Frederik Vanhoutte: Thank you. Before we start the official part, this is a very special day. It’s the 7th of November. It’s the birthday of Marie Curie. She’s the only scientist who has two Nobel Prizes in different disciplines. She has the Nobel Prize in chemistry and in physics.
She is also only one of four people who have two Nobel Prizes, and her birthday was chosen for the International Day of Medical Physics. This is a little known holiday, but it is customary if, on that day, you meet by chance a medical physicist, you are supposed to treat them with a little treat or a gift, so keep that in mind.
Okay. Hello, Berlin. Are you ready to rock?
Frederik: Good because I’m petrified.
Frederik: Excellent. So, as Marc said, this is actually my tenth talk. Not my tenth talk this year, but my tenth talk in the five years I’ve been doing that. It’s a special one because it’s in this beautiful city in Berlin, the fifth edition of Beyond Tellerrand in Berlin.
John is here, who gave me this wonderful opportunity to speak at Reasons, but also the person who invited me for the very first talk this year, Frank Reitberger, who invited me in 2013 to FMX, so this is kind of a special event.
What I’ve been doing these last five years, I’ve been thinking a lot. I am here as a creative coder and it’s something I do as a hobby, as a personal project. It’s not my day job. It’s something I do in my spare time.
What I would like to talk about today is creativity, which is a dangerous subject to present to an audience like you. But also, the view we have of creativity and its apparent opposite: rationality. We will discuss that. It’s kind of a refinement of what I’ve been thinking about the last years.
Now, as a creative coder, I cannot use presenting software, so this is actually a piece of code that’s running. My medium of choice is Java. I started with processing, and one of the advantages is that it allows me to do this.
[Loud arcade game shooting]
Frederik: …point doesn’t move.
[Loud arcade game shooting]
Frederik: Of course, when you have a deadline for the presentation to make, what you decide to do is, “Oh, let’s make my title slide a little game.”
Frederik: So, I want to talk about creativity, about wonder, and amazement, and what better way to start this.
[Loud arcade game shots]
Frederik: You have to know your own game. Bruce Lee playing ping-pong….
Frederik: There’s a large part of you that looks at this with amazement, with wonder. Part of me says, “This is a fellow human being doing this. I am a human being. I would be able to do this if I spent my life doing the same thing, which I’m not going to do. But still, potentially, I can do that.” Just look at it. This is--
Frederik: Bam! This is the feeling of excitement. It’s not the heart. It’s not the brain. It’s the guts. It’s visceral. This inner child, this large part which we appropriately call the inner child, is getting very excited about it.
But there’s also room in here for several adults, and this physicist adult in me, this biomedical engineer, is tapping the inner child and says, “Listen. An Olympic level ping-pong player spends his entire youth practicing to get some kind of level of ping-pong. They spend their life dedicated to it, and they play the game with a plate on a stick.”
To do this with only the stick would require dedication even longer, even more. To do it with a swinging stick would be just plain impossible. This is not real. That’s always the case.
It’s always this rational adult spoiling the fun of the inner child; taking this excitement away. Why wouldn’t this be true? Why can’t this be real? Of course--
Frederik: It’s not.
Frederik: This was a viral campaign or at least a campaign that went viral in 2008 by J. Walter Thompson. Their Beijing office got the assignment to launch the Nokia N96 Bruce Lee special edition, so they commissioned this footage.
It’s not real. It’s very well documented. We know the actor. We know the special effects. We know who the people behind it were.
The Internet is a bit of a hot mess right now, so it’s not sane advice to ask you to check out a common thread on YouTube. That’s actually what I’m going to do. The video itself is no longer hosted by J. Walter Thompson but, of course, this being the Internet, some random guy hosts this. Years ago, he put this on YouTube, the entire thing, including the shouting.
[Loud shouting and music]
Frederik: So, there’s no doubt that this is a commercial. The thing is, this common thread is a wonderful thing to behold. It is a microcosm of the entire environment we are in online.
This guy who host this got 25 million views over years; 10,000 and more comments; comments coming in still every day. These comments really reflect what we encounter every day with the added advantage it’s about Bruce Lee playing ping-pong. It’s not about the basic right of existence of our fellow human beings, which is nice.
One of the comments is what you expect or one of the threads you get is, “All the people here who believe this are stupid,” and you have to misspell “believes.” Then he explains like it was explained 4,000 before, that it’s not real; it’s actually a CGI - fact.
Okay. Yeah, that’s true. It’s not very endearing, but -- so, we already have one side in the discussion, and then we have an interesting other side, which is only a few weeks old that says, “My common sense says this is real.” It’s not the video, it’s not the app, the video that’s fake. It’s the advertising campaign story that is fake because what Bruce Lee did, what we sheep were not allowed to know is that he unlocked the highest level of his physical chakra and they want to hide this from us.
By the way, how can it be fake? It’s film. You can’t see where it has been cut and paste. You don’t see it. Even -- and even if it is fake, it’s my reality and I choose to believe it, and it’s your reality it’s not real, but that doesn’t matter.
A minority thread of comments says, “Listen. It’s fake, but it’s fun. Isn’t that all that matters?” But this is a very little voice in this 10,000-thread comments.
What I find fascinating about this when I had this idea a few weeks ago to use this is the threads you get in there, the parallels you have about this very obnoxious subject, this very clear-cut case. There is really no doubt what is going on.
But you should be careful. Don’t go into that thread and say it’s fake, although it has been said 4,000 times. Four months ago--this thing is ten years old--somebody decides to say, “It’s fake.” Then three months later, somebody reads this and decides, “Wait a minute. Fuck off, loser.”
Frederik: One week after that, “Yeah, you’re wrong as F.” Friendly people, “Hope his spirit comes back and kicks your ass.”
When I made this, this is last week, somebody the day before had the ultimate comment like, “Fake? 2008. Why is it black and white?” Ah!
Frederik: Okay. It goes on like this. “How do you know it’s not real? You never saw Bruce Lee in real life. How old are you?”
Okay. Yeah. Excellent. These people are not arguing with me, fortunately.
“This is real because, in the 1960s, they didn’t have special effects. They couldn’t make this trick.” Or -- and these are really endearing people, the people who want to mediate. They say, “Yeah, it could be fake because, in 1973, Bruce Lee died. Nokia didn’t make cell phones then, so maybe it was a commercial. Maybe it was by Nokia. But it definitely wasn’t for a cell phone.”
Frederik: That’s kind of missing the point, isn’t it? Here, what amazes me is how we stick with our stories and how we are willing to invest stuff. Then you have a physicist coming in--not me--coming in and saying, “You can’t give topspin to a ping-pong ball with a nun-chuck. You need a rubber padding surface like a ping-pong paddle for that.” Then there’s an answer, “Yeah, but if you look carefully, you see that there is rubber padding. These are special nun-chucks.”
So, we make it up as we go along, and we stick to our story. This fascinates me because I am a bit in both worlds. My day job is a medical physicist. Remember? That means that I work together with the theme of specialist doctors called radiation oncologists with nurses and technologists. We treat people with cancer.
What happens is that the doctor makes a prescription like he would prescribe a drug. He asks for a certain dosage. He asks for a certain dose on an organ. Then it’s our task as a physicist to make the calculations to calibrate the machines to make a kind of movement, a kind of dance of the machine around the patient that then the nursing staff and the technologists, over one to eight weeks, will very carefully administer for this patient and care for this patient.
I considered this job to be on the science side, and patients are happy to hear that because, even in this room full of creatives, if you have given the choice between door A, a surgeon who is being described as experienced, very well-known in her area, and then door B you have a creative surgeon, very little people will choose door B, which is odd because surely creativity is a good thing.
On the other hand, there’s creative code. I make stuff for fun. Of course, creativity isn’t all about fun. Creativity has a very important purpose, which has been highlighted in several talks here. But for me, it’s something I need; I have to do.
If you ever have seen “The Shining,” creating coding is my typewriter. I need this.
It’s kind of the story of the creative brain and, since you are sitting at tables on my stage, you are participating. What is the opposite of creative? What is the opposite of creativity?
Audience member: Destructive.
Frederik: Destructive. Creation, creativity, the act of creation. The real holy trinity: creation, maintaining, destruction. Not the answer I was looking for but thank you. Anything else?
Audience member: Boring.
Frederik: Boring. That’s actually a decent answer. That’s a good answer.
If we are talking about the brain, we mostly talk about -- what are you saying? Rationality. Yeah, indeed, that’s an answer you hear a lot.
The creative brain and the rational brain, those are not opposites. Those are not things you weigh against each other. They are separate axes. They determine an entire domain. You can have irrational creativity. You can have the tormented artists throwing their soul onto a canvas, often self-destructively to show this, to stab the world with their art.
Of course, you can have creativity without the self-destruction. Otherwise, the advertising business would be tough. You can have the rational creativity where you design something with a certain goal and still to have this flexibility to create something beautiful.
But rationality also has its creativity. The entirety of science trying to find solutions using very dry methods to this creative rationality. But you also have the irrational and non-creative things like … bureaucracy. It makes no sense and it doesn’t even have any kind of joy or any kind of inner beauty, so these are different axes.
But still, often, we think along those lines also with the surgeon. The creative surgeon immediately associates something, like, wait, “Creative surgeon? Why don’t you describe him as professional or experienced?” These things are not exclusive, but still, we make that link. I think that is fascinating.
I explored this with an extended metaphor, “Unweaving the rainbow.” It’s about the rainbow. If I ask people, “What is a rainbow?” it’s this thing.
An image search, saved search on GoGoDuck gives me these rainbows. A non-saved search gives you a lot more ponies and unicorns. But still, it’s this beautiful arc of seven discrete colors. Some of these images are real. Some of them are fake. I mean the photographs, of course. That’s what we are talking about.
The term, “Unweaving the rainbow,” is quite a familiar one, and it’s heavily used by Richard Dawkins in his book about unweaving the rainbow, which can be a good thing or a bad thing, however you think about it. It’s found its foundation in parts of an epic poem a romantic Keats wrote in the nineteenth century.
It has this fragment, “Do not all charms fly at the mere touch of gold philosophy,” natural philosophy, science. There was an awful rainbow once in heaven.” Awful. Full of art. It was change. “We know her woof,” a small dog, “her texture; she is given. In the dull catalog of common things.” We have taken this rainbow from heaven, this beautiful thing, and we just put it in a dusty book.
“Philosophy will clip an angel’s wings, conquer all mysteries by rule and line. Empty the haunted air and gnomed mine, unweave a rainbow,” that’s where the phrase is coming from, “as it ere while made the tendered person’d Lamia melt into a shade.”
What he’s basically saying is we had the spirits filling the air. We had the gnomes in the mines. We had the standard person, Lamia, a Greek demon-like creature, half women, half snake that purposely eats children, but okay, wandering our fields, and science is taking this away. Maybe he has a point there because what he is reacting to is this. He is reacting to this very rational rainbow, the prism.
He is reacting to Isaac Newton 150 years before. Romanic poets are a bit late, but still, he was reacting to this image. Actually, it was not Newton who did this. It was a guy called Francesco Grimaldi who showed that if you shine a white light into a prism, quartz, or thin glass, you get these colors, but he wasn’t interested in the colors.
Grimaldi was interested in the fact that the light bent. It diffracted. It was a phenomenon that was known from waves. If a wave hits an obstacle or when it is going from the deep end of the sea to the shallow end of the sea. The speed changes and it bends. It fit that current view of the world that light would behave as a wave.
He was very happy with this discovery because, although the science is mathematical equations that allow you to predict things, the stories we tell about it, the interpretations are very, very human. This fit their story.
In 1665, Grimaldi’s book was published after his death. That often happened at that time because, even in that time, people were too busy to update their blog, so things were published after their death.
In 1666, Newton was a student. He was a student. He just finished his B.A. at the University of Cambridge, and he had a lot of free time because the University of Cambridge was closed in 1666 and part of ’67 because of an outbreak of the plague. Things happen. So, he was at home and, during that year, 1666, the Annus Mirabilis, the Ichiban, the wondrous year of Newton, he laid the foundation of optics, of gravity, of calculus because he didn’t have to go to work and he didn’t have school. So, there might be a lesson in there.
But still, the reason that Newton looked into this is because he didn’t like the wave theory of light because he was more of an alchemist set of mind, which was very respectable in those days. He wanted light to be a substance, a particle, something physical, something that interacts just like other things interact with each other.
He saw an opportunity to get his ideas through these colors because what he saw is these colors, which Grimaldi explains as corruption of the glass, which is a beautiful term saying that this light was multiplied by the glass. For Newton it was, “What if I can prove that these colors are really part of the light, and this is not a wave; these are particles because those you can sort?”
He took a second prism. He recombined the colors into white light and showed, conclusively, that it’s part of the light. It’s not corruption of the glass. He was very happy about this.
When you have seen this in school, you got optics, which is a branch of physics we love to teach because it doesn’t require calculus. It just requires these annoying geometric things like signs and cosigns. It starts with light, and then you see a reflection, life chapter about reflection and mirrors, and then you have a chapter about refraction and lenses. Then, at the end of the chapter, you have something called best version, which shows you that you have this chromatic aberration. Then there’s a little box in your handbook, which says, “And this thing in the rain makes a rainbow.” Voila. We have a rainbow.
Frederik: --he has a point that we’re changing this amazement--
Frederik: --somewhat candidly enhanced amazement, and we turn it into--
Frederik: We turn it into this.
Michel van Biezen: …very classic problem….
Frederik: This is going to bring some memories.
Michel van Biezen: --index of refraction … N1 sign of theta one equals N2 sign of theta two, and so what we’re trying to find here, coefficient. What I did was I turned the equation around. Theta N2, put it down -- the beam will travel in this direction. All right. That’s important to know.
Michel van Biezen: Sign of theta sub three divided by N sub-four. All we have to do is plug in the numbers and we can find out what that fourth angle is. 5.6 degrees below the horizontal as it moves out of the side of the prism. Here’s a very classic problem.
Frederik: A very classic problem. So, yeah, maybe he has a point that we kind of take away the “Wah!” and turn it into this beautiful presentation of Michel van Biezen, and I’m really not doing him a favor by presenting him like this. He has hours of YouTube videos where he does this very intricate physics exercises, which can be very helpful for the people who have to bother with it.
But this is what we are talking about. This is the garden of the Dutch creative code mystery op. A rainbow in 2014 taken especially for reasons 2014, this image. I’ve been using it ever since. Yes, we have a rainbow. Yes, science destroys it by making it this.
That got me thinking because that’s also my first response. It’s like, yeah, it’s a point, but is science doing that? Is science really saying that is a rainbow? Let’s look at it.
It gives me the colors. They are stylistically represented, of course. But it doesn’t give me a lot of other things. It doesn’t give me the shape of the rainbow.
If a rainbow is this in raindrops, why isn’t the entire sky lighting up? Why is it this arch? Are the raindrops hanging there in a kind of arch? No, that’s not happening.
It’s not explaining the shape. It’s not explaining how it appears, how big it is, how I see it. Why can’t I reach the rainbow, but why can I grab the prism? That’s a big difference.
It’s not even incomplete. It’s also completely wrong because what is seeing? Seeing is light hitting your eyes. It’s obvious to us. But like, for example, Plato in 400 before Christ, he believed that seeing was eye beams. Our eyes were emitting beams and that was actually seeing stuff.
But we know that seeing, sensing stuff is receiving energy. To see something, the light has to hit our eye. To see this, I have to stare straight into the light.
Now, a table. If you’re looking at the rainbow, the rainbow is in front of you. Where is the sun? At your back; behind you. You are not staring into the sun. If you stare into the sun, you will eventually see rainbows and everything else. But that’s not how it works.
So, it’s even completely wrong, this picture. This cannot explain the rainbow because, for a rainbow, the light has to come back. No light is coming back here.
If you would do this in a raindrop, you make a little drop of water. You shine the light. No colors appear.
Okay, some light is coming back, but I don’t have a rainbow. You have to work on, so you’ve been given this prism. You’re leaving school with this idea, and it doesn’t work. If you look closer at it, it doesn’t make sense.
What you could do is say, “Science is a conspiracy,” because I have been told that this is the rainbow, but obviously they are missing this fact that it’s pointing the wrong way. Ha-ha! I am smarter than all of you. The rainbow isn’t real.
Let’s go on this, and you can go on, and you can take the little raindrop and say, “Okay, but this is not a little beam of light going into a drop. This is a drop being completely illuminated.” And so, if you would do this, if you would focus, which is what I did a few years ago, you get this light going forward. You get these nice caustics. The problem is, our eyes, our senses are extremely sensitive to orders of magnitude while the screen only has a linear scale, so you can’t really show it, so I have to exaggerate some of the intensities.
You have the light bouncing around and, suddenly, you see. Wait a minute. There’s some light coming back from that raindrop going up, going down. This is 2D. But if you take this indicated axis of symmetry and you rotate it around, you see that you have these columns of colored light. Each little raindrop is giving me these sheets of light emitting.
Okay. Wait. A cone. An arch. Maybe there’s some kind of connection. But still, every little raindrop is doing this.
What you can do is, okay, I’m a little observant. I have a bit of sun. Let’s make a cloud, and let’s see, for every little raindrop, what part of that light it’s emitting is hitting my eye. What am I, as an observer, seeing? This is what we’re seeing. We are getting a rainbow. We are getting the shape of the rainbow.
We are getting, without having to do much effort, we are getting how the rainbow evolves when the sun is rising. High sun: tiny, tiny rainbow. When it’s in the summer and the sun is high, it’s impossible to see a rainbow like this. There are no rainbows at noon where we live.
When is the rainbow the biggest? Early in the morning or in the evening at dusk. Yes, I got my seven colors which, of course, is already a simplification. There are more than seven colors.
But I see so much more in this. I see this bright area underneath my rainbow. I see this dark area where no light is coming back. Then, at the end of the dark area, there’s a second rainbow, but the colors are opposites.
In fact, you could say that the rainbow isn’t this band of seven colors we have been showing. The rainbow is black and it has two colored fringes. That is a rainbow.
You say, “Okay, it’s a rainbow. Nothing is going to happen when I mistake a rainbow for a prism. I’m not going to build a rainbow observatory and point it the wrong way around because I’m using this prism.”
That’s true, but when I investigate it, what struck me is the second rainbow because I never thought and I have--bear with me--studied ten years of physics. Everywhere, just once, and they never explained to me what the rainbow is. My explanation of the rainbow was the prism I got when I was 16 years old, not anything else.
Some people probably have been taught, specialized in this area, and know what it is. But what struck me is once I investigated this, every single rainbow has this second rainbow. It’s weak, but you always, almost always see it.
The next time you see a rainbow and you just look beyond the rainbow, like in this picture, you will see parts of the second rainbow. The second rainbow, when it’s very, very bright, that got people Twittering or Instagramming. But it’s just a normal part of the rainbow.
The thing is, the story we have been using, the little box we put it in to give to our most people in the world, the people coming after us, the people we are educating, is leaving that part out and we don’t see it. The stories we use to make things simpler also hide things. I think that’s a very potent metaphor for a lot of the things we are studying because, yes, you are right; the rainbow in itself doesn’t matter. But we are doing it in every science. We are doing it in biology where with absolute 100% certainty you have been taught by all authority that you have one pair of genes -- jeans? -- XX, XY, that determine your biological sex - binary.
Then it’s built on that that you have a binary sex. You have binary gender. You have binary roles in society. Each of these steps is a story, a story that serves to fit a certain worldview.
But even a very basic thing, the biological sex, which currently is still daily thrown into Twitter as a kind of motivation of our own bigotry towards people, is completely wrong. And it’s not that we have discovered last year or ten years ago that it’s wrong. No, it’s a fact that this is an oversimplification.
It has always been part of biology. Biologists know this. They know that there are mushrooms out there with 54 genes deciding a continuum, but also in humans, there is an entire range. But still, we have been taught this very binary picture and it is influencing the very way we are thinking.
That’s biology, but what about economics, politics, social sciences, history, geography? Everything we have been taught, everything that you have not personally specialized in has been given to you as a little prism, a little fact that is somewhat real, that is necessary to get the grasp of reality, but you have left school with this huge bag of prisms and not a single rainbow among them.
What we are -- I personally believe we’re failing at is giving the people the tools to go from there own bag of prisms to these rainbows. That is actually the metaphor I wanted to present here.
I want to comment a bit on the dull catalog that Keats also says. She is written in the dull catalog of common things. There is nothing exciting anymore about this rainbow now that we have explained it by the prism. It’s dusty. It’s boring.
The dull parts, if you think about it, is weird because, for some reason, we need Bruce Lee to play ping-pong with nun-chucks to get excited. But why? I am 100 kilos of organic mass and all kinds of shapes making vibrations in the air, noises, to 500 other bags of organic matter - meant in the best way possible.
Frederik: How can we not be struck by all that mere fact? Why don’t we wake up in the morning and say, “I am alive! I exist! How incredible is this?”
I personally like this little piece. It’s something I do. You find a source, a very dry source of material, in this case, a Japanese initiative just to collect its tissue models, 3D models or organs, and then you make little games. Whatever. I only take a man because it’s a Japanese man, and I only use one-fifth of his parts. It turns out it’s ready. Anyway.
This catalog thing, this is kind of the image we have of science. This is behind the scenes at the Natural History Museum of New York. Science is very good at putting everything in boxes. I’m saying “science,” and, actually, we humans are incredibly good at putting things in boxes, little labels, little jars with really smelling fluids, and things that once represented beauty but now are ghosts of what they were.
We have shelves and shelves of those things. You can’t feel but, yeah, this is really taking away from reality. This is not what’s there. But isn’t it strange that we humans even hold this idea that this is possible? Has anybody here in the kitchen ever tried to sort their drawer of cutlery? Spoons, forks, little spoons, knives: a nicely sorted area. Assorted stuff, other things, a huge drawer of “I don’t know what,” but it’s useful.
Have you ever tried to sort your book collection, your music collection? You’re always left with the weird stuff that doesn’t fit. It’s like, yeah, this album is both electro and it’s jazz. All right, let’s make a box “electro-jazz,” and it’s on its own.
Frederik: Books, you could say, okay, let’s make it easy. Let’s sort by color, which means two things. One: You don’t buy any brown books, apparently.
Frederik: Two: You’re a monster. It’s weird because our daily experience tells us that we cannot sort this world and, still, we insist on doing it.
I made a bit of a joke that Keats was 150 years late in responding to Newton, but we have abandoned, in science, the clockwork universe of the 19th Century of steam and electricity. We know it doesn’t work. It doesn’t fit this ideal that everything is nicely ordered, predetermined.
It behaves like clockwork. You know what it was yesterday; you know what it is today; you will know, eventually, what it is tomorrow. That doesn’t work. But still, we lag behind in popular science and our idea of science.
Maybe it’s time to tackle that. Maybe it’s time to start thinking differently, and that is exactly what is happening. If you are looking at the subjects of the creative talks here, you are noticing that you are not only tackling -- you’re not tackling anymore how do I get somebody to push a button in the right way. No, you’re also tackling what is this process. You’re not talking about pushing a button.
It’s user experience. It’s user interaction. It’s like if we put it this way, the side effect is that humans will take this answer from Siri for absolute truth - the opening talk. So, we have to put it differently.
Even that, there’s a new way of thinking. It’s no longer about the state, about the single object. It’s a process. It is a dynamic thing.
For me, very personally, that is the reason why I do creative coding because where Keats is saying, “Conquering all mysteries by rule and line,” I say, “Exploring the mysteries by rule and line,” because that describes excellently what we are doing with our coding and creative coding. It’s actually explaining what you are trying to achieve with your creative work. That is--
We are very ingenious in inventing our own stories. But we need to pass on the tools. We need this new way of thinking, and this is slowly creeping into our thoughts. We are only 120 years late because, 2 blocks away from here, there’s the building where the German television studio, The ARD is now situated.
That used to be the German Physical Society where, in October 1900s, Max Planck gave a lecture about black-body radiation where he solved a problem that could not be solved classically where he laid the foundation of quantum physics, the thing that said to Grimaldi, “No, light is not a wave.” The thing that said to Isaac Newton, “Sorry, light is not a particle.” It is what it is, and we happen to put it in a mathematical core that’s sometimes a wave or particle. That way of thinking was introduced 120 years ago and it’s now slowly creeping into our society. I think it’s going to be helpful for us.
I’m going to let this finish, and then I’m going to finish my talk. Thank you for listening to the ramblings of a medical physicist.
[Applause and cheers]
Frederik: This big screen, don’t worry about it. This is for me.
Marc Thiele: You say that’s just your hobby, right?
Frederik: So, this is like the attitude over the last three years, I guess, more or less.
Frederik: Okay. Thank you very much.
[Applause and cheers]
[Loud arcade game shooting]