Archive for August, 2010
Do you believe in inspiration? I do.
I’m using “inspiration” to mean a thought coming to you suddenly, appearing fully formed in your brain without having to think about it or do anything to put it there. In that sense, it happens to me all the time. But first, a caveat. I suspect we tend to think of “inspiration” as a large thought, like an entire story, or the idea for a novel, or something great that’s going to win us the Pulitzer Prize. It’s unrealistic to think of inspiration only in terms of “large” ideas. It can come in many sizes. For example, a few weeks ago I suddenly got the idea for a short story as I lay awake early one morning before getting up. Visions, pictures, characters, the works. When I did rise, I went into my office and made some notes, then later wrote those notes into part of a short story. Importantly, it was only part of a story. The inspiration wasn’t enough to make a complete story, and I’ll have to work on that later. That kind of inspiration does happen, but only occasionally.
But there’s more to inspiration than the sudden blast of visionary light that illuminates a great story or tale. Inspiration can come in smaller doses, too. For example, while revising a novel, I’ve frequently come to a stopping point, a place in the narrative where I can’t go on, usually because I’m trying to resolve a discrepancy. An inspiration may occur (I say “may,” though it always has so far), that allows me to iron out the problem. It may take a sentence, a paragraph, or a full section of a chapter, but I can see my way through the problem. Even a lot of the sentences in this essay came that way.
And yet, inspiration can be tiny, as small as one word. One lousy word that makes the difference between a sentence that works and a sentence that doesn’t. Sitting in front of a computer screen, hands poised over the home keys, brain swirling like a blender making a milk shake (I could use a good chocolate shake about now), the word simply appears in my mind. That’s a form of inspiration. It happens all the time. (If it doesn’t appear, I get out the thesaurus. That happens a lot, too.)
I maintain that things like that happen to all of us, writers or not. We all have “aha” moments which suddenly bring to a conclusion a troubling situation in every aspect of our lives. As writers, we see them most often in our work because that’s where most of our problems lie, but they happen everywhere. Portions of daily life can be so frustratingly tedious that problems never develop, and during those times we aren’t using our minds to their full capacity. We’re all so used to seeing the little “aha” moments, but because they happen so often, we may not recognize them. But it’s important to realize that every tiny “aha” moment has something in common with the vision of a fully formed novel in our mind one morning when we wake up.
Interestingly, the way ideas suddenly appear in our brain probably tells us something about how our brain works, but I’ll leave that to the neuroscientists.
Last week I suggested there might be things our minds can’t really conceive of related to the universe in which we live. Here’s a similar concept. (This is what I get from sitting around thinking too much.)
Over the past ten years or so, astronomers have discovered over 500 planets outside our solar system. None of them, however, have been deemed appropriate to harbor life, at least not the carbon-based life we know on Earth. Most of those planets are bigger than Earth, some orbit too close to their central star and are too hot, some are too cold, some are gigantic spheres of gas, some are in weird orbits that take them alternately well away from their sun, then back in too close for life to gain a foothold. Eventually, the astronomers tell us, it’s just a matter of time before we find an Earth-sized planet in a suitable orbit, not too close, not too far from its sun, for life to develop. Eventually.
I’m sure they will. Considering that hundreds of billions of stars exist in our galaxy alone, and hundreds of billions of galaxies populate the known universe, the chances of a planet in a situation similar to Earth’s where life could develop is virtually 100%. But, just for the sake of argument, suppose there wasn’t. Suppose Earth didn’t have life, and we didn’t exist, and life–that is, what we call “intelligent” life, didn’t exist anywhere in the universe. The consequences are staggering. With no intelligent life, there would be nothing, no one, no intellect, nothing at all, capable of deducing the presence of the universe. Nothing to evaluate the stars and decipher their internal structure. Nothing to calculate the interconvertability of mass and energy. The universe would not even know it existed.
It takes intelligent life to put a universe on the map. It takes inquiring minds to wonder what stars are and how they function and what they are doing out there. Plants utilize sunlight for photosynthesis, but do they understand the mechanism by which hydrogen fusion produces that light? Bears sleep for months during the winter, but do they understand what really drives the change in seasons? The intellect humans have developed over the last million years or so has not only allowed us to dominate the planet, it has given life to the universe itself. The universe exists because of us, because we have deciphered it. Oh, sure, the stars would still burn, the galaxies would still speed away from one another, the planets would spin and the moons rotate, but with no intelligent life to see and understand it–and here’s another situation my mind has trouble with–it wouldn’t really exist.
The human mind is a wonderful instrument, capable of intense reaches of imagination and ingenuity. With it, we’ve traveled the stars and delved into the interior of the atom. We’ve investigated the mechanism of disease, evaluated the bottom of the ocean, and produced treatises of word and music of immense beauty. Among other things. Now, I’m not an anthropologist and I don’t have my finger on any real scientific evidence, but it seems likely that the human mind developed its ability for visualizing the abstract and hypothetical as a mechanism of giving Homo sapiens an evolutionary advantage over its competition. After all, humans don’t run very fast (compared to many other animals), and don’t have a lot of the other physical attributes such as sharp claws, muscle mass, extreme height or weight, etc., that might give us an advantage out in the “real” world. No, we use our head. But we’ve gone well beyond simply outwitting predators to great art and literature and science, and even activities based on physical attributes such as athletics (I’m thinking here of baseball and golf), as well as music, require great mental activity. You could, conceivably, train a monkey to blow through a horn and produce a sound, but will it compose a symphony?
But wonderful as the human mind is, it still has limitations. There are some things of which it is impossible for the mind to conceive. I ran across this not too long ago, researching the sun as a part of my science-fiction novel. The sun is a star, actually a regular star, and other than the fact that it’s “ours”, it’s unremarkable in the Milky Way Galaxy. The interior of the sun undergoes atomic fusion, breaking down molecules of hydrogen and fusing them together to form helium. To do that, it has to be hot, millions of degrees. (It doesn’t matter if you use Fahrenheit or centigrade, at these temperatures the difference is gorp.) I’ve seen figures of 20 million, 30 million, even 50 million degrees for the center of the sun. That by itself is amazing enough, and almost incomprehensible, though I can vaguely imagine it. But not only is the center of the sun hot, it’s incredibly dense. The one report I read said the density is ten times that of solid lead. I’ve read other reports that use different similes, but the message is clear: it’s damn hot and damn dense.
At this point, my mind breaks down. I can’t readily visualize a substance (astronomers call it a “plasma” but that hardly does it justice) that is at the same time millions of degrees hot, yet solid and more dense than lead. It doesn’t enter my normal state of consciousness. The human mind, vast and adaptable as it is, can’t grasp that kind of data. It just doesn’t compute. Normally, we think of something that gets hot as going through phases from solid to liquid to gas. Yet, here’s this substance that is extremely hot, yet solid.
We, on this mortal coil, live too much in our own world, what we call the “real world,” the world to which we adjust day after day. But out there, in the vast reaches of space, is something different. If a star can be so unperceiveable (I’m making up words as I go along), what else is out there?