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The natural world. Looking pretty for 3.5b years.

The New Genius

Author: Reilly Capps/Sunday, June 23, 2013/Categories: Uncategorized

By Reilly Capps 

There've been a few people lately standing up for for poetry and literature, but poetry's old and tired. Homer. The psalmist. Lucretius. You know how I know they're not that good? They're all dead

Data is where it's at. Data's new. Emails, highway tolls, grocery store receipts. There is more data created every day today than was created in all of human history until last year. It can be proven; there's data to back that up; but I'm a humanities major, I don't know how to find it.

I do know that data is big. Data is valuable. You don't see the NSA demanding everybody's records from this year's sonnets. 

A map is data. A picture is data. 

This striking NASA Hubble Space Telescope image, which shows what looks like the profile of a celestial bird, belies the fact that close encounters between galaxies are a messy business.
[Penguin and egg galaxies, Photo by NASA.]

No country, no matter how poor or under-educated, always has ten times more English majors than they need; no missile crisis was ever solved by an astute deconstruction of the underlying themes in "Wurthering Heights." 

But maybe there's still room for poets and English majors. Or, rather, maybe there's room for people who can look at a couple of sets of data and interpret them in ways that are fresh and new. 

Take a certain kind of dune in the desert of Tanzania, crescent-shaped, made of volcanic ash. If you didn't look at it closely, you'd think it was just another mound of stuff, like any hill or ridge, and you'd ride your camel right by it. 

File:Dune en.svg

And take a woman, asleep, made of oxygen, hydrogen, carbon, and nitrogen. She's motionless, re-living in her dreams her fifth birthday party. Is she just another mound of stuff? Are we all only our chemicals? 

File:Sleeping-girl.jpg

But then you have data. Geologists measured the sand dunes, and found that it isn't exactly like a hill. It moves. It moves across the desert in the direction of its horns. Wind blows the sand up the front and deposits it on the other side. 

And take this woman. Biologists measure what she's made of, and find that all her cells die, one by one, and are replaced by new cells, made of new stuff. That's data, too. 

But then you add poetry. You add the English majors. You get genius. Here's Steve Grand applying the facts of the sand dune to help answer the question: Are we all only our chemicals?

"think of an experience from your childhood -- something you remember clearly, something you can see, feel, maybe even smell, as if you were really there. After all, you really were there at the time, weren't you? How else would you remember it? But here is the bombshell: You weren't there. Not a single atom that is in your body today was there when that event took place. Matter flows from place to place and momentarily comes together to be you. Whatever you are, therefore, you are not the stuff of which you are made. If that doesn't make the hair stand up on the back of your neck, read it again until it does."

That's the new genius right there. Taking these vast data sets and figuring out what's important, and what it means. We're meaning makers, humans. We're stuck in a world almost totally devoid of reason, and we gotta try to create a little sense. 
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