Science and Creativity from Studio 360: the art of innovation. A sculpture unlocks a secret of cell structure, a tornado forms in a can, and a child's toy gets sent into orbit. Exploring science as a creative act since 2005. Produced by PRI and WNYC, and supported in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.More from Science and Creativity from Studio 360 »
The desirable robot has been a trope in science fiction for almost a century, from the femme fatale Maria in Fritz Lang's Metropolis to Gigolo Joe in Steven Spielberg's A.I.. Despina Kakoudaki is the author of Literature, Cinema, and the Cultural Work of Artificial People. She says a robot lover is an appealing fantasy because it can be perfectly beautiful, ageless, and brilliant. "It's indestructible, it has replaceable body parts," she says, "as if it is the alternative to the vulnerable, very fleshy, very gooey, very sometimes smelly human body." An android can take physical and emotional abuse that a human being often can't ... or shouldn't. And some social scientists have actually advocated for the creation of robot prostitutes or soldiers. But Kakoudaki says when we buy into that fantasy, we still don't get it. "We treat objects with quite a lot of fascination and we treat objects really well. We treat people badly as a matter of course in culture," she laments.
At the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, they have curators for everything you would expect, like telescopes, missiles, planetary science and space shuttles. But Margaret Weitekamp's collection is completely different. It includes things like ray guns, board games, pins, hats, t-shirts, and lunchboxes, all having something to do with space or space science fiction. Weitekamp's title is Curator of the Social and Cultural Dimensions of Spaceflight, with a collection of more than 4,000 pieces of space-related ephemera to show for it. The Buck Rogers XZ-31 Rocket Pistol isn't even the coolest piece of super-nerdy space stuff in her collection. Weitekamp's principal obsession these days is an object that may resonate more deeply than anything else in museum's collection, at least for the generation that grew up when America was going to the Moon.
After piano music helped him recover from brain surgery, Dr. Richard Fratianne became a true believer in music therapy. In the burn unit at the Cleveland MetroHealth Medical Center, Fratianne is measuring patients' stress hormones during procedures to try to prove that music therapy reduces pain and anxiety.
Now that virtual reality is becoming a consumer product that costs less than a smartphone or video game console, what will that mean for the future of storytelling? Obviously there will be markets for gaming — and pornography — at the start. But, for some directors, the medium has more idealistic applications. Kurt Andersen visited Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Lab, a pioneer in virtual reality research and development, to test drive an experience that's more realistic than any movie or video game.
Since the dawn of humanity, more or less, people have used representations of animals to tell stories. We drew pictures of them on the walls of caves, told stories about hapless spiders and mischievous rabbits, watched cartoons of coyotes running off cliffs and fish looking for lost sons. But some artists have wanted to buck that trend, depicting animal stories from the animals' point of view.
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.
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.
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?
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.
For a Black Writer, Sci-Fi Offers a Reboot of Society
You can write a movie about a gravity-defying superhero or a time-traveling zombie, and if you make that movie in Hollywood, you're probably going to hire a science adviser. No scenario is too far out for someone with a PhD to add a real bit of jargon and a sheen of plausibility.