulence is concerned.


Turbulence is one of the ultimate “network” problems—where everything affects everything else. 


Progress in science, particularly physics, has mostly been predicated on avoiding those kinds of situations.

This is like the story of the drunk bar patron who drops a coin in the street but walks a distance away to a streetlight to look for it, “Because there’s light here.”

Or perhaps the doctor who responds to the patient who says, “It hurts when I do this,” by saying, “Don’t do that.”




This idea of “separation” runs all through the scientists’ description of the physical world. Much of the success of physics is due to separability based on different scales of time or distance. 

What goes on inside the atomic nucleus, for instance, is pretty much independent of the setting of that nucleus—is a particular nucleus in the gut of an albatross, is it in a bicycle hub, or is it in a shovelful of soil?

It usually doesn’t matter.


Albatross, Falkland Islands


Separability & Hierarchy


This separability allows for the creation of a hierarchy—We can fight our battles of scientific comprehension sequentially. 

We can first figure out:


  • the nucleus,
  • then the atom,
  • then elements,
  • then chemistry,
  • then biology,
  • then ecology,
  • etc. without having to understand them all at once. 


There is a compartmentalization of nature that helps people make sense of it and is why we have physicists, biologists, chemists, ecologists and others instead of Figure-out-the-whole-mess-ists. 


Understanding Turbulence


Understanding turbulence is very hard because it can’t be separated into a hierarchy like other aspects of Nature.

It is all mixed together, literally and figuratively. It doesn’t all live at a particular scale, like atoms or nuclei.

And we can’t solve those Navier-Stokes equations just by adding 2 to both sides as in the example above.

We have to use computers to chop up the problem into many little pieces, then try to solve them so all the little pieces are consistent with each other.

Whatever amount of computer power you have, it usually isn’t enough.

It’s why we still have wind tunnels and wave tanks to design airplanes and ships.

Sometimes the best map of reality is reality itself.


The Science Of Art


Since we’ve talked about the Art of Science, it’s high time we talk of the Science of Art.

Last week we made the case that turbulence can be beautiful, from the storms of Jupiter to Van Gogh’s Starry Night.

Turbulence also has a kinship with fractals, special curves that have no characteristic scale, like the famous Koch or “snowflake” curve.


Koch curve, showing successive triangle construction




Fractals have a property of self-similarity– you can’t tell how small or big what you’re looking at is because it looks the same at different magnifications.

The picture of Jupiter’s storms from last week is like that—there’s no clue to tell you the picture is 50,000 miles across instead of 3 inches, and it could be either.




Perhaps what makes turbulence so hard to understand for scientists contributes to it being aesthetically pleasing to artists. It is challenging, inseparable, and difficult. It can’t be dismissed as obvious. It has to be viewed, analyzed and understood holistically.


It has elements of the obvious and even banal—Newton’s Laws are old hat, after all. 

But it also has surprising behavior- the unfamiliar next to the familiar, the adjacent possible.


It is this juxtaposition of familiar and unfamiliar that draws us onward. Artists, like scientists, are involved in sense-making, but in their case in worlds of their own creation.


With gratitude from my studio to yours,


Congratulations to my daughter, Kimy Pedersen, on the publication of her second book. Music is her art. She is published internationally with ten works as a composer and arranger on Amazon as well as Sheet Music Plus.


Kimy’s book of original compositions, Modern Folk Tunes For Cello, hit #1 New Release in three categories: Cellos, Cello Songbooks and Folk & Traditional Songbooks on Amazon. Its Best Sellers Rank on 03/31/21 was 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.


Modern Fold Tunes for Cello

Modern Fold Tunes for Cello- Kimy Pedersen


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.


Give/Take Community Fridge Before Enclosure

Give/Take Community Fridge Before Enclosure


And After…


Give/Take Community Fridge With Enclosure

Give/Take Community Fridge With Enclosure


Be a part of solving food insecurity. Make a difference. Get your Copy of the Songbook.

Individual sheet music is also available at Sheet Music Plus.



Kimy Pedersen- 8 Compositions- Sheet Music

Kimy Pedersen- Composer


You can order Kimy’s sheet music for beginner and intermediate cello HERE.



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