Sunday, October 11, 2009

Thinking Like Einstein on the Hokule’a

The following observations are based on sections of a chapter from my book Thinking Like Einstein. Here I was trying to make the point that some of the most creative thinking in science and other fields is based on very different ways of gaining knowledge than conventional academic models. I think this has been true for most of human history and is still true today--although this is almost never recognized by modern conventional educational systems.

“We have Hawaiian names for the houses of the stars--the places where they come out of the ocean and go back into the ocean. If you can identify the stars, and if you have memorized where they come up and go down, you can find your direction. The star compass is also used to read the flight path of birds and the direction of waves. It does everything. It is a mental construct to help you memorize what you need to know to navigate. . . .

“We use the best clues that we have. We use the sun when it is low on the horizon. . . . When the sun gets too high you cannot tell where it has risen. You have to use other clues. Sunrise is the most important part of the day. At sunrise you start to look at the shape of the ocean--the character of the sea. You memorize where the wind is coming from. The wind generates the swells. You determine the direction of the swells, and when the sun gets too high, you steer by them. And then at sunset we repeat the observations. . . . At night we use the stars. . . .

“When I came back from my first voyage as a student navigator from Tahiti to Hawai’i the night before he went home, [my teacher] . . . said ‘I am very proud of my student. You have done well for yourself and your people.’ He was very happy that he was going home. He said, ‘Everything you need to see is in the ocean but it will take you twenty more years to see it.’ That was after I had just sailed 7000 miles.” (Navigator Nainoa Thompson of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, having sailed on the traditional Polynesian canoe, the Hokule’a.)

Using the Best Cues We Have

With the words of Navigator Nainoa Thompson, in this passage we see a wonderful description of using well the best of what is ready at hand to do a most important job--on which rests the survival of a whole people. Indeed, during recent years, the successful voyages of the Hokule’a and other long-distance canoes have become cultural milestones and Nainoa Thompson has become a major hero among Polynesians. These voyages and revived navigation skills have much to teach us all. We are shown a highly refined example of the observation and visual thinking skills needed to navigate across the Pacific. If we had not known better, most of us would have thought that it was not possible to do.

Perhaps we are just now mature enough in our modern culture to fully appreciate what these navigators accomplished in an earlier culture with the simplest of tools and the most sophisticated use of their brains--and to see that such feats rank with the highest accomplishments of human beings, in any field, at any time. We can now see that it is not a matter of developing complex mathematics or the most modern tools and technologies. Rather, it is a matter of using well what is available in the particular situation-- developing techniques to train the brain and the senses through close observation, long practice and sensitive teaching--making the best use of what is at hand, using “the best clues that we have.”

Feats such as these draw heavily on visual and spatial abilities and “intelligences” that have been generally under-appreciated in modern culture. But all this is changing and the newest technologies are taking us back to some of our oldest and most essential abilities--teaching us that in some fields, the further forward we proceed, the more we reconnect with our ancient roots.

Thinking Like Einstein

Visual thinking and visual knowledge is a continuing puzzle. It seems to come up more and more these days--but few seem to understand its deep roots and larger implications. The human brain is indeed wonderful--the way it permits us to use all forms of natural systems and subtle information to do rather unbelievable things--and still survive, or, rather, in the long run, in order to survive.

To navigate across thousands of miles of open ocean while feeling the long-distance swells (not sailing past tiny unseen islands just over the horizon), to adapt to amazing extremes of heat and cold--using with great sophistication only those tools and resources that are readily at hand--all without modern technologies or distant supports and hidden subsidies (always a major advantage for modern travelers). All this is accomplished without a book of written instructions. And without full scientific knowledge. But with knowledge enough to hunt food, find home, build shelter, fend off enemies, cooperate with a group and raise a family--for thousands and thousands of years.

Strangely, the further ahead we go, the more our future is seen to be like our distant past. Sometimes, the more we look into our future, the more it is like the very, very old. The more modern we become, really, the more we come to appreciate (belatedly) the long-earned wisdom of traditional cultures.

The more we understand the brain’s deep resources for creativity and pattern recognition, the more we come to respect the accomplishments of our distant ancestors--and appreciate the problems they solved--the solutions that have secured our survival and allowed us to be. The more we move into unfamiliar territory, without map or guidebook, the more we admire traditional knowledge, long discounted by bookish education.

This is not mere romanticism but level-headed respect. The more our technologies change (and also change us), the more we can see that the newest computer data visualization technologies draw on some our oldest neurological resources--more like those of the hunter-gathers than they are like those of the scribes, schoolmen and scholars of more recent times. Albert Einstein tells us, as we have seen previously, that all his really important and productive thinking was done by playing with images in his head, in his imagination. Only in a secondary stage did he translate--with great effort, he says--these images to words and mathematics that could be understood by others. We now have technologies that can deal with the images directly--so the laborious translation may often not be necessary or even desirable.

The Rise of Visual Technologies

Some believe that visualization technologies are already in evidence everywhere. They think the battle is over. Others, myself among them, think that visualization technologies have a very, very long way to go and they have hardly begun to have substantial impact in the full range of fields they will transform over time. We think, with the exception of a few specialists, the process of deep change has not yet really begun. We think that gaining insight and new understanding through the sophisticated use of visualization technologies and techniques, in time, should be as pervasive as reading and writing.

But there can be little debate that we already have tools that can help us think the way Einstein thought--and it is striking how old and traditional these ways of thinking were. In many ways, Einstein thought and worked more like a craftsman than a scholar. And, indeed, the more proficient he became at the sophisticated science and mathematics of his peers, the less visual he became--and, more important, the less creative and innovative he became.

It would seem that the traditional Polynesian navigators were drawing on some of the same neurological resources that were so very useful to Einstein when he was a young man--before, as we are told by other scientists, he became corrupted by excessive familiarity with sophisticated mathematics. As he became more expert as a scientist and mathematician, he accomplished less. He had abandoned the modes of thought that had given him his best and most original insights.

In is notable that two physicists, Richard Feynman and Abraham Pais, both observed independently that as Einstein grew older, he became less visual in his approach and became more adept at conventional mathematics. They both noted that this process seemed to make Einstein much less creative, original and productive in his work. Feynman believed Einstein became much less productive when “he stopped thinking in concrete physical images and became a manipulator of equations.”

Abraham Pais, the author of a scientific biography on Einstein, also noted that Einstein’s increasing dependence on mathematics in later life also involved a reduced reliance on the visual and intuitive approaches he used so heavily and so productively in his earlier work. Pais observes that it is “dangerous and can be fatal to rely on formal [mathematical] arguments,” a danger from which Einstein did not escape. “The emphasis on mathematics is so different from the way the young Einstein used to proceed.”

Traditional Visual Cultures

When I was giving talks to teachers and school heads in Fairbanks, Alaska, several years ago, I was told that the Athebaskan Indian students in the villages along the Yukon River were natural visual thinkers and natural scientists. This should make us think.

We may well wonder whether they would they have substantial advantages if they were to be educated in the visual world of Einstein’s imagination and modern computer graphics--rather than the old academic world of facts and dates, words and numbers. Shortly afterward, when I had given talks in Honolulu, others there told me that traditional Polynesian culture quite naturally promotes highly visual and hands-on approaches over verbal approaches to the communication of knowledge.

If we were to fully and deeply understand the roots of knowledge in our own new world, we might see that Einstein’s way of thinking is far more like those used in resurrected traditional cultures than it is like the academic conventions of the distant and recent past. We might see, again, that Einstein’s way of thinking is more like that of the artisan or craftsman or traditional navigator and less like that of the conventionally trained scholar or mathematician or scientist.

Smashing Images

There seems always to have been tension and conflict between the world of the word and the world of the image. In March of 2001, a whirlwind fanned the fires of this ageless battle between the word and the image. As the world watched in horror and disbelief (foreshadowing greater horrors the following September and thereafter), leaders of the Taliban government in Afghanistan decided that it was time to finally destroy all images in their country.

No more playing on international sympathies or bargaining for foreign funds and support. They just declared that the statues were idolatrous and gave the order and the giant ninth-century Buddha statues of Bamiyan were blasted to rubble. “It took us four days to finish the big statue. He was very strong,” said one soldier.

Thus here we have the two extremes of a global and philosophical continuum. On one side, the image haters, those who would destroy all art in all forms out of a strict obedience to an ancient and narrow prescription. And, on the other side, those who would have art harnessed to shape and serve larger interests.

For a long time (it is not often observed), many Christian denominations have embodied this split as well. Some churches have always used the image to teach church doctrine and Bible stories--especially to those who were not able learn it through written text. Other Christian groups have tried to avoid all images and decoration--indeed, some of their Protestant forbearers smashed the stained glass windows and pulled off the heads of the stone saints just as the Taliban have done in recent times.

In some parts of England, even today, they are still discovering stained glass window sections that were buried long ago to save the Christian images from the enraged, puritanical Christian destroyers of images. Indeed, it is sobering to observe that some of these same Puritan Christians sailed to America on the Mayflower--and, being less able navigators than the ancient Polynesians, ended up in New England rather than Virginia, their intended destination.

Based on sections from Thinking Like Einstein. See also: Nainoa Thompson, “Voyage Into the New Millennium,” Hana Hou! magazine, February/March 2000, pp. 41 ff. Harriet Witt-Miller, “The Soft, Warm, Wet Technology of Native Oceania,” Whole Earth Review, Fall 1991, pp. 64-69. Dennis Kawaharada, “Wayfinding, or Non-Instrument Navigation,” The Polynesian Voyaging Society,, May 2002.