IdeaFestival

Sam Van Aken's Tree of Life

Sam Van Aken, an art professor at Syracuse University who grew up on a Pennsylvania farm, will speak on creativity and disruptive thinking at the IdeaFestival.

He was recently profiled on CBS' This Morning program.

His "Tree of Life" project grows 40 varieties of old stone fruits on a single tree using a process known as grafting, a technique used by orchardists to bud sports of desirable fruits and nuts onto a compatible root stock. The root stock supplies energy for growth. The grafted limb bears the desired fruit.

His project, I have to say, has a special poignancy in this summer of violence and conflict. It instantly brought to mind the soundtrack from the film Tree of Life, particularly the haunted and operatic beauty of Lacrimosa. If you get a chance today, listen to it, and then go read Walt Whitman's O Me! O Life! and be reminded that life is good and precious.

I hope to see you at the IdeaFestival! Please be aware that prices for a festival pass will increase on Sept. 2, so if you're planning to attend now is the time to reserve your spot.

Stay curious.

Wayne

You Really CAN Hear Yourself Think

What do you know? You can hear yourself think.

Appearing in the current Nautilus issue on "nothingness," author Daniel Gross writes about the missing modern commodity of silence, and about how neuroscience can map the brain quietly at work during periods of silence, the corrosive effect that consistently high decibel levels have on our states of mind and Finnish efforts to market the quiescence of its legendary Birch expanse.

In 2013, in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, Joseph Moran and colleagues wrote the brain’s default mode network 'is observed most closely during the psychological task of reflecting on one’s personalities and characteristics (self-reflection), rather than during self-recognition, thinking of the self-concept, or thinking about self-esteem, for example.' During this time when the brain rests quietly,' wrote Moran and colleagues, 'our brains integrate external and internal information into 'a conscious workspace.'

Freedom from noise and goal-directed tasks, it appears, unites the quiet without and within, allowing our conscious workspace to do its thing, to weave ourselves into the world, to discover where we fit in. That’s the power of silence.

It's a good reminder that we are not mere ordinators for whom more information is always good, but biologies that are always "weaving ourselves into the world," consciously or not. And despite the overwhelming visual nature of contemporary society, throughout history sound has guided creatures through life. Today, the decibel count, even in our own homes, has been raised to levels that would have been alarming just a few decades ago. This is quickly evident in the aftermath of ice storms and power outages, which produce a gulping silence that can be unnerving if you've ever experienced it. Still, it's no coincidence that faith-based traditions call on their adherents to practice quiet, that the benefits of meditation are now widely praised for giving us access to an ever-elusive inner world and quiet is a universal and ritualistic part of public commemorations. I liked how Gross says it "unites the quiet without and within," and elsewhere in his piece describes how silence can produce "thoughts and feelings that aren't audible... in daily life."

Read This is Your Brain on Silence for yourself. I hope to see you at IdeaFestival 2014!

Stay curious.

Wayne

Image: Geoff Oliver Bugbee

 

"Merit" Today: Curiosity

Interviewed earlier this week by On Point, William Deresiewicz, author of "Excellent Sheep," talked at length about how too many top schools are failing their students.

Asked at one point what a reformed merit-based admissions process would look like, he said it would focus far less on achievement driven, academically rigid accomplishments and take, rather, a hard look at the applicant's curiosity, adding that curiosity and resilience were tied to future satisfaction in life and careers.

That sounds about right to us.

Reviewing the book, the New York Times made a similar point recently. "The Lower Ambitions of Higher Education:"

Mr. Deresiewicz spends a long time considering college admissions because a vast number of crimes, he suggests, are committed in its name. We’ve created kids who throughout their high school years are unable to do anything they can’t put on a résumé. They’re blinkered overachievers.

Once they’re in college, they don’t know what to do with themselves, so they jump through the only hoop that’s bathed in a spotlight: finance. He argues that many miss truer and more satisfying callings....

Little of what Mr. Deresiewicz has to say is entirely new. Ezra Pound got there first, 80 years ago, with the metaphor that supplies this book with its title. Real education must be limited to those who insist on knowing, Pound said in his book “ABC of Reading.” "The rest is merely sheepherding.”

My ears always perk when "those kids" rate a mention, but with its endless information churn and the tortured expertise of fault finding, of one-upsmanship and of unmasking error, "blinkered overachievement" seems to curse adult life and work as well.

It's not what you know, but what you do with what you know that matters.

So I couldn't help but relate Deresiweicz' view to the mission of the IdeaFestival, which is to cultivate curiosity, not self-satisfaction, to insist on knowing, not informing, to think anew as we seek an entree with the people and institutions in our own lives about the objects of our choosing and the activities that have meaning. Succeed at that and all the work will be worth it.

Deresiweicz, by the way, delivered an incredible address on leadership and self-knowledge to West Point Plebes in 2010. It's a must read.

I hope to see you at IdeaFestival 2014! Stay curious.

Wayne

Image of John Barker speaking at IdeaFestival 2012, Geoff Oliver Bugbee.

Starflower: Origami-Inspired Solar Arrays

Origami insights have been applied to everything from the design of heart stents to robots that ship flat to pop-up urban environments.

The origami-inspired solar arrays pictured in the video here are another lovely example of such cross-disciplinary thinking. BYU engineering students, in this case, study origami to find and exploit "compliant mechanisms" useful in spaceflight.

You'll be amazed at what they can fit into a four-inch by four-inch space.

I would be willing to bet those skilled in the practice might have something to add to topology, a branch of mathematics used to study properties of space preserved under deformation, and used by theoretical physicists, for example, to explore dimensions beyond the familiar three that we know so well. On much smaller scales, those artists might help biologists visualize the connection between enzymes and DNA.

If you're planning to attend IdeaFestival 2014, please be aware that the price for a Festival Pass will go up one week from today, Tuesday, Sept. 2. Don't wait to get yours!

Stay curious.

Wayne

Don't Focus on the Puzzles, But the Mysteries

While looking for interesting material to tweet and Facebook yesterday, I came across this Creativity Post article on stoking the fires of curiosity. One quote stood out.

A society or organization that thinks only in terms of puzzles is one that is too focused on the goals it has set, rather than on the possibilities it can’t yet see.

I thought it echoed an important point heard last year from IdeaFestival presenter Ariel Waldman, whose entire presentation can be watched here.

At the heart of something good there should be a kernel of something undefinable. And if you can define it, or claim to be able to define it, then in a sense you have missed the point. John Peel

It's one of my favorite IdeaFestival 2013 quotes because it goes to the beating heart of discovery: it will always be the work of the curious, individuals for whom the "something good" is never an ending, but a new beginning.

While Ariel Waldman spoke at length of her love of space, the loosely drawn inner connections from her work with Science Hack Day also resonated with me because every discovery springs from an openness to experience, a willingness and capacity to feel things anew. It's what the IdeaFestival is all about. This is what I wrote last year, live-blogging her talk:

Segueing into Science Hack Day, an event for which she is probably more well known, she says that its mission is to regain a bit of the old excitement, of sheer possibility. The people who show up at one of those events are amateurs. They don't HAVE to know where their idea or project is going. She describes several hacks - building a wind tunnel to test a series of letters that will make a new typeface; or a lamp that lights up each time an asteroid passes the Earth; or a mask that would simulate synesthesia, aptly named, given the creepy image she display, 'syneseizure;' or a cocktail made with DNA. On the latter she issues a warning - 'it tastes disgusting.'

What if, she continues, one could listen to mapped sounds of high energy particle collisions? And in fact, she points out, one such instrument has been created, 'particle wind chimes.' There's more: given license to roam freely, to make new and maybe unorthodox connections, the creator of the particle wind chimes may have created something with real diagnostic potential in the hands of physicists. Formerly abstract concepts have been made available to the senses of researchers.

Find some time today to watch the video, which includes a terrific Q&A with MIT Technology Review editor Jason Pontin. You won't be disappointed.

Make plans now to encounter at IdeaFestival 2014. The price for a Festival Pass will increase on Sept. 2, so don't wait! I hope to see you there.

Stay curious.

Wayne


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