Rank #1: How Creative Are You?
The man nicknamed “the father of creativity” was psychologist E. Paul Torrance. In the 1940s he began researching creativity in order to improve American education. In order to encourage creativity, we needed to define it — to measure and analyze it. We measured intelligence with an IQ score; why not measure creativity? But there’s a problem. “I’m not sure I have a definition of creativity,” says James Borland. And Borland should know; he’s a professor of education at Teachers College, Columbia University. “It’s one of those human constructions that isn’t discovered but invented ... It’s a word we use in everyday speech and it makes perfect sense, but when you start to study it and try to separate out its constituent parts, it becomes more and more and more confusing. Nobody agrees on what it is.” How can we measure something if we can’t agree on what it is?
Rank #2: The Neuroscience of Creative Flow
What makes us have especially productive sessions — those minutes or hours when you’re so immersed in what you’re doing that everything melts away? What exactly is going on in our brains to make us feel so focused? These are exactly the questions that drive Dr. Heather Berlin, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. She studies the neuroscience of imagination, creativity and improvisation.
Rank #3: Understanding Creative Savants
We all know the Thomas Edison line: genius is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration. But there are those who don't seem to perspire at all. Their extraordinary gifts seem to come from no where. We often call those people savants. And some neuroscientists are trying to understand where their talents come from.
Rank #4: Library of Dust
For over twenty years the Oregon State Psychiatric Hospital stored the cremated remains of patients in copper containers. Photographer David Maisel found them, and shows the beautiful — and bizarre — chemical reactions that took place as the canisters corroded in his exhibit, "Library of Dust." Produced by Sarah Lilley.
Rank #5: Robopainter
AARON is the world’s first cybernetic artist: an artificially intelligent system that composes its own paintings. Incredibly, the system is the work of one man, Harold Cohen, who had no background in computing when he began the effort.
Rank #6: This is Your Brain on Art
Dr. Eric Kandel is a neuroscientist at Columbia University and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute who won the Nobel Prize for his research into how we form memories. He’s also an avid art collector. In his latest book, "Reductionism in Art and Brain Science: Bridging the Two Cultures," Kandel combines his two passions in an explanation of how our brains process art. Stemming from his decades of researching snail brains and memory, Kandel’s research breaks down how our cognitive functions perceive, process and appreciate art.
Rank #7: The Tommy Westphall Universe
When Tom Fontana was a producer on the show “St. Elsewhere” in the 1980s, he loved to push the boundaries of weirdness that he could get away with on network TV. For instance, he staged a crossover with “Cheers” — a sitcom — but they shot the sequence like a drama. And he pulled one of the strangest trick endings in TV history. In the series finale of “St. Elsewhere,” we learn that the entire show had been a fantasy of a boy with autism named Tommy Westphall. These shenanigans didn’t go unnoticed by fans like Keith Gow, a writer in Melbourne, Australia. He wondered if every show that Tom Fontana produced or staged a crossover with could be connected back to the finale of “St. Elsewhere.” In other words, did Tommy Westphall — the kid who dreamed up the characters on “St. Elsewhere” — dream up all these other shows as well?
Rank #8: Making Portraits Out of DNA
Everywhere we go, we leave a trail of personal information — in the stray hairs that land on park benches, or saliva on the edges of coffee cups. And artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg may be collecting that information, whether you like it or not. Using equipment and procedures now easily available, she extracts the DNA from strangers’ hair or fingernail clippings, and uses it to makes life-like models of people’s faces — people she’s never met or seen. She calls the project Stranger Visions.
Rank #9: The Art and Science of De-Extinction
Bringing extinct animals back has usually been left to the world of science fiction. But a group of biologists is attempting it in the real world. The organization Revive & Restore, a project of the Long Now Foundation, held a day-long TEDx conference on de-extinction at the National Geographic Society. This is not quack science; some of the research involves Harvard University, UC Santa Cruz, and Wake Forest University, among other institutions. Painter Isabella Kirkland, who is also a research associate at the California Academy of Sciences, opened the event with an image of her painting Gone. It looks like a Dutch master’s oil painting, depicting 63 extinct New World species arrayed on a table elegantly: the Carolina parakeet, the golden toad, and in the central place of honor, Martha, the last passenger pigeon, who died in 1914. The passenger pigeon is the preoccupation of Revive & Restore’s Ben Novak, a genetic biologist. “It’s my job to bring the bird back to life.”
Rank #10: Bacteria Biofuel
Frances Arnold is a biochemical engineer at Cal Tech working on one part of the energy crisis. In a process called “directed evolution,” Arnold’s team is altering the genetic codes of bacteria to evolve a strain of organisms than can digest grass and excrete biofuel.
Rank #11: Imaginary Friends Forever
Lots of kids have imaginary friends. (A young Kurt Andersen had a gaggle including Robbie Dobbie, Crackerpin, Jimmy the Cat, a poodle called Genevieve — which he pronounced in the French manner.) Marjorie Taylor, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon, has been looking at imaginary friends and the children who have them. “They tend to be more social, less shy, and do better on tasks which require you to take the perspective of another person in real life. We have found that they are more creative on some kinds of tasks. Other people have found that their narratives are richer.” Taylor is exploring the idea that these children are more creative — in particular, the kids who build a paracosm, a country or place for their friends “where children think about all kinds of things like entertainment, the food, the clothes, the transportation, the money.” Maxine, who is eight years old, walks us through her paracosm and the friends in it. Some are a little creepy, like Devil Man and Betchaboo, who takes the shape of a gun, but they’re not frightening to her. “They’re not the kind of people who will go and kill people. They’re not like gangsters, they’re just tricksters.” Besides, Maxine says, if imaginary friends caused trouble, “then they would be deleted. Because then you don’t exist. Sometimes when I forget about them they die, but they’re not deleted.” When you imagine the world, you get to set the rules.
Rank #12: How Do You Draw Dark Matter?
"Dark matter" has been in the news again lately as scientists in Switzerland have begun mapping what they believe is its prevalence across the universe. But they're not the only ones focused on identifying and describing it. French artist Abdelkader Benchamma has been making intricate drawings of cosmic phenomena for a while now, and his obsession with dark matter reaches its zenith in an installation on view for the next 12 months at The Drawing Center in New York City.
Rank #13: A Neuroscientist Throws Science Overboard for Art
Neuroscience is a vast field. Here’s how Greg Dunn describes it: “It’s as if in New York, there’s like a little neighborhood for electro-physiologists, there’s a little neighborhood for the behaviorists and for the cellular specialist. It’s quite a labyrinth.” When he was studying in grad school, Dunn’s neighborhood of neuroscience was epigenetics. “It’s how your body learns,” he says. For example, if a skinny person gains 100 pounds — will their future offspring be prone to obesity? Or if you experience a traumatic event, will your future offspring have anxious dispositions? Our traditional understanding of genetics and inheritance says an individual’s experience doesn’t get passed down to the next generation. But epigenetics studies the ways that our parent’s experiences do affect us.
Rank #14: Hollywood Know-How Makes Good Medicine
A Louisiana physician (and amateur filmmaker) teamed up with a cinematographer to invent a system that they say improves the quality and reliability of photos used in medical records — using some basic Hollywood technology.
Rank #15: For a Black Writer, Sci-Fi Offers a Reboot of Society
Few readers of science fiction can name any African-American writers in the genre apart from Samuel Delaney and Octavia Butler. Black authors, however, have been contributing to sci-fi since its inception. Carl Hancock Rux is a playwright, performer, and musician; his first novel, Asphalt, was set in a post-apocalyptic New York. Where the uses and misuses of technology have been central to mainstream sci-fi, Rux believes that, “for writers of African descent, science fiction has offered a unique place to try out something unthinkable in realistic fiction: an end to America’s tortured history with race." Excerpts from M.P. Shiel’s The Purple Cloud were read by Reg E. Cathey; the music in this story was composed by Carl Hancock Rux and Daniel Bernard Roumain.
Rank #16: Mind Games: Designing With EEG
EEG — electroencephalography — is almost a century old, and it’s creeping out of the research lab and the neurologist’s office. Headsets embedded with electrodes to read electrical activity in the brain are commercially available, and designers are using that information for all sorts of purposes. On the one hand, experimental wheelchairs can now be guided by brainwaves; videogame companies, inevitably, are exploring game control without a joystick. Exciting as that may be, Henry Holtzman, the Chief Knowledge Officer of MIT’s Media Lab, feels that EEG has a larger potential.
Rank #17: The Day After
More than 25 years ago, the largest audience ever for a TV movie tuned to ABC to watch a simulated nuclear holocaust. “The Day After” focused on a group of survivors in the heartland of Kansas. Studio 360's Derek John grew up nearby. He asks his 9th grade science teacher why she made him watch the program.
Rank #18: The Science of Singing
When you hear a singer like the late Whitney Houston belt out a song like“I Will Always Love You,” you’re listening to a marvel of vocal skill, but what happens when a singer damages their voice? Singers of all ages come into Dr. Steven Zeitels’ medical practice with trauma caused by breathing dried-out air in planes or singing in towns or buildings that have unfamiliar allergens. One of his patients. Aerosmith’s lead singer, Steven Tyler, is nearly 70 and has been torturing his vocal folds since he was a teenager, but with Dr. Zeitel's treatment, Tyler can sing “Dream On” as loudly as when he was 25 years old.
Rank #19: How to Fly to Alpha Centauri
Talking about building an interstellar space ship makes you sound like a sci-fi fan who’s lost touch with the real world. Unless you’re Mae Jemison, a former astronaut and the head of 100 Year Starship, an organization the home page of which boldly commands, “Let’s make human interstellar travel capabilities a reality within the next hundred years.” The problem: space is big, and our current rocket technology isn’t cutting it, says Marc Millis, the head of the Tau Zero Foundation. The heads of yet another interstellar organization, Starship Century, think they are on the right track. The technology is the beam sail, pushed with microwave beams, instead of wind, to extremely high speeds.
Rank #20: Greg Stock: Redesigning Humans
Nearly a decade after the human genome was decoded, scientists are only now beginning to understand its implications. One of the leading thinkers in this field is the biotech entrepreneur Gregory Stock. A biophysicist by training, his 2002 book Redesigning Humans: Our Inevitable Genetic Future makes the case that full-scale genetic engineering is on the way — whether we like it or not. And, Stock believes, if the US doesn’t lead the way in developing those advances, other nations will. “Between a third and two-thirds of the population — and even higher if you look at China or Thailand and other eastern cultures — of parents say if they could enhance the genetics of their children, enhance their either cognitive or physical capabilities, they would absolutely do it." But engineering traits to “improve” people remains a thorny issue. “It sounds so compelling, ‘take out a little bit of this, that, it’s going to be the best of you,’” Stock says, “but actually we don't have a clue what creates exceptional capabilities." While Stock’s attitude is full-speed ahead, he admits, “it’s going to get weird."