Shooting Stars

Dedicated (with apologies) to email subscribers who received a three word “Constellation” a few hours ago…

…the Seriph, in his bijou wildernessette, has just riffled back through his pages of verse to revise the lines which begin:

“Get up! For morning in the cup of day,

Has dropped the spoon that scares the stars away.”

—and he has sighed, because the white-hot lines searing across his imagination never seem to come out exactly as he wants them.

It is, in fact, impossible that they ever will.

Sadly, this sort of thing happens all the time.

It is a well-known established fact throughout the many-dimensional worlds of the multiverse that most really great discoveries are owed to one brief moment of inspiration. There’s a lot of spadework first, of course, but what clinches the whole thing is the sight of, say, a falling apple or a boiling kettle or the water slopping over the edge of the bath. Something goes click inside the observer’s head and then everything falls into place.

The shape of DNA, it is popularly said, owes its discovery to the chance sight of a spiral staircase when the scientist’s mind was just at the right receptive temperature. Had he used the elevator, the whole science of genetics might have been a good deal different.*

This is thought of as somehow wonderful. It isn’t. It is tragic. Little particles of inspiration sleet through the universe all the time traveling through the densest matter in the same way that a neutrino passes through a candyfloss haystack, and most of them miss.

Even worse, most of the ones that hit the exact cerebral target hit the wrong one.

Many civilizations have recognised this shocking waste and tried various methods to prevent it, most of them involving enjoyable but illegal attempts to tune the mind into the right wavelength by the use of exotic herbage or yeast products. It never works properly.

And so Creosote [the Seriph], who had dreamt the inspiration for a rather fine poem about life and philosophy and how they both look much better through the bottom of a wine glass, was totally unable to do anything about it because he had as much poetic ability as a hyena.

Why the gods allow this sort of thing to continue is a mystery.


*Although, possibly, quicker. And only licensed to carry fourteen people.

Terry Pratchett – Sourcery

The inspiration that strikes me tends to be more like rain than lightning. It’s easier to catch, but lower voltage and less likely to set the world on fire.

Low-voltage inspiration is, like rain, still very useful, and as with lightning there are things you can do and places you can go to make it more likely to strike.

Keys and Kites*

  • New ideas are usually combinations. So the more ideas you’re in touch with, the more likely you are to think of something interesting and novel. It’s like a positive version of Attack Surface in computer security.
  • This means you want to go deep with ideas, strengthening individual nodes and existing connections, enriching your idea network…
  • … but you also want to go wide, introducing entirely new possibilities and non-sequiturs that open up more tenuous but fresher connections.
  • This process should be fun: the more fun you have bouncing around the idea space, the more time you’ll spend doing it, the more combinations you’ll open up, the more interesting, fun, and funnier it will become (humour is most definitely a network phenomenon), and the more energy you’ll find for more of the same.
  • “The Idea Space” here doesn’t just mean the internet, or books, or media – it means more or less the sum total of everything that’s going on. The richest veins for me are usually:
    • Work at the coalface – the messy, hard work of doing what I do (in my case, this), trying things out, succeeding and failing and getting rich feedback (the most useful feedback is from people who either really do, or really don’t, get it);
    • Reading books – a topical “to read” list leavened with a hefty dose of following my nose and following the fun. I try to make sure there are clusters of fiction and non-fiction, and a mash-up of genres;
    • All the rabbitholes you also go down on the internet, almost entirely ignoring Facebook type social media** in favour of what’s interesting, and direct messages;
    • Going out and seeing stuff and getting involved – experiencing first hand the rich texture of the site / museum / professionals at work / people at play. The little details are usually the things to watch out for.
    • Conversations. Especially with people who will riff on the tune you’re playing, or tell you in one way or another what you’re missing (spouses seem to be especially good at this).

It was on a dreary night in November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils.

All of these little novelties need time to percolate, shake down and collide to generate new ideas. This happens anywhere: with the kids at the park; on long runs; driving; while mopping the Jakarta-dust-that-accumulates-daily-but-is-mopped-more-like-weekly; while preparing a presentation on something or other…

… and then these little ideas – raindrops and sparks – need to be caught. The WordPress app is good for this, despite the risks of pressing the wrong button when you’re jotting down a few words in the middle of the night…***

… before finally being written into some kind of shape in a blog post, at which point you learn things like that Ben Franklin’s kite wasn’t actually struck by lightning….****

… and then the idea can settle comfortably down and find its place in the network, pulling the other ideas it touches into new positions, spreading the odd tendril across space, forming new connections, sketching squint-and-you-can-see-it shapes in the heavens and occasionally shooting off to animate something new.

*This is clearly an inspired heading: apparently Franklin’s kite wasn’t actually struck by lightning, but picked up (much weaker) ambient electrical charge from the storm. (See link above or this alternative).
**The best kind of guilt about social media use is guilt that maybe you should check in more often.
***See: Constellation (Unpublished Blog Post, 2021, now a collector’s item.)
****That’s plus one nuanced historical metaphor in the toolbox

I'd love to hear your thoughts and recommended resources...