I’m doing some work for hire that I can’t talk about just yet, but I can tell you that the other day I researched special effects legend Douglas Trumbull’s animation work on the Stargate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey. (I also held in my white-archival-gloved hands a copy of an early draft of 2001. My mind was blown.) Here’s a Trumbull quote from Expanding Cinema by Gene Youngblood.
There was one short slit-scan sequence—a bad take, actually—which started out black and instead of having walls of color come at you it had little points of light which were parts of the artwork before it actually developed into walls. It started out black, then a few little red sparks came out, and then a few more and it generated more and more. That particular shot was done with a device I rigged for automatically accelerating the speed… Though the shot is brief, it was the only one with a transition effect: it started out black and slowly became something.
This “bad take” became the transition from a shot of deep space to the Stargate. Unintended. A mistake. It became an integral shot in the film.
Coming across this quote reminded me of something Jill Tarter said when I interviewed her for A Life’s Work.
We have a tradition in astronomy of building a new telescope, to look at the universe in a different way, and although we got the telescope funded by saying it’s going to solve this problem and this problem and some other problem that we know about, the most fantastic thing that new telescopes do is show us something that we didn’t expect at all. Something phenomenal.Jocelyn Bell and her thesis advisor, in England, in the 60s, strung a whole bunch of wire on fence posts over the British countryside, creating a telescope that looked at low frequencies at the radio sky. And suddenly, because Jocelyn Bell was extremely persistent and paid attention to the slight little anomalies that were in the data, she found pulsars. A new phenomena. No one could explain it at first. Indeed because these were such regularly occurring pulses in the sky, like clockwork, they were called LGM1, LGM2. Little Green Man. They thought that maybe that’s what they found. But the time they got to LGM4, they were thing that’s a lot of aliens up there, and by about that time, someone had unearthed a theoretical paper from 30 years prior that talked about the observational consequences of a rotating neutron star whose magnetic and rotational axis were not aligned, i.e., a prediction of radio pulses. And so that’s what was discovered. But we have many, many examples of this kind of unexpected discovery on the basis of building something new, something that looked at the sky in different ways.
For the Allen Telescope Array, we can expect that we might have as well, such serendipitous unexpected detections. We will be able, for example, for the first time, to study the transient radio sky. And there are many sources of emission that have been predicted and probably transient sources that no one’s ever thought about, that might be one of the legacies of this telescope. Even if it does not successfully detect evidence of someone else’s technology. It’s really a win-win situation. We’ve built this telescope to do SETI, better than we’ve ever been able to do before. But we can’t make any promises about SETI. However we’re going to look at the radio sky in a different way, and therefore we can be pretty confident that we’ll discover something new and marvelous.
Reading these two quotes I wonder why it is that certain people have an openness to see a mistake or an anomaly as something other than failure, why they might see in mistakes and anomalies something new and marvelous.
So can you be trained to see from this point of view or is it something some are born with and others not? What do you think?
Here’s Jocelyn Bell talking about the discovery of pulsars.
[cross posted on the mighty mighty Extracriticum.com]