…. . .-.. .-.. —

H and E are gone! It says LLO now.

Isabelle, are you eating the dots and dashes?

They are yummy!

We need the dots and the dashes to play. Today is Morse Code Day, to commemorate the birthday of Samuel Morse, inventor of Morse code.

Or as Mr. Morse might say, .- .–. .-. .. .-.. / ..— –… – …. / .. … / — — .-. … . / -.-. — -.. . / -.. .- -.– –..– / – — / -.-. — — — . — — .-. .- – . / – …. . / -… .. .-. – …. -.. .- -.– / — ..-. / … .- — ..- . .-.. / — — .-. … . –..– / .. -. …- . -. – — .-. / — ..-. / — — .-. … . / -.-. — -.. . .-.-.-

Self portrait by Samuel Morse

Samuel Finley Breese Morse (April 27, 1791 – April 2, 1872) was an American painter and inventor. After having established his reputation as a portrait painter, in his middle age Morse contributed to the invention of a single-wire telegraph system based on European telegraphs. He was a co-developer of the Morse code, and helped to develop the commercial use of telegraphy.

Telegraph Office – Alice Springs Telegraph Station

The telegraph was the result of an unusual mix of personal circumstances, artistic influences and pure happenstance. For the first four decades of his life, Morse was first and foremost an artist. However, while his name was known as an artist, he was a painter of modest renown.

In 1825, New York City had commissioned Morse to paint a portrait of Lafayette in Washington, DC. While Morse was painting, a horse messenger delivered a letter from his father that read, “Your dear wife is convalescent”. The next day he received a letter from his father detailing his wife’s sudden death. Morse immediately left Washington for his home at New Haven, leaving the portrait of Lafayette unfinished. By the time he arrived, his wife had already been buried. Heartbroken that for days he was unaware of his wife’s failing health and her death, he decided to explore a means of rapid long distance communication.

For several more years, Morse struggled in vain to succeed in the art world, but in 1832, serendipity intervened. On a transatlantic voyage, returning home from study in Europe, he met Charles Thomas Jackson, a Boston physician and scientist, who showed him a rudimentary electromagnet he had devised. Witnessing various experiments with Jackson’s electromagnet, Morse became convinced that he could somehow send a message along a wire by opening and closing an electrical circuit, which could be recorded by an electromagnet on a piece of paper via a written code.

Back in the US, Morse moved forward with his idea, that signals could be sent by the opening and closing of an electrical circuit, that the receiving apparatus would, by electromagnet, record signals as dots and dashes on paper, and that there would be a code whereby the dots and dashes would be translated into numbers and letters. He met with Joseph Henry, another scientist working in electromagnetism, and the man who would later become the first secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, in 1846. Henry explained how the electromagnets worked and showed Morse his experimental electromagnets.

Morse sought to improve early telegraphs, which had been linked with multiple wires, to just a single wire. Although Samuel Morse did not invent the telegraph, he vastly improved earlier versions of the instrument with his single-wire electric telegraph. Batteries supplied the electrical current, and an operator could hold down a key for a short or long period of time to control the length of the electrical impulse.

Morse realized he needed more than just the device. For his electric telegraph to work, he needed a code that could send mutually intelligible messages. Thus, the Morse Code was born with short impulses representing dots and longer impulses dashes. Messages were sent by varying the dots and dashes.

In 1837, Morse crafted a primitive telegraph receiver, now part of the Smithsonian’s collections, that was able to register and record the fluctuations in an electrical circuit. The most interesting thing about the prototype is that he took an artist’s canvas stretcher and made it into a telegraph receiver! And he submitted his patent for the “electro-magnetic telegraph”.

Morse’s 1837 telegraph receiver prototype, built with a canvas-stretcher. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives

With a means of recording electromagnetic signals theoretically in place, Morse worked with Leonard Gale, Alfred Vail and others over the next several years to improve the system and make it practical for use over far distances, incorporating Vail’s transmitter key and a code of dots and dashes, which would become known as Morse Code. Despite these improvements, the group had some difficulty convincing others that telegraphy was a worthy investment.

To raise capital for long-distance lines, Morse turned to the US government, and after a small-scale demonstration with wires strung between different committee rooms within the Capitol, he was awarded $30,000 to build a 38-mile line from Baltimore, MD to Washington, DC. On May 1, 1844, Morse’s communication device was finally met with wide scale public enthusiasm, as the Whig Party’s presidential nomination was telegraphed from Baltimore to DC far faster than a courier could have travelled.

Later that month, the line was officially opened for public use — with a message quite a bit more well-known than that of the earlier Speedwell Ironworks demonstration. This, too was recorded on a strip of paper, which now resides in the American History Museum’s collections. Short yet meaningful, the bible quotation set the stage for the approaching age of electronic communication: “What Hath God Wrought.”

Message sent by Alfred Vail and transcribed by Samuel Morse using the electromagnetic telegraph on May 24, 1844, Artefact, National Museum of American History, EM*001028.

The message he sent, “What Hath God Wrought?” travelled via his electromagnetic telegraph from Washington, DC to Baltimore, MD. But who, you might wonder, was on the other end of the line? Alfred Vail, Morse’s colleague, received Morse’s message in Baltimore and then successfully returned the same message back to Morse in the national Capitol Building’s Rotunda. For Vail, this event was the culmination of years of his own labour and financial investment, yet his influence has largely been lost in the historical record.

In 1837 Vail saw Morse demonstrate an early version of his electric telegraph at the university, and shortly after convinced Morse to take him on as a partner. The contract between the two, stated that Vail, for a share of interest in Morse’s rights to the telegraph, would work on constructing the telegraph machines and financing the American and foreign patents.

Vail vastly improved Morse’s original design of the machine. Instead of using pendulums, Vail added weights to the machine’s turning key. He also substituted a steel pointed pen for the pencil Morse had employed, to indent the code into the paper tape the machine used and improved the mechanics of the register, the instrument that punched out the code via electric impulse, as well. Additionally, Vail developed a simpler alphabetic system of code to replace Morse’s original, but more complicated numerical code, in which dashes and dots were interpreted as numbers and then translated into words in a code book. Vail’s alpha code greatly sped up the process of deciphering messages. Though his contributions to the project were extremely significant, it was Morse’s name that appeared on the patents. Consequently, Morse is remembered, and Vail is often not.

Vail himself failed to give recognition to Joseph Henry, first Secretary of the Smithsonian, who met with Morse and had invented the high intensity magnet used in Morse’s electric telegraph. So, “What Hath God Wrought?” For Alfred Vail it would seem to have been a lack of notoriety. However, in reading his letters, it seems that fame was neither his motivation nor goal. Vail’s work on the electric telegraph provided him with a life’s work and sense of accomplishment. And maybe, for him, that was enough.

In time, the Morse code would become the primary language of telegraphy in the world. It is still the standard for rhythmic transmission of data.

Private telegraph communication companies arose overnight and by 1902 telegraph wire encircled the earth, including Australia. The Overland Telegraph was completed in 1872. The telegraph vastly improved communications throughout the world. It changed how people perceived time and distance, and the telegraph was the precursor of the telephone, radio, television and internet.

Mmmm, they are yummy! 🙂

Happy Birthday Hubble

The Hubble Space Telescope has for the past 27 years powered NASA’s dream of putting people into space.

California Science Centre – Hubble Space Telescope Model 1:5
Launch date: April 24, 1990
Launch vehicle: Space Shuttle Discovery

Launched on 24 April 1990, aboard Space Shuttle Discovery, it was designed to be looked after by flesh-and-blood astronauts, and repairs and maintenance have run up a bill that would have paid for several new telescopes.

The first servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope saw astronauts install a set of specialized lenses to correct the flawed main mirror in the telescope. NASA Photograph

Hubble has been the training ground for a generation of spacefarers. Servicing it has taught NASA everything it knows about building and maintaining the International Space Station. It is also a very fine instrument indeed. For the past 27 years, Hubble has given us new perspectives on planets across the solar system and jaw-dropping views of locations across the universe. Here are some of the space telescope’s greatest hits.

A stellar nursery of about 3,000 stars called Westerlund 2 located about 20,000 light-years from the planet earth in the constellation Carina is shown in this image taken by the Hubble Space Telescope
Hubble’s near-infrared imaging camera pierces through the dusty veil enshrouding the stellar nursery, giving astronomers a clear view of the dense concentration of stars in the central cluster
This is one of Hubble’s most iconic images: the Eagle Nebula’s Pillars of Creation. It shows the pillars as seen in visible light, capturing the multi-coloured glow of gas clouds, wispy tendrils of dark cosmic dust, and the rust-coloured elephants trunks of the nebulas famous pillars. The dust and gas in the pillars is seared by the intense radiation from young stars and eroded by strong winds
Here we see one of the universe’s most stately and photogenic galaxies, the Sombrero galaxy, Messier 104 (M104). The galaxy’s hallmark is a brilliant white, bulbous core encircled by the thick dust lanes comprising the spiral structure of the galaxy. As seen from Earth, the galaxy is tilted nearly edge-on
This dramatic image offers a peek inside a cavern of roiling dust and gas where thousands of stars are forming. The image, taken by the Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) aboard Hubble, represents the sharpest view ever taken of this region, called the Orion Nebula. More than 3,000 stars of various sizes appear in this image. Some of them have never been seen in visible light

Many revolutions in astronomy have been tied to specific telescopes and their uers, from the tiny telescope with which Galileo proved that the Earth revolved around the Sun and discovered the moons of Jupiter; the Leviathan of Parsonstown, used to by the 3rd Earl of Rosse to discover the spiral structure of what are now known as galaxies, and the 2.5-meter Hooker Telescope used by Edwin Hubble during the 1920s to measure the expansion of the Universe itself. And over the last 27 years, the Hubble Space Telescopes has kept up this noble tradition.

Although the Hubble’s mirror, with a diameter of 2.4 meters, is smaller than the mirror of even the Hooker telescope, it’s location in orbit above the Earth’s distorting atmosphere and the use of state-of-the-art CCD image sensors has helped to pin down the age of the Universe, determine the existence and distribution of dark matter and dark energy, and probe the atmosphere of planets in distant star systems.

The Age of the Universe

Astronomers measure the distance of galaxies by observing cepheids, a type of variable stars in which the brightness is related to the period of their brightness variations. Because of its sensitivity, the Hubble is able to observe cepheids in very distant galaxies, millions of light years away. By calculating how long these galaxies have taken to reach the measured distances, starting from the Big Bang, they helped establish the age of the Universe, 13.7 billion years.

Dark Energy

Besides cepheids, supernovae can also serve as distance indicators, and because they are much brighter than cepheids, they can be observed over enormous distances. Images of supernovae in very distant galaxies provided by Hubble showed that their apparent brightness was too low to be at the distance of these galaxies inferred by the red shift alone. So their distance showed that the expansion of the universe is speeding up. Why this happens is still an open question. It has to be caused by a yet unknown force, called dark energy.

Dark Matter

Dark matter is not visible by itself, but its effects can be identified in images taken by the Hubble and other ground-based telescopes: the dark matter in galactic clusters deforms the apparant shape of distant galaxies behind it by bending the light coming from them into arcs. Known as gravitational lensing, this allows the location of dark matter clouds to be established.

Exoplanet Atmospheres

The discovery of numerous exoplanets, planets that circle stars other than the Sun, has given rise to the speculation that many planets with atmospheres and temperatures to Earth’s might exist and would harbor life. That one could actually analyze the composition of the atmospheres of such planets was one of the unexpected achievements of the telescope. In 2013 the Hubble succeeded in detecting small amounts of water in the infrared spectra of five planets while they were passing in front of the stars they are circling.

NASA hopes to keep Hubble operating through 2020 to overlap with its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, due to launch in October 2018.

A Teddy Bear on Mars

There it is! There it is!

For March for Science Day, little bears watched The Martian, their favourite science film 🙂 After all, there is a little teddy bear in the film and in the face of overwhelming odds, Mark Watney had to science the s**t out of surviving on Mars!

This is Neil deGrasse Tyson’s favourite line in the film. And ours 🙂

Retired astronaut Chris Hadfield gave the book a glowing review: “It has the very rare combination of a good, original story, interestingly real characters and fascinating technical accuracy…reads like MacGyver meets Mysterious Island.”

NASA was involved in the film. While NASA can’t support a private enterprise, their experts were consulted, and the film production crew worked very closely with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab officials. NASA also gave permission for the film to use the copyrighted NASA logo on its costumes. European Space Agency officials were also on the film set.

Definitely!

The Science of Genius

Identifying genius is a dicey adventure. Consider, for example, this ranking of “The Top 10 Geniuses” listed once on Listverse.com. From first to last place, here are the honorees: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Leonardo da Vinci, Emanuel Swedenborg, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, John Stuart Mill, Blaise Pascal, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bobby Fischer, Galileo Galilei and Madame de Staël.

What about Albert Einstein instead of Swedenborg? Some of the living might also deserve this appellation — Stephen Hawking comes to mind. Another female genius or two might make the cut, perhaps Marie Curie or Toni Morrison. And if a chess champion, Fischer, is deemed worthy, other geniuses outside the arts and sciences ought to deserve consideration — Napoleon Bonaparte as a military genius, Nelson Mandela as a political genius or Bill Gates as an entrepreneurial genius, to name a few candidates.

All these questions and their potential answers can make for some lively beary party conversations. What they reveal is how little we understand about the origins of intellectual and creative eminence. Explorations of this age-old debate have long sought to tease out the common features of geniuses working in disparate domains. The existence of unifying threads — including genetic factors, unusually broad interests and a link with psychopathy — suggests that the mind of a genius has a discernible shape and disposition.

Ultimately the goal is to explain how an eminent thinker arrives at his or her world-changing moment, or moments, of insight. Although such breakthroughs often seem to appear in a flash, the underlying mechanisms are likely to be much more orderly. According to one theory, a genius hunts widely — almost blindly — for a solution to a problem, exploring dead ends and backtracking repeatedly before arriving at the ideal answer. This line of research is helping to investigate whether genius can be cultivated, unleashing a wealth of new ideas for the benefit of all.

The first hurdle in the study of genius is to settle on a working definition. The word itself harks back to ancient Roman mythology, according to which every male was born with a unique genius that served as a kind of guardian angel, and every female had a juno. Much later, after the Renaissance, the word became more exclusive in its application, with only a few people showing genius. Philosopher Immanuel Kant believed, for example, that a genius was someone who produced works that were both original and exemplary. The term did not acquire scientific meaning until the late 19th century, when psychologists came to define genius in two distinct ways.

The first approach was to identify genius with exceptional achievement, as Kant did. These accomplishments elicit admiration and emulation from other experts in that field and often the world at large. Unquestioned examples of such works include Newton’s Principia, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Even though this definition can be extended to encompass extraordinary leadership, such as military brilliance, and prodigious performance, including some chess grandmasters, most scientific research concentrates on outstanding creativity within the sciences or the arts, which is the focus of this article.

Sistine Chapel
Sistine Chapel ceiling

The second definition of genius coincided with the emergence of intelligence tests in the first half of the 20th century. A genius was someone who scored sufficiently high on a standard IQ test — usually landing in the top 1 percent, with a score above 140, as proposed by psychologist Lewis Terman, the formulator of one of the original intelligence tests. These two definitions have little in common. Many persons with superlative IQs do not produce original and exemplary accomplishments. One example is Marilyn vos Savant, who was once certified by the Guinness Book of World Records as having the highest recorded IQ of any living person. Her weekly Ask Marilyn column for a Sunday newspaper supplement did not inspire a new genre of science, art or even journalism. And many exceptional achievers do not attain genius-level IQs. William Shockley, for example, received a Nobel Prize in Physics for co-inventing the transistor yet had an IQ score well below 140. Exceptional achievement, then, seems the more useful measure.

In 1926, Catharine Cox estimated the IQs of 301 eminent individuals. Using biographical data on early intellectual development, she and her collaborators calculated IQ using the formula IQ=100xMA/CA, where MA=mental age and CA=chronological age. These rankings illustrate the value of using achieved eminence, rather than intelligence scores, as a measure of genius. Philosopher George Berkeley, for example, did not leave a greater mark on the world than Newton or Leonardo. Further, eight of these creative geniuses have IQs below the “genius threshold” of 140.

Too often in popular writing, genius is conceived as a discrete category — this person is a genius, but that person is not. Yet just as people can vary in IQ, they can also differ in the magnitude of their creative achievements, with either a single notable contribution or a lifetime of prolific work. One such “one-hit wonder” is Gregor Mendel, who attained lasting fame for a single paper that reported his classic experiments in genetics. Had Mendel never taken an interest in breeding peas, his name would be unknown today. Charles Darwin’s fame, in contrast, rests on far more than On the Origin of Species. Nobel laureate Max Born once said that Einstein “would be one of the greatest theoretical physicists of all time even if he had not written a single line on relativity.” Hence, Darwin and Einstein exhibited greater genius than did Mendel. Accordingly, much research is devoted to assessing relative degrees of genius — most often gauged by creative productivity.

Finding the sources of consummate creativity has occupied the minds of philosophers and scientists for centuries. In 1693 English poet John Dryden wrote, “Genius must be born, and never can be taught.” Two and a half centuries later French author Simone de Beauvoir countered, “One is not born a genius, one becomes a genius.” The first scientific investigation devoted exclusively to genius
concerned this precise issue. In 1869 Francis Galton published Hereditary Genius, in which he argued that genius is innate, based on his observations that geniuses tend to emerge from lineages that included other brilliant individuals. In response to criticisms, Galton later introduced the well-known nature-nurture issue. He conducted a survey of famous English scientists to discover some of the environmental variables involved in nurturing brilliance, and he examined factors such as birth order and education.

By the second half of the 20th century psychologists had moved to an extreme nurture position, in which creative genius rested solely on the acquisition of domain expertise. This idea was frequently expressed as the “10-year rule”. Nobody can expect to reach the heights of creativity without mastering the necessary knowledge and skill because only experts can create — or so the thinking went. Indeed, Einstein learned lots of physics before he commenced his creative career.

This explanation cannot account for all the details, however. First, geniuses often spend less time acquiring domain expertise than their less creative colleagues. Studies have linked accelerated acquisition with long, prolific and high-impact careers. The 10-year rule is an average with tremendous variation around the mean. Further, major breakthroughs often occur in areas where the genius must create the necessary expertise from scratch. Telescopic astronomy did not exist until Galileo pointed his new instrument toward the night sky to discover what had never been seen before nor even expected. The moon had mountains, Jupiter had moons and the sun had spots!

To build the two-lens telescope he used to survey the skies, Galileo had to first learn how to grind his own lenses and discover the optimal lens combination.

Second, geniuses are more likely to exhibit unusually wide interests and hobbies and to display exceptional versatility, often contributing to more than one domain of expertise. This tendency not only was true in the era of Renaissance men but also is evident today. According to a 2008 study, Nobel laureates in science are more involved in the arts than less eminent scientists. Given that geniuses might not sleep any less than the rest of us, these extraneous activities would seem to distract from a dogged focus on a narrow field of interest. Einstein slept even more hours than the norm, but he still took time off to play Bach, Mozart and Schubert on his violin. At times these avocational activities inspire major insights. Galileo was probably able to identify the lunar mountains because of his training in the visual arts, particularly in the use of chiaroscuro to depict light and shadow.

The expertise acquisition theory also undervalues the genetic components that underlie a large number of cognitive abilities and personality traits that correlate with genius. In a 2008 meta-analysis, the finding was that at least 20 percent of the variation in creativity could be attributed to nature. For example, creative achievement is strongly associated with the personality trait of openness to experience, a highly heritable characteristic. The broad interests in art and music of many geniuses are clear manifestations of this trait. Many other predictors of achievement also have high heritabilities, such as cognitive and behavioural flexibility, along with a tolerance of ambiguity and change.

Nurture may still account for the lion’s share of genius, and mastering a domain remains central. At the same time, genetics contributes heavily to the rate at which someone acquires the necessary skills and knowledge. Those with more innate talent can improve faster, launch their careers earlier and be more productive. In addition, genetics may help explain the different trajectories of equally well-trained individuals. Einstein did not know as much physics as many of his contemporary theoretical physicists, but what he did know went a long way. He could honestly say, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

Researchers have long been tantalized by the question of whether the biological endowment of a genius also confers great setbacks. Greek philosopher Aristotle is reputed to have said, “Those who have become eminent in philosophy, politics, poetry and the arts have all had tendencies toward melancholia.”

This idea received wide currency in the 19th and 20th centuries at the hands of psychiatrists and psychoanalysts. Among the great writers, Virginia Woolf, Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath all committed suicide. Vincent van Gogh did as well, and earlier he had cut off part of his ear to give to a prostitute. Newton sometimes suffered from extreme paranoia, and Galileo, possibly an alcoholic, was often bedridden with depression. Nevertheless, many psychologists have argued that such cases are the exceptions, not the rule. Some positive psychologists today consider creative genius a human strength or virtue.

A 2005 review of the literature, which summarized studies with varied methodologies, indicates that the association between genius and mental illness has considerable strength. Very creative writers tend to obtain higher scores on the psychopathology-related parts of the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, a widely accepted personality test. A study using another instrument, the Eysenck Personality Questionnaire, found that extremely creative artists — and high-impact psychologists, for that matter — tend to receive elevated scores on the test’s psychoticism scale, meaning that they are, among other things, egocentric, cold, impulsive, aggressive and tough-minded. Last, highly eminent scientists tend to score higher on sections of the Cattell 16 Personality Factor Questionnaire that signify they are withdrawn, solemn, internally preoccupied, precise and critical. All told, top performers are not a very normal bunch.

Psychiatric studies bolster these results. The rate and intensity of certain psychopathic symptoms, such as depression and alcoholism, are noticeably higher in very creative individuals than in the general population. Research also suggests that these divergent thinkers are more likely to come from family lines that are at higher risk for psychopathology. Even if an extraordinary innovator is “normal”, his or her family members may not be.

In line with these findings, in 2009 psychiatrist Szabolcs Kéri, then at Semmelweis University in Hungary, found a genetic basis for both creativity and psychosis in a variant of the neuregulin 1 gene. In this study, Kéri recruited a group of highly creative individuals and found that the participants who had this specific gene variant, which is linked with an increased risk of developing a mental disorder, also scored higher on measures of creativity.

Out-and-out psychosis, however, can shut down creative genius. This tragic reality was dramatically illustrated in the 2001 film A Beautiful Mind, the biopic about the late Nobel laureate John Nash and his struggles with schizophrenia. The costs and burdens of psychological dysfunction are also immediately apparent in the art of the mentally ill, such as the works preserved in the Prinzhorn Collection in Heidelberg, Germany, done by psychiatric patients in the early 20th century. Few if any of these artworks show signs of genius. To quote Dryden again, “wits are sure to madness near allied, and thin partitions do their bounds divide.”

Research conducted by psychologist Shelley Carson of Harvard University and her colleagues sought to identify these thin partitions. Creative achievement is positively associated both with cognitive disinhibition — openness to supposedly extraneous ideas, images or stimuli — and higher intelligence and greater working memory. These mental capacities can potentially ameliorate the negative effects of cognitive disinhibition and even channel them to more useful ends. This synergy may well constitute the cognitive basis for serendipity. Not everybody would be able to work out the profound implications of such humdrum events as water overflowing a bathtub or an apple falling from a tree. But Archimedes and Newton did.

Archimedes and Newton both worked in scientific fields, raising the possibility that their brands of creativity may have been similar. A more revealing question might be to investigate how their route to original thought compares with that of a superlative writer or musician. A physicist’s way of thinking has little, if anything, in common with that of a painter. For example, learning how to solve a differential equation has as much utility for a painter as learning linear perspective has for a physicist — zero in most cases. Yet the themes uniting geniuses suggest that a common creative principle may exist. Domain expertise, such as the knowledge of advanced problem-solving strategies, supports thinking that is routine, even algorithmic — it does not inherently lead to the generation of novel, useful and surprising ideas. Something else must permit a person to go beyond tradition and training to reach the summit of genius.

According to a theory proposed in 1960 by psychologist Donald Campbell, creative thought emerges through a process or procedure he termed blind variation and selective retention (BVSR). In short, a creator must try out ideas that might fail before hitting on a breakthrough. Campbell did not precisely define what counts as a blind variation, nor did he discuss in any detail the psychological underpinnings of this process. As a result, his ideas were left open to criticism.

Using a mixture of historical analyses, laboratory experiments, computer simulations, mathematical models and case studies, Professor Simonton from the University of California, has developed BVSR into a comprehensive theory of creative genius in all domains. The blindness of BVSR merely means that ideas are produced without foresight into their eventual utility. The creator must engage in trial-and-error or generate-and-test procedures to determine the worth of an idea. Two common phenomena characterize BVSR thinking: superfluity and backtracking. Superfluity means that the creator generates a variety of ideas, one or more of which turn out to be useless. Backtracking signifies that the creator must often return to an earlier approach after blindly going off in the wrong direction. Superfluity and backtracking are often found together in the same creative episode. Exploring the wrong track obliges a return to options that had been originally cast aside.

The reflections of Hermann von Helmholtz, a prolific physicist with numerous creative breakthroughs to his name, capture this process of discovery:

I had to compare myself with an Alpine climber, who, not knowing the way, ascends slowly and with toil, and is often compelled to retrace his steps because his progress is stopped; sometimes by reasoning, and sometimes by accident, he hits upon traces of a fresh path, which again leads him a little further; and finally, when he has reached the goal, he finds to his annoyance a royal road on which he might have ridden up if he had been clever enough to find the right starting point at the outset.

This account of venturing blindly into uncharted territory and retracing steps resonates with evidence from other eminent creators. As Einstein once said, “If we knew what we were doing, we wouldn’t call it research.”

To see superfluity and backtracking in practice, consider the sketches that Pablo Picasso produced in preparation for his 1937 Guernica painting.

Pablo Picasso, Guernica (1937)
Pablo Picasso, Guernica Sketch 19
Pablo Picasso, Guernica Sketch 22

Among them are clearly “superfluous” sketches, which have a human head on a bull’s body (for example, sketches 19 and 22 — using Picasso’s original numbering). Picasso soon discovered that this was a dead-end and backtracked to an earlier bull’s head drawing (15), before continuing to the final two sketches (26 and 27). Notice that the artist went too far in one direction in the last sketch, from which he backtracked yet again.

Pablo Picasso, Guernica Sketch 15
In dozens of sketches for his painting Guernica, Picasso explored numerous styles.
Pablo Picasso, Guernica Sketch 26
A sampling of his drawings of the bull (shown here with Picasso’s original numbering) reveals the breath of his exploration.
Pablo Picasso, Guernica Sketch 27
Hunting widely for answers, abandoning some ideas and backtracking to earlier concepts are hallmarks of a theory of creativity known as blind variation and selective retention (BVSR).

Even more telling, after that last sketch Picasso largely reversed himself to a much earlier formulation (11), which shares the most unique features with the final version: the widely separated eyes, the thin-lipped open mouth with tongue, the menacing rather than inert visage and the Cubist rather than neoclassic style. These sketches are typical of blind variations both in the arts and in the sciences.

Pablo Picasso, Guernica Sketch 11

Only further research can expand the theory into a comprehensive, predictive model whose claims can be thoroughly tested. Even so, BVSR can help us make sense of certain quirks of creative geniuses, including their personality traits and developmental experiences. Although they devote considerable time to achieving expertise, they also pursue other hobbies. Their openness to new ideas and their breadth of interests infuse them with seemingly irrelevant stimulation that can enrich blind variations.

As 19th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said, “Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see.” Exceptional thinkers, it turns out, stand on common ground when they launch their arrows into the unknown.

Original article by Dean Keith Simonton (Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of California) from the special edition of Scientific American Mind – The Mad Science of Creativity, March 2017. Because today is World Creativity and Innovation Day.