241 Things

1000 Things is a subjective encyclopedia of inspirational ideas, things, people, and events.

Read the most recent articles, or mail the editorial team to contribute.

Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

241 Things

Every product in Euroland costs one euro. The countries that don’t carry the euro have similar stores like the Pound Store or the 99c Store where everything costs a pound or a dollar. While travelling through foreign lands, I’m always on the lookout for these stores. There’s always one. More than the touristic highlights, the cathedrals, or museums, I visit Euroland. I’ll easily skip a gallery, but I’ll never pass up a so-called junk store. Because although these stores are the same everywhere, they always carry different merchandise. Each country imports its own range of cheap crap.

Plastic ringen van Euroland

Photo by Dirk Vis

Many of the products have a second layer in addition to their direct function. A pistol is likewise a dolphin, a penholder also makes noise, a globe also serves as a stress ball, and so on. It’s this second layer that makes them so fascinating. And it’s the reason why, regardless of whether you use them, are special. As if that second layer is an excuse for their cheap appearance. I collect second layers. Their second layers bewilder, they’re silent witnesses of a world that could have been different. I like to imagine a world in which these strange products are the every day norm, where all pistols really are dolphins. And pink. Or where all penholders speak.

They’re sold in mass quantities. They’re made to earn money. For the makers, there is no ulterior goal (no urgency, no sanctity, etcetera.) These products are common objects without much consequence. In that sense, they’re the exact opposite of what economics terms the black swan: an unlikely occurrence with great consequence.

But just as in folk art and folklore, they find themselves relating to the mysterious directly and without pretension. They’re the least mysterious objects imaginable: stress ball, ruler, notebook; and yet it’s astonishing how strange they are. Why a stress ball in the shape of a globe? Accidentally, they often speak in beautiful terms. Like the butterfly that spins thanks to solar energy: the mechanics that drive the butterfly are bigger than the butterfly itself.

For a euro, you can own something that’s been envisioned, sketched, designed, assembled, shipped, packaged, and arranged. While they’re every day objects, they’re also completely absurd (a combination that could make the best absurdist jealous.) I often take one-euro objects home to use as artefacts in short stories. Without a doubt, they’re just as effective as inspiration for animations, design furniture, comic books, pieces of music; the list goes on.

Recently, I’ve been examining these objects ever more closely. With the advent of 3D printing, we’ll probably be able to print these objects ourselves in the near future. Of course, the euro shops won’t stop existing, but will their products remain as inventive, fantastical, and surprising? It’s for this reason that I collect them, a collection which is turning into a swan song for the euro products. Because it’s hard to imagine, and it surely isn’t a problem, but they eventually will disappear.

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.

The Three Princes of Serendip

Horace Walpole

The Three Princes of Serendip

In 1754, the British author Horace Walpole invented the term serendipity, describing it as "making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things not in quest of". The name Serendip refers to The Princes of Serendip, a Persian fairy-tale in which three noble Persians from Sri Lanka made all sorts of unexpected observations that all turned out to be accurate.

The Three Princes of Serendip

The modern definition of serendipity is:

1) The talent to correctly interpret an unexpected observation and 2) the fruits of this talent.

In short, serendipity is the art of finding something you weren’t looking for, or the unplanned discovery itself. These can be “coincidental” discoveries, inventions or creations from science, technology or art; as well as unanticipated thoughts. In regards to serendipity, the word coincidental doesn’t correspond to the mathematical sense of randomness. Instead, it has a psychological meaning: something “falls to you,” often while you’re looking for something different.

One of these “coincidental” observations is usually the observable result of an (at that time) unknown cause. As soon as that unknown cause becomes known, the coincidental character of the observation disappears. Practice shows that it’s useful to interpret unanticipated observations as accurately as possible, especially if they contain the possibility of uncovering something grand. These wonderful observations can be seen as enigmas, anomalies, or novelties.

An enigma comprises of a mystery that no normal theory can explain. This was the case, for example, when the ancient Greeks observed, to their surprise, that amber attracts dust. By definition, an anomaly conflicts with accepted theory. When experiments showed that uranium cores could be split, this contradicted the prevailing belief that it was impossible to divide atoms. The idea could not be understood until the previous belief was dismissed. A novelty is different and does not conflict with accepted theories. Drais’ observation that he could use the steer of his pushbike to keep his balance was well within the mechanics of his time.

The Sophists knew that it’s impossible to actively look for the unknown, because you won’t know what it is you’re looking for. After all, nothing truly new can be derived from the old, because then it wouldn’t be really new. A surprise is needed; an exceptional observer or wondrous thought is needed to find something truly unknown.

Systematic searching and coincidental finding (serendipity) do not rule one another out. They compliment and intensify each another. Unintentional discoveries tend to be by catch. Of course, as long as you’re sitting on your bottom, you won’t stumble upon anything at all.

The “coincidental discovery” is rare. More common is the “coincidental observation” that is correctly interpreted. This demands previous knowledge. After all, you have to know what to expect in order to observe the unexpected as such. And correctly interpreting this demands knowledge and experience.

So, “expect the unexpected” (freely quoted from Heraclitus). And “readiness is all!” (Shakespeare) Poe commanded: “count on the unforeseen”!

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.’

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.