241 Things

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241 Things

The movement of Vehicles 2a and 2b in relation to a stimulus.

Vehicles 2 and 3

Tissue Type B-01 print, 2002

MicroImage A-05 print, 2005

The movement of Vehicles 2a and 2b in relation to a stimulus.

The neuroanatomist Valentino Braitenberg published Vehicles: Experiments in Synthetic Psychology (MIT Press) in 1984.In this short, delightful book he presents conceptual schematics for fourteen unique synthetic creatures he called Vehicles. I became obsessed with these diagrams in 2000 while taking an artificial intelligence class at MIT. My Tissue and MicroImage projects were created entirely from software interpretations of Braitenberg's Vehicles 2 and 3.

The movement of Vehicles 2a and 2b in relation to a stimulus.

Vehicle 2 has two sensors, each connected to a motors. They are connected so that a strong stimulus will make the motors turn quickly and a weak stimulus will make the motors turn slowly. (If a sensor has no stimulus, the motor doesn't turn.) In Vehicle 2a, the left sensor is connected to the left motors and Vehicle 2b has crossed connections. If the sensor is attracted to light, for example, and there is a light in the room, Vehicle 2a will turn away from the light and Vehicle 2b will approach the light. Braitenberg characterizes these machines as correspondingly cowardly and aggressive to feature the anthropomorphic qualities we assign to moving objects.

Vehicle 3a and 3b are identical to Vehicle 2a and 2b, but the correlation between the sensor and the motor is reversed – a weak sensor stimulus will cause the motor to turn quickly and a strong sensor stimulus causes the motors to stop. Vehicle 3a moves toward the light and stops when it gets too close, and 3b approaches the light but turns and leaves when it gets too close.

If more than one stimulus is placed in the environment, these simple configurations can yield intricate paths of movement as they negotiate their attention between the competing stimuli. The Tissue images were created with three stimuli and the MicroImage images used five.

I owe my first encounters with the frog theory of Brisset (a man who was declared Prince of Thinkers for having proved on linguistic grounds that man descends from the frog) to ’Pataphysics, the science of imaginary solutions that has been developed by the French writer Alfred Jarry (1873-1907). ’Pataphysics plays with philosophical notions, scientific discoveries and technical attainments. In this way Jarry invented a de-braining machine, developed Perpetual-Motion-Food, and calculated the surface of God.

Jarry was not only influenced by the sciences, but also by morosophers like Brisset. And Victor Fournié who claimed that the same sound has the same meaning in all languages, brought Jarry to the fundamental insight that IN-DUS-TRY means one-two-three, in all languages.

’Pataphysics is, in the first place, a science; according to Jarry it is science par excellence.

Several institutes for ’Pataphysics have been founded: Collège de ’Pataphysique in Paris, and in the Netherlands, in utmost secrecy, De Nederlandse Academie voor ’Patafysica, the NAP, also called Bâtaphysics. Unlike the Dadaists, the bâtaphysicians did not feel the need to rebel or revolt, as Bâtaphysics celebrates the equal value of all situations. Other than the surrealists, the bâtaphysicians do not seek refuge in the subconscious, although they appreciate it as an imaginary solution; not only do they view daily life as a hallucinatory adventure, they also regard logos and rhetoric as the quintessential psychedelics. Furthermore, the NAP embraces Dadaism and surrealism as pataphysical phenomena.
Pataphysicians travel across the planet with a keen interest in everything they find in their way. They assemble the wildest collections, impose order without ever attaining any, and leave behind a trace of imaginary constructions. Pataphysicians, just like morosophers, explore realms that elude the maps of regular science. The researchers measure the immeasurable, put the unheard-of into words and instrumentalise the incorporeal. And, vice versa, they manage to expose in the most banal object an unexpectedly pataphysical dimension. They disclose the area of possibilities where every occurrence is ruled by its own laws. The pataphysicians are collectively astonished about the consensus omnium and defend one man-science. Anyone can become a member without tricolon, circumcision or piercing. The only effort one must make is to donate generously.
Is Bâtaphysics the missing link between art and science? Bâtaphysics is not art; all art is – consciously or not – pataphysical. All the more so when she exposes new regularities or laws. With the Expertologists of the Insect Sect we can say: Bâtaphysics is not art, but real.

The NAP approaches all phenomena with the same curiosity. Everything is investigated for its unique natural laws, for what makes it something exceptional and monstrous. Every ordering produces its exemplary demons, but even order itself is monstrous. According to Jarry, monstrosity defines beauty. Every aesthetic theory is a teratology. Bâtaphysics holds that nothing normal or abnormal exists, every event is equally monstrous ergo beautiful.

‘A camel is a horse designed by a committee.’ If necessary, the NAP single-handedly creates the deserts in which the camel appears to be the ideal animal.

Bâtaphysicians appreciate time, space, identity, profession, nationality and other beacons that man steers by in daily life as imaginary solutions. If bâtaphysicians use a pseudonym, a mask or a disguise, if they pass beyond trodden pathways, or if they use a different calendar, it is therefore no protest against the status quo, but an attempt to taste and challenge the bâtaphysical character of existence.

Bâtaphysics solves problems that are experienced as problematic by nobody. Moreover, Bâtaphysics is like Expertology in that it frees us from problems by turning them into emblems, into polyhedrons of ideas.

’Pataphysics was born out of a fertile mixture of science, faith, art and morosophy; in other words, these signs of human inventiveness are pataphysical attempts to get to grips with the idiocy of existence.

On the one hand, ’Pataphysics can lead to remarkable creations. On the other hand, ’Pataphysics stands for an ethos. ’Pataphysics is no philosophy or literary view, but a perspective. Put more strongly: ’Pataphysics has to be lived by first and foremost. This does not mean that you display eccentric behaviour, but that you are aware in your every act, no matter how banal, of the pataphysical character of what you do and think.

You can thus write most ordinary books, go to church, have intercourse, be married, read the papers and still be a pataphysician. It is not about a resigned detachment, nor is it about an ‘innere Emigration’ or postmodern irony, but about an awareness of the fantastic nature of your behaviour and a keen eye for the exceptionality (idiocy) of even the most common routine. In other words: the world is really the true Academy for ’Pataphysics. Everyone and everything is pataphysical, the only difference is between those who are aware and those who are not. A difference of almost nothing makes a whole world of difference: routine that is approached ignorantly and passively numbs the mind, but the same routine experienced with an awareness of the inherently pataphysical character of it can lead to enthusiasm, even ecstasy.

Personal research. Fleming wrote beautifully about it: the researcher must be free to find new discoveries, wherever these may lead him. Every researcher needs a certain amount of personal time to work on his own ideas without having to justify them for anyone, unless he himself wishes to. After all, extraordinary ideas can form during one’s free time. The desire for immediate result is common, but can be detrimental. Truly valuable research is a long-term ordeal. In fact, it’s very possible that nothing of practical use emerges from a laboratory for years on end. Then, quite suddenly, something may appear. Something that is so innovative that its impact could cover the costs of the lab for a hundred years.

This bootlegging, this ‘playing in the boss’s time’ is zu lehren und zu lernen, at school and university, in theory and in practice. For example, you might soak peppercorns in water and ask students to observe them through a microscope to find out why they’re so sharp. Are they spiky? It then seems that something is moving under the microscope. Art there students who see this? If so, who? The participant is then asked to draw what they perceive. “You’ve only really seen something after you’ve drawn it,” Da Vinci wrote. Then you reveal that van Leeuwenhoek was also looking for spikes on peppercorns, unsuccessfully, and instead found what we now call bacteria. This experiment was done one my request in Amsterdam at a lyceum with success; the students were moved. This is how you uncover latent talent: by hiding unexpected findings in practical assignments, unannounced of course. The participants who missed the unexpected observations, or who did not pay enough attention, learned that they were insufficiently observant, surprised, flexible and active in comparison to their peers. Like behaviourist Skinner said, when you encounter something interesting, you must study that and leave the rest to wait.

The Hungarian endocrinologist Hans Selye so captivatingly wrote: ‘In my opinion, this is one of the most precious gifts for a scholar to enjoy. We tend to focus ourselves on what we are researching to the extent that other facts simply do not reach us, regardless if they are of far greater importance. This is mostly the case with things that deviate so greatly from the ordinary that they seem implausible. In the end, however, only the implausible is truly worthy of our attention.’

If an idea to research something crazy suddenly befalls you, it’s well advised to go just through with it, complete it, and publish it. I once had the idea to visualise human coitus using an MRI scanner. It was a spontaneous idea; like the French poet-statesman Lamartine said, ‘I never think, my ideas think for me.’

I immediately received criticism. ‘What’s that good for?’ ‘You don’t even have a question! ‘We know everything already.’ But also enthusiasm: ‘if you want to research something that’s never been done, and easy as pie, do it! Why not?’

And so, we were able to conduct this study, but only in secret. Subsequently, the first scan was immediately compelling, iconoclastic even. It turned that all Da Vinci’s drawing proved to be fabrications, without anyone ever objecting (you and me included). The scans showed that the previous depictions had originated partly from the bedroom (before death) and partly from the cutting table (after death).

Seks in de MRI

The article about our research was rejected three times. That’s just how deviant our findings from the scanner were. Even our fourth article was considered to be ‘made-up’ by the British Medical Journal. The article wasn’t considered an actual report of an actual study until the magazine had done a thorough research on the accuracy of it, without us knowing. They even asked to include us in their Christmas edition (where every year strange studies are bundled).

Meanwhile, the study is the most clicked article on their site, while images of the scans weren’t even on the cover of the magazine. The film version of the MRI scan on the ‘Improbable Research’ site has been watched over a million times. It also immediately received the LG Nobel prize, because it makes one laugh before it makes one think.

In retrospect, the study is a classic example of Spielerei nebenbei to Ernst im Spiel and freedom in research.

Like Johan Huizinga argued in his Homo Ludens: play is indeed a higher order than severity because play includes severity, whilst severity excludes play.

Roentgen's X-ray picture of the hand of Alfred von Kolliker, 23 january 1896

Roentgen's X-ray picture of the hand of Alfred von Kolliker, 23 january 1896

Roughly speaking, there are three ways to find something new:

1. Non-serendipity

Finding what you’re want while specifically searching for it. A good example is the discovery of the bacillus responsible for the bubonic plague. Convinced that the p­lague was an infection, Yersin, a student of Pasteur, travelled to South-East Asia to find the cause for the disease. He wanted to perform autopsies on people who had died in the hospital from the plague, but was not allowed to. He then commissioned a straw hut to be built on the hospital’s lawn and, with the help of a bribe, was given access to a plague victim. He sliced his knife into a pustule from which oozed a ‘puree’ of pus. Underneath the lens of his microscope he spotted the bacillus, which would later be named after him.

2. Pseudo-serendipity

Roentgen's X-ray picture of the hand of Alfred von Kolliker, 23 january 1896

Finding something you’re looking for while not actively searching for it. A classic example is the ‘vulcanising of rubber’. Goodyear mixed latex with sulphur to make it more durable: it was a ‘why-not’ sort of experiment. He heated the mixture and while stirring it spilled some on the hot oven. The spill scorched. Underneath the burnt surface was a transformed layer, underneath which an unchanged layer lay. This change is what we now call vulcanisation. Goodyear, being a man of faith, believed God himself had helped him a hand in this discovery because he had been working so hard and trying his very best.

3. Serendipity

A chance discovery, found without searching for it. As Dijksterhuis commented, it’s still unknown what aspect of cathode rays Röntgen was investigating when he discovered X-rays, or Röntgen radiation. He darkened his laboratory, covered what is now named an X-ray tube with black carton paper, electrified the tube, and saw to his great amazement a nearby fluorescent screen light up. Röntgen himself termed these rays permeating the black carton ‘X-rays’, because ‘X’ is the mathematical symbol for the unknown variable (a discovery of genius within Arabic algebra). The rays were invisible and passed straight through many materials. To convince himself of his findings, Röntgen captured the results on light-sensitive plates. When asked what he thought he had discovered he answered: ‘I wasn’t thinking, I was experimenting!’ After the publication of his discovery, it turned out other researchers had made observations that were also linked to X-rays. This is called ‘negative serendipity’: these other scientists made unexpected observations, but failed to interpret them correctly.

This is similar to the discovery of America: when Columbus landed in the New World he deemed himself to be in India, which is why he spoke of ‘Indians’. It was Amerigo Vespucci who made the right interpretation! What Röntgen experienced was ‘positive serendipity’: he not only made an unexpected observation (the fluorescent screens lighting up in the dark in the vicinity of an active Crookes-tube covered in black carton), he was also correct in his interpretation of this wondrous observation.

Ultimately, in practice, non-serendipity, pseudo-serendipity, and serendipity are not always discernable from one another.