Tag Archives: ideas

Writing prompt: The dream weaver

Time: 7 minutes. Click here to go to my list of prompts.

“the dream weaver”

I slipped the electrodes onto the ports behind my ears and at my hairline, shuddering slightly at the slight tingling. I leaned back into the bean bag chair and set the timer to 30 minutes. No, it was already 2 AM. I dialed it back to 20 minutes. I had six hours and desperately needed to come up with an idea and fully develop it in that time. I positioned myself so that nothing would go numb or fall awkwardly, and I pressed the remote control and I entered the dream weaver.

The first thing I always dream about is heights, damn them. Each time I have to cross a bottomless canyon or climb a tree or something like that. I can’t decide if my fear is growing stronger or weaker with these constant reminders. I need an idea. I remember the words of my instructor, to try to visualize the landscape. I see the glow on the horizon of idea. I walk in that direction.

Once I read a story about a woman who went mad using a dream weaver—she had to face the things that frightened her most, and when she couldn’t, she simply shorted out. I sometimes wonder if it was true. Maybe it was something that someone thought up using a weaver. On a distant hill, I see a man with a strange intensity to his eyes. He holds a knife. I suppress unease, and I walk toward him; this is the focal point for today. They can’t all be comfortable.

Science is Creative!

In the US, science is regarded as valuable, but dry and a bit stiff. As a student, it’s easy to get this impression, studying rigid facts first explored centuries ago. The math, chemistry, physics, and biology we learn in high school and college are about recreating long-known answers by well-established methods. But the process of making new science and math is inherently creative, and new ideas require letting the mind run wild a little. In this post, I’ll talk about how I develop my ideas.

I work with populations of oscillators. The idea of this research is that the complexity of the whole (the population) exceeds the complexity of each element (the oscillator). The human brain is a good example of such a system–each neuron is fairly simple and well-understood, but overall brain behavior arising from the interactions of many neurons is not understood. My research tends to work by observation–I notice something I find interesting and I explore that further. Other researchers work on what they suspect they will find, based upon other work. All research works within the context of its field. There are many interesting behaviors I have noted in my experiments, but I explore the ones I might explain. Really random observations are cool, but hard to frame in a way which is meaningful to the community.

The above may not sound particularly creative. But the key to experiments like I do is imagining what might happen when one explores slightly beyond what is known. It requires extrapolating from the areas we know, in the context of the rules we know, to the areas we don’t know. Some of the rules we know are pretty absolute, like thermodynamics, but others may be flexible. (As a note on this point, the stable chemical oscillations I study were once considered thermodynamically impossible. Someone had to bend the established understanding of thermodynamics to explain these oscillations. Einstein had to bend Newton’s Laws for relativity, and he arrived at that conclusion by logic rather than by observation.) In an experimental apparatus like mine, thousands of experiments are possible. It is up to the experimentalist to pick from the possibilities, in the context of what might work in his imagination, to demonstrate something hitherto unknown.

In some ways, the process is similar to writing. There are rules that must be obeyed, and the process of finding something new or interesting is very indirect. With science and writing, I develop some of my best ideas drinking a beer or taking a walk. Sitting at a desk focusing is required at times, but so too is active contemplation. The rules of science are broader and more rigid and take longer to learn, but there are similarities.

A lot of historical scientists were fascinating people, akin to historical artists. Van Gogh got his ear cut off in a fight. Astronomer Tycho Brahe lost his nose in a duel. Salvador Dali shellacked his hair. Electrical engineer Nikola Tesla fell in love with a pigeon. Mathematician Paul Erdos lived itinerantly for decades. In one visit to a colleague, he couldn’t figure out how to open a carton of juice, so he instead stabbed it open (among many, many other oddities). Physicist Richard Feynman used to work on his physics at strip clubs. Artists may share their eccentricities more in their works, but I would argue that scientists have every bit as much oddness.

I hope this post illustrates a little what it is like to be a research scientist, and how science at the cutting edge works. For more science posts, check out my fun science list.

What inspired your writing?

As I feverishly worked these last few weeks setting up this website and my new Etsy shop, motivation was a topic strongly on my mind. Motivation flows from inspiration, and so I pondered my sources of inspiration, specifically as a child.

I think my single biggest inspiration was the TV series Babylon 5. In middle school I hit a rough patch. I did not want to do homework or chores. I was grounded, forbidden from TV, computer, no allowance, etc to encourage a reversal. I missed TV most of all. Once a week, my brother watched Babylon 5. I could hide on the staircase and watch it through the rails. At first I scorned it; where are the transporters, I said. But desperation for electronics forced me to watch (in secrecy), and eventually I really got into it. Unlike any show I’d ever watched there were little connections to other broad topics.

I started to read the Babylon 5 books, as I’d read the Star Wars books when I was younger. In the scifi section at the bookstore I happened to see the name “Alfred Bester” on the spine of a book. This is the name of an excellent character in B5, so wondering if it was another B5 book, I bought it. Little did I know Alfred Bester was a classic 1950’s science fiction writer; the character was named after him. I loved the book, and went on to read everything I could find of his. Bester wasn’t very prolific, so this didn’t take too long, especially with no homework. I moved onto other classics of science fiction and started scouring the Hugo awards of years past.

B5 is chock full of other references, and I chased these down as well. Babylon 5 led me to read Tennyson and Yates (where I’d never liked poetry), and Michael Moorcock’s Elric series. Harlan Elison consulted on B5, so I read his stuff too. And I went on to read B5 creator JMS’s comic books. I think B5 promoted a sort of inspiration to learn in me which middle school could not.

There are, of course, so many other sources of inspiration I could list over the years. I loved “A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeleine L’Engle, and I also read a ton of kiddie SF I could hardly name anymore. I started watching Star Trek around age 3; I was especially obsessed with Voyager when that came out. I think the female captain intrigued me. I can’t remember a time at which I didn’t adore astronomy. But B5 still stands out amongst the others.

So enough of my thoughts. What inspires your work (and what is that work)? What first kicked it off, and is it the same thing that still motivates you? Does your motivation ever falter, and how do you handle that?