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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

ideas: keep 'em coming

A steady cold rain falls through the gray air. Kimmie phoned to say she wanted to beg off our power-walk for this afternoon--fine, suits me! We'll take a break, and I have a chance to get down here and write a blog-post.

I'm an idea guy. I like ideas. This has to do with my Aquarian nature, for Aquarius is the "idea" sign. More and more I'm seeing my mission in life as boiling things down to their basic idea-content, and working with that, studying it, understanding it.

I understand Gregory Chaitin
perfectly when he says in the preface to his Meta Math!:

I'm not really interested in complicated ideas, I'm only interested in fundamental ideas.

He's a mathematician--a great one--but more than that he's a philosopher. Here's another quote, from chapter 2:

I think that the history of ideas is the best way to learn mathematics. The best way to learn a new idea is to see its history, to see why someone was forced to go through the painful and wonderful process of giving birth to a new idea!

Yes! Giving birth to a new idea. Why is this so important?

Everything that could be called an advance or an improvement in human life or society is the product of an idea. The word itself comes from the Greek idein "to see". Someone sees something new in the mind--has a new conception, and with that new conception novelty enters the life of humanity.

Novelty. Newness. Freshness. New ideas tend to arise under pressure, when they're needed. All technological innovation depends on them. Without new ideas, we would all still be digging roots out of the ground with a piece of antler and eating them raw. We'd be huddled in the cold and wet below a rock overhang, hoping not to die. Hoping--not doing something about it.

It's easy to take ideas for granted. I was just keying notes yesterday from an excellent book I read last year, The Long Summer by Brian Fagan. In it he mentions a crucial invention from the Ice Age, about 18,000 years ago: the needle-drawn thread. This invention enabled people to make fitted clothes, which were much warmer than what had been available until then. This in turn allowed people to live in colder climates, exploiting the game of the tundra in a way that others without that technology, such as the Neanderthals, could not.

Maybe, in the big picture, it doesn't matter. Maybe it would make no objective difference if humans, like other social animals, simply lived and died in a changeless cycle of nature, eating, procreating, dying.

But I don't feel that way. I feel that humanity has a special relationship with novelty, an ability to conceive and create new things: new tools, new institutions. The universe permits this ceaseless creativity, indeed in its richness seems to encourage it, invite it. And personally, I'm all for it.


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