Jan 2, 2015

Cerebration Sessions

Writing an essay about creativity in 1959, Isaac Asimov used the term "cerebration sessions". He wrote about sessions for both individuals and groups, but I get the feeling that he had been asked to make suggestions for how to facilitate the creative process among teams, specifically in the context of secret Cold War projects that were the precursors to efforts like Excalabur.

Crick and Watson
The discovery of the DNA double helix is an example of a creative collaboration with what Asimov described as the necessary conditions for success. "First and foremost, there must be ease, relaxation, and a general sense of permissiveness." When Crick and Watson met, they soon discovered that they shared a common interest in discovering the molecular basis of heredity. They had almost daily play sessions during which they discussed their shared obsession even though  it was a project that they were not being paid to work on and at one point they were actually forbidden to keep working on it. Asimov: "The great ideas came as side issues."

The idea that some specific arrangement of atoms inside cells can hold the instructions for how to make a human being was one of the great ideas of the early 20th century. Watson and Crick were in love with that idea and tantalized by the possibility that a technique existed (x-ray crystallography) that would soon provide key structural data about the genetic molecule. Since the mid-40s evidence suggested that DNA was the genetic molecule, but there was reason to fear that "solving the structure" of DNA might be difficult. Crick knew just how hard it was to determine the structures of protein molecules, which are each much smaller than a DNA strand in a human chromosome.

John Houbolt
During the course of their "cerebration sessions", Crick and Watson finally came to understand the importance of helical structure and base pair complementation for the structure and function of DNA. Rosalind Franklin's x-ray data when considered along with Erwin Chargaff's biochemical data for the ratios of the DNA subunits strongly supported their structural model in which DNA had a double helical structure. Still, they were plagued by self doubt even as they sent their structural model off for publication.

Houbolt and Dolan
Soon after Asimov wrote down his specifications for institutionalized "cerebration sessions" an example of how institutional momentum and group think can crush creativity was played out by NASA.

Eventually, after the feasibility of docking between spaceship modules was proven, Dolan's vision of a light weight and disposable lunar lander was adopted by NASA, allowing a single Saturn 5 rocket launch to accomplish the goal of sending a man to the Moon and returning him safely to Earth.

2009 cover art by Gordon Van Gelder
The science fiction dream of reaching the Moon had long been dominated by the idea of a sleek spaceship that could both cruise through the atmosphere of Earth and visit an airless place like the Moon. Sadly, that simple approach would require a huge and impractical chemical rocket.

Even in 2009, a romantic depiction of a spacecraft on the Moon still included a streamlined rocket, not a clunky Lunar Excursion Module.

Lunar Excursion Module (LEM)
What is now the "obvious" solution to an optimization problem, where every pound of launch weight is costly, took years of argument and persuasion by Houbolt before it was adopted.

Werner von Braun had spent years dreaming of how to accomplish interplanetary travel and, ultimately, he was grateful to those who, like Houbolt and Dolan, had the creative vision to bring modularity and disposability to the problem. Asimov: "It is only afterward that a new idea seems reasonable."

1960 Werner von Braun's fantasy
Look at the image to the right. Werner von Braun allowed his book to be graced with flashy cover art. Imagine fleets of rockets being launched from Earth and sending massive airplane-like craft all the way Mars. It looks cool, but it was a road not taken. It is much easier to send small robots to Mars and use photons to transmit back the science data.

At the heart of Asimov's specifications for creative success is really a rather simple formula: allow a small team of collaborators to freely explore possibilities and play with ideas. However, more often than not, such a collaborating team will go down a blind alley and fall in love with a self-created fantasy. You really need multiple teams if you hope to have a good chance of finding optimal solutions to tricky problems.

The Atlantis Clones: Anna, Hilde, Anney, Angela.
Ivory and Anna
As told in the Exode Trilogy, in the late 20th century there were multiple teams of aliens secretly at work on Earth. One group founded Space Energy Missions. They worked to prepare for the arrival of the Buld and planned to make use of hierion technology to meet Earth's need for energy and put an end to fossil fuel use. Another secret group was the Atlantis Clones.

According to Anney, the Space Energy Missions plan for how to save Earth from global warming, ice cap melting and catastrophic sea level rise was, ultimately, an Interventionist fantasy. Anney compares the idea of providing Earthlings with hierion technology to "helping" a tribe of chimps in Africa by giving them access to nuclear power plant technology.

The first (and only?) Buld on Earth
When the Buld spaceship arrived at Earth in 2012 it was made clear to the Interventionists that Earthlings would not be provided by aliens with an easy technological solution to the global warming problem. The Buld spacecraft was used to remove a bunch of Interventionists from Earth, not facilitate alien technology transfer. What of the Atlantis Clones?

Anney says that her big sister Anna abandoned Earth and went off on the Buld spaceship with the Interventionists. Anna, who was the first of the clones, had apparently been working (in secret) with Hilde for many years in support of the Space Energy Missions plan. Anney never knew her sister Hilde except through contacts with her replicoid in the Hierion Domain. Like Anna, Hilde eventually saw the arrival of the Buld spaceship and First Contact as an opportunity to escape from Earth. Why stay here if there was no way to prevent Earth from sinking into environmental catastrophe?

To the left is Anna, center is Peter. The alien is Lili. (source)
When I asked Anney about the process by which the Atlantis Clones had planned their efforts she just laughed. I get the feeling that Ivory and her clone sisters were deployed by Lili, Peter and Marta.....if there was a plan then it probably originated with Lili and other aliens. Anney seems a bit resentful about how she was crafted and used to tap into the Sedronic Domain.

I finally got Anney to open up a little about the self-doubt and concerns that the Dead Widowers have. They fear that at least some of their members are living on Earth in violation of the Trysta-Grean Pact. Anney has given that as the reason why she is trying to groom me to access the Hierion Domain: the Dead Widowers might have to depart from Earth. For now they are "laying low", avoiding Overseer attention and trying not to get kicked off of Earth.

Maintenance Dose
Space Energy Missions
I've been gradually increasing the dose of the nicotine derivative that I've been using to alter my brain function and allow me to retain memories from sessions in the Hierion Domain. I finally started having the visual sensory side effects that Anney warned me about. I've been getting visual sensory input from my replicoid while I'm awake, which is simultaneously disorienting, exciting and bad news. While it is exciting evidence that my brain can be boosted to the point of accessing the Hierion Domain while I'm awake, I have no conscious control over these "visions" and that is bad news.

In passing, I mentioned that I've also been experiencing odd changes in my olfaction. Anney now admits that this is another side effect of the nicotine derivative, a generally unimportant one because of how little humans depend on olfaction. However, these alterations in my olfactory system been increasingly distracting and now that I realize it is an effect of the drug, perhaps understandably so, in retrospect.

I think I now understand Marta's comment about pheromones. During the past few weeks almost all people who I know seem to have acquired an unpleasant odor. Clearly, it is not they who have changed, rather, it is I. Strangely, when I told Anney about the few people I know who don't stink, she asked me what I conclude from my new olfactory sensibilities. I'm still wondering about that, but my working hypothesis is that there are probably human pheromones that provide another way of identifying Earthlings who carry certain Preland gene combinations. I suspect that Interventionists have long controlled the mating patterns of Earthlings by making use of our subconscious responses to pheromones. Unlike the situation for Earthlings, I suspect that those pheromones can be consciously perceived by Prelands and other Sedronites.

image credits
I wasn't really surprised to find that my wife does not have the offensive odor that I've recently become sensitive to. For the past few years I've wondered to what extent my life has been shaped and planned by people like Trysta and Ivory and now, most recently, Anney. It is rather disturbing to think that I might have been "tricked" into bonding with my wife. Why should it matter to aliens (like Trysta) who some random Earthling (like me) marries? I get the feeling that Anney could probably clarify such mysteries, but I don't even know the correct questions to ask. To some extent, I don't want to know how my life has been foreseen, guided and shaped.

The Dead Collaboration
I've been allowed some limited insight into the way that the Dead Widowers collaborate. However, my hunch is that their efforts to collaborate have been disrupted by Resh^Ki, who Anney views as a spy, a kind of double agent who infiltrated the group. I won't suggest that because of Resh^Ki's shenanegans the Dead Widowers have lost their ability to trust their colleagues, but I sense that a free, open and playful exchange of information and ideas is no longer possible for that group. The tension of the Time Travel War has been replaced by something new, a new kind of battle field where people like Angela can suddenly disappear, leaving their colleagues with nothing but doubts and suspicions.

Related: go to the Moon (photographs)
More book and magazine covers.

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