Author Page for Ben Ehrlich
BENJAMIN EHRLICH (Contributing Editor) is a writer living in New York City. In 2009 he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree with highest honors in Literary Studies from Middlebury College, where he was also a three-year member of the varsity basketball team. Ben is currently at work translating the non-scientific writings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal, the Nobel Prize-winning “father of modern neuroscience.” During the day he is known as “Dr. Recess,” as he holds a PhD in the Recess Arts from Recess University. His interdisplinary dissertation included a theoretical analysis of the Law in kickball team-picking, advanced wiffle ball physics, and Eastern methods of boo-boo healing. It is as yet unpublished.
What’s that thing about monkeys typing Shakespeare? Give an abstract device an infinite amount of time to produce a endless string of random linguistic symbols and there is a technically a non-zero probability that such a “monkey” will eventually hit upon any existing piece of literature, the theorem goes. In other words, pure chance can be highly creative. In the 1960s, movements like the Oulipo imposed certain constraints on their work, following certain patterns (the most famous example may be the experimental novel La Disparition by Georges Perec, written without the letter e). With these algorithms, the creative act becomes a calculable operation. The result may or may not be inherently meaningful. In the case of the monkey, the result would be as meaningful as the original, but would not arrive for the duration of our universe. Some people are even programming computerto produce books. Phillip Parker, Professor of Marketing at INSEAD Business School, has patented a program that can receive a small amount of information mimic the thought process of an expert. The process takes thirteen minutes, and Parker claims to be able to program romance novels and even rudimentary poetry (the program has produced over 2oo,000 books). Recently I’ve thought about this phenomenon after encountering Google Voice transcripts for my phone messages, which produce hilarious and even brilliant errors:
“Bye bye. Thank you very much catch her to work Hi. This past sorry it is, actually some fire Yeah, okay. Alright friends and I’ll pass. Something written about it’s all right with you, cool trying to heydude fresh. We know with the Ohh, Ohh I’m calling about the truck I guess.”
How would the meaning be changed if I told you what the caller was actually saying? In the digital age, Roland Barthes’ “The Death of the Author” seems especially prescient. What will happen to creativity? I like this quote from James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: “The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined, out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.” Maybe he meant a computer, processing.
Via The Paris Review Daily (via Melville House Blog)
Image Credit 1 and 2.
New analysis of cave sites in Indonesia have revealed some of the oldest art in human history. Forty thousand years ago, with natural mineral pigments mixed with water or other liquids, people painted animals like the “babirusa” (deer-pig) and left hand signatures stenciled out of negative space. The findings brings into relief our Eurocentric view of culture. Either this creativity developed independently in Asia or, as the research now suggest, the homosapien brain was perhaps able to create art before leaving Africa.
(Photo credit: AP/Kinez Riza, Nature Magazine)
In this month’s issue of Harper’s magazine, legendary biologist E.O. Wilson—the ant man who also authors books about the meaning of existence—takes on consciousness and the brain. The article, “On Free Will,” carries the unsurprising subtitle: “And how the brain is like a colony of ants.” He runs down the essential anatomical, functional, genetic and evolutionary information about the brain, defining the complex organ and its unique importance. Then, he relates the efforts of philosophers to find a physical basis for consciousness, which may or may not exist, and who knows where. Wilson is optimistic about research programs such as the Brain Activity Map (BAM) project, which seeks to observe neurons in real time and connect their activity to mental processes. He talks about animal consciousness, ant colonies, human perception, and internal storytelling. “Confidence in free will is biologically adaptive,” he concludes. “WIthout it, the conscious mind, at best a fragile, dark window on the real world, would be cursed by fatalism. Like a prisoner serving a life sentence in solitary confinement, deprived of any freedom to explore and starving for surprise, it would deteriorate.”
Rebecca Kamen believes that artists and scientists have a similar mission, and she tries to reflect these similarities in her sculptures. Inspired by the work of Santiago Ramón y Cajal, “the father of modern neuroscience,” some of her sculptures are on display at the National Institutes for Health, where she has been the artist in residence in the neuroscience program. PBS NewsHour has published an article about her story, called “Portrait of a dyslexic artist, who transforms neurons into ‘butterflies.'” Ramón y Cajal famously referred to the cells in our brain, which he was the first to discover, as “butterflies of the soul.”(Recollections of My Life, 363), and this is the title of Kamen’s signature piece (as well as a phenomenal book about Cajal and what one might call art-historical brain imagery). But the article, and Kamen’s story, connects deeply to another Cajal quote as well. Her creative self-reflections on her experience with dyslexia call to mind perhaps the most transformative idea that the great genius ever put into words: “Every man can, if he so determines, become the sculptor of his own brain.”
(Copyright: Rebecca Kamen)
On March 31st, seventeen independent theaters in cities across the country will host Science on Screen, an evening pairing mainstream film and scientific presentation. Supported by the Coolidge Corner Theater and The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Science on Screen will feature different programs nationwide. If you live in New York City, for example, Brooklyn’s BAM is showing Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, followed by a discussion of emotion and memory with Joseph LeDoux, director of the Emotional Brain Institute at New York University. See if your local theater is participating, and check out this exciting list of programs.
I never knew about Fridtjof Nansen. His 1887 doctoral thesis argued for the independence of the nerve cell, making him one of the earliest defenders of what would be called “the neuron doctrine.” He promptly quit neuroscience and went on an arctic expedition across Greenland. Then he went to the North Pole. He topped it all off with a Nobel Peace Prize, after serving his native Norway in the League of Nations for a decade. His lasting legacy, however, is probably the “Nansen passport” for stateless persons, still recognized by over fifty countries.
“It is better to go skiing and to think of God, than go to church and think of sport.”