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FIRE IN THE CRUCIBLE

From Chris Wayan's journal 1996/11/5

I've been reading FIRE IN THE CRUCIBLE by John Briggs. He claims any genius mentally organizes the world in a way that's at odds with society's assumptions. His example of these "themata" or underlying approaches are pretty specific--as soon as he describes Einstein's and Virginia Woolf's, they ring true.

Einstein's childhood wonder at a compass pointing north led to a faith in an underlying, unifying force; continuity not discontinuity; universality. Not as bland as it sounds--he sacrificed reputation and friends to fight quantum theory's discontinuities, and fifty years after his death, even his cosmological constant is starting to look very real...

Woolf's earliest memory was of hearing surf as curtains flutter in a room, making similar waves of light. Her prose is full of waves, not just washes of sound and rhythm (though I noticed that, reading her essays), but waves of mood and subject too. Orlando washes into the future, now slow, now whoosh. The first snip of Virginia Woolf I ever read was a sudden rushing fantasy of being a dinosaur--it had this same wave-swept quality--timesurfing! Just a quick ride, then you're cast on the reality beach again...

Briggs gives other examples--like Nikola Tesla's many inventions relying on resonance, harmonics, catching the carrier wave.

So I start stalking my own themata. Briggs says they're usually embodied in early transcendent experiences. A couple immediately come to mind:

My earliest clear memory is of being a horse in the Southwest near something that looked a lot like Shiprock, then waking up to find I was a human three-year old. Thus began a lifetime of shamanic night-flights--and a conviction that identity is in your values, not your body.

Also, an image from Heinlein about the shape of spacetime (which he built on JW Dunne). He likened the sheaf of possible spacetimes as a craggy landscape: altitude as improbability, timestreams as rivers consolidating the many indistinguishable but likely probability states--while the wild hills of improbability are relatively barren and unvisited, but accessible to the determined climber. I quickly elaborated my memory of that passage, adapting it to my own shamanic experience, but overall it's remained my general picture of the universe--along with of course the gravity-puckered balloon of Einstein's (local) cosmos, and the tree of worlds (not copyrighted, being at least fifteen thousand years old. Ask any shaman!)

These look a bit elaborate for Briggsian "themata", but there they are, nestled inside me: 1) the universe as multi-leveled, branched or bubbly, 2) a tendency to see ideas and forces as living beings or ecosystems (as opposed, say, to Freud's tendency to see them mechanically, often hydraulically), and 3: easy identification with those beings, across gender, species and other lines.

Briggs's own central metaphor, creative genius as alchemy, says a lot about his own themata. Not that it's one I relate to. After a while I skim those bits! Of course I always started skimming when Jung got alchemical too. Seems tedious and lonely, full of their formulas and retorts. (Sorry, bad puns.)

But magicians and scientists ARE more alike than shamans are to either of them. My dream BLACK MAGIC summed it up--I like encounter not control, friends not servants, grown not built, life not tools. Shamanism differs from most religious traditions which are hierarchical--I see me and all beings I meet, up to gods themselves, as creatures in a big landscape. Maybe we play, maybe we fight, maybe we avoid each other. But I don't go worshiping some bigger animal down the block, that's silly. Nor do I cage it. And I certainly don't let it cage me in some rulebook, like you Muslims and Christians! Now THAT'S silly.

Interesting. My SHAMANIC genius is absolutely clear on its core assumptions and values. None of the bewilderment and shyness and frustration I develop around what are called... normal people.

Briggs sharply distinguishes genius (culture-changing insight) from savants and prodigies, which master fields with clear rules--math, chess, music. But name one child-prodigy novelist! Takes time and experience to develop broad enough vision for that.

Yet prodigies can mature into Briggsian geniuses, in time--like Gauss in math, Mozart in music. They used their prodigy-talents in service of a deeper vision that was too complex to develop instantly.

THE SAVANT TEST

Briggs gives an example of a mathematical savant. He was asked "how many seconds in a year and a half?" The guy sat silent a minute and a half, then said...

Suddenly I blink as a voice I usually suppress says "but that's easy!"

So I try it myself, inside my head.

Before reading on, try it yourself. First just aim for the answer, then after your 90 seconds are up, go back and recall what steps you took. There's more than one way, of course...

I'll tell you the path I took. Wasn't what I expected at all.

I didn't try to multiply it all out, that's not what I do. Instead I feel the numbers, look for ways they like to go. 360's a friendly number. 360 days plus five. Plus half of each, for a year and a half. So, 36 plus 18, that's, uh, 54, so it's 540 days plus 7.5, well 547.5 is awkward, it looks like half of something, so let's double it--47.5 cries out to be 95--so it's 1095 half days! Much easier than 547.5 days. How many seconds in one of those half-days? 12 hours, 3600 seconds per hour? Yeah, 12 times 3600 is not bad--36000 plus 7200, thats 43,200, hm, 4 and 32, friendly numbers. Good! And 1095 is just 1000 plus 100 minus half of ten, that pattern cries out to be used. So 43,200,000 seconds for the thousand half-days, plus 4,320,000 for the extra hundred half-days, that's 47,520,000, minus half 432,000, that's 216,000 for the negative five half-days. 520 minus 216 is 304, have I had to carry a single number yet? 47,304,000. I glance at the clock. Ninety seconds! I check the answer on the page. Yeah, 47,304,000.

For me, it's not instant or automatic. Different quantities might be harder--or easier. But Briggs is right--I don't do it the way I was taught to multiply large numbers at all, and I do see them somewhat as a landscape with cliffs, slopes, flats and paths, and even more like creatures with their own quirks and wills. Friendly twelves, grumpy seventeens! It's really not visual, more a feeling. Like molecular shapes with certain valences.

I hadn't applied this talent to anything useful in years, but around 1980 my dreams abruptly told me to save like crazy and build up a personal pension while interest rates were high. I did, and it paid off spectacularly--enough money to live on (frugally) for the rest of the century, with no day-job! Paradise for an artist. I've used my ability rarely since then--to buy a house on no income, to manage an estate when I was named executor, to build planetary models for a crazy art project called Planetocopia. But most days it sleeps.

Or does it? I think I use this same pattern-sense to compose music, paintings, writing, and especially comics pages. It's more feeling than reason--this area feels wrong, this right. There's a long delay before I can say what pattern CAUSED the feeling. But it guides me.

DOUBLETHINK

Briggs quotes other lightning calculators who are like this too--feel or see numbers as tones or letters or colors. To savants, numbers aren't abstract, and savants' calculations aren't done by formula. Now, Briggs reports on people like me with clinical wonder and a trace of doubt, as if it's an alien viewpoint! Well, I guess we are rare--I was the only one in my math classes who did it--I asked around. My teachers discouraged me, and mistrusted my visualizing, though it worked better than their formulas.

Doublethink! I want to think I'm like everyone else (I want to be liked, or at least safe, and it must be elitist to be better than others--after all, they'll tell you so!), AND I want to be unique, special, different (worse? They'll tell you so). I believe both at once!

Doublethink. Hmm. Orwell knew his stuff! Torture us long enough and you can carve a false belief into us. Only it doesn't erase the truth--the lie gets superimposed. What's sad is that feelings based on lies, if they're ground in deep enough, can end up just as strong as feelings rooted in your own knowledge and senses.

Ye shall know the truth, but the truth sets you only half-free. Brainwashing leaves ghosts, even in prodigies.

I'd be interested to know if readers out there who are or were child prodigies have this double attitude too. About math... and things that matter much, much more.



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