IdeaFestival

Admiring Chalkboards

If you could attend a quantum physics lecture and view the scribbled equations on the chalkboard, what would you see?

This Is Colossal:

Artist Alejandro Guijarro... spent three years traveling to the quantum mechanics departments of Cambridge, Stanford, Berkeley, Oxford and elsewhere to shoot large format photographs of blackboards just after lectures. Completely removed from the context of a classroom or laboratory and displayed in a gallery, the cryptic equations from one of the most formidable branches of physics become abstract patterns of line and color.

I don't know what it's like to launder dimension and manifold from the abstractions that Guijarro captures on film. But I do have an amateur's appreciation for what poetry can achieve, and hear in the physicality and phrasing of favorite works the sound of an echoing. It's amazing to me that any one person can do this, and, like my respect for poets, I deeply admire the mathematicians who can skillfully arrange and rearrange their symbolic material until its full and ineluctable sense materializes. And it would appear that mathematicians find the aesthetics pleasing too. A recent study showed that the brain area associated with emotional reactions to beauty activates when mathematicians view elegantly stated formulas.

This takes time. Artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer said in his IdeaFestival 2013 talk that the job of an artist was to "slow down" and "to intercept" communication, by which I think he meant that in an age when so many answers are available to our fingertips, the human preoccupations with place and meaning are largely the same. We long to understand. As a non-mathematician, I am reminded that the line and color represented in Guijarro's images do not just present a pleasing appearance, but for those who have managed to describe the very nature of these vanishingly small realities, the culmination of a life's work. Of course there were dead ends, blind alleys and the faintest of intimations along the way. Few of us will ever write something as penetrating as Schrodinger's equation or prose with Auden's thrilling brevity. We will come no closer, alas, than pictures of scribbles. We will wonder.

What goes there?

Stay curious.

Wayne

Reading the post at Colossal reminded me of autistic savant Daniel Tammet talking about his love of numbers at the IdeaFestival nearly four years ago, a moment captured in this 12 minute video. Enjoy.

Pic: Sunset on Mars

The sun setting over Gusev crater on Mars, snapped by the now-mired Spirit. Notice the smaller size of our star. Incredibly, you can follow the driver of Opportunity, Spirit's twin, @marsroverdriver on Twitter. Now that's a cool job! 

Wayne

Image credit: NASA/JPL/Texas A&M/Cornell

Janelle Monae - "When your heart is breaking"

Wow. Just wow. Thanks to Geoff Oliver Bugbee for this wonderful image of Janelle Monae in concert.

For many other pictures from the IdeaFestival, please visit our Flickr pool. It's open to your contributions.

Wayne

Kris Kimel: Something To Think About

One of  many things that we inevitably delve into at the IdeaFestival is the question of "relevance." Today, being and staying relevant plays a significant role in the competitive equation. It’s important for your organization, your employees and your customers. In a world where the conditions and context of everything change so fast, being and staying relevant is one the most critical factors that can help you weather the inevitable ups and downs of the marketplace - whatever your business is.

Fast Company recently noted that “…87% of global customers believe business should place equal weight on societal and business issues…” These societal issues include the pursuit of a higher purpose, environmental sustainability, a deep commitment to meaningful innovation and the respectful treatment of employees, suppliers and customers.

Of course the tricky thing is that being relevant isn’t a "thing" or something that can achieved in five easy steps or through a catchy marketing slogan. It's a way of thinking and acting, coupled with unbounded curiosity that is infused and evident throughout the entire organization. It involves meaning and purpose in the broader context and extends far beyond simply delivering a product, service or making money. Your ultimate staying power is more likely to be tied to your "relevance" than to your next profit statement or number crunching report.

Stay curious.

Kris Kimel

Image: AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by CC Chapman

Till We Have Faces

Satire is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody's face but their own. - Jonathan Swift

Writing in the New York Times, Maria Konnikova questions a lesson a decade or more in the making.

Don't Quote Me on This:

Like pretty much every other 20-something, I’m online constantly, from the moment I wake up to bedtime. My iPhone sleeps by my bed. I Twitter and I Facebook — so much that I use both as verbs. I grew up with neither cellphone nor television, but I’ve come to rely on our ability to stay connected. I need the Internet for my work. I need it for my research. I need it, often, for my sanity.

With one important caveat. When I need to write or think, I shut the whole thing down. Otherwise, it’s too easy to get sucked into the very sort of vortex... to drift from fragment to fragment without pausing to consider the whole that any of them imply. I become a link zombie, mindlessly hungry for more: The lure of quotation wears me down.

In her piece, Konnikova expresses a concern about the prevalence of unmoored or "decontextualized" data on the web, questioning its contribution to what we know.

She would certainly have a sympathizer in a favorite blogger and writer of mine, Nicholas Carr, who does not gladly suffer hyperbole and glib assertions that the web is an unqualified boon to human intellect. I know. I was once one of Carr's targets in a rather regrettable, and, thankfully, short lived phase of my life.

And like Konnikova, when I need "to write or think" I tune out the web. My distractions are restricted to a good cup of coffee and a window.

Why?

I've learned that its mirrored expanse makes of me a whorling. The reason is a simple one: knowledge is not simply a collection facts, but the labor and hard won experience that accompany those facts. When the effort is frictionless, we become, as she says, link zombies and context is whatever we happen to looking at at the moment. If you don't believe that data and knowledge are two different things, ask any teenage mom or entrepreneur or military veteran what they know now that they didn't know then.

Of the web in particular, "the problem," as Konnikova says, "is one of limited time and energy meeting limitless content." Using her experience as the daughter of Russian immigrant parents, she writes in Don't Quote Me On This about Soviet truisms and the doublespeak that her parents were anxious to avoid in their adopted land. She grew up without a television as a result.

Today the screens are different, of course. But when I discovered late last fall that I could not not use my personal Gmail login for the IdeaFestival's YouTube channel, IFTV, I realized once again that free is conditional. I've since moved my personal and professional email to a paid service, and begun to use DuckDuckGo and Disconnect.me to reclaim some privacy. And because my search history is not being used to shape the results I get, there's an added bonus. The information bubble I so willingly accepted is pricked. 

Data spun around my prior wants and desires and returned to me hardly qualifies as search, does it? Konnikova compares the habit elsewhere in her article "to mindlessly yanking open the fridge." 

To know what one thinks still requires an effort. It still may be uncomfortable, in part because it must find ground not entirely our own. But with enough time and a willingness to tolerate ambiguity, the reckoning is an honest one. The face we discover is our own.

Stay curious.

Wayne

If you like this blog post, consider subscribing to the RSS feed! You might might also be interested in this Skyped Five Questions video interview with Maria Konnikova, or her post-presentation IF Conversation.

Image: AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by CC Chapman


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