Using the Accident

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.

Screenshot from the the Stargate sequence. (Not the transition mentioned.)

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.

The Vela Pulsar and its surrounding pulsar wind nebula.

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]

7 Replies to “Using the Accident”

  1. I love this – great examples and a fascinating question. I have just come across some old notes about Paul Soldner, the ceramicist who reinvigorated raku, and was taken, again, by the inclusion of chance as a part of the process, part of the working method. That, of course, leads on to thinking about Cage, etc. But it is especially intriguing in the sciences, fields that seem so (by definition) quantifiable and precise. The history of science is littered with these ‘looking-for-one-thing-and-finding-another’ examples and they seem to lead right up to the present day where the forefront of (one type of) exploration involves a gigantic particle racetrack that sends nearly invisible elements careening into each other at unfathomable speeds, all just to see what comes from the explosive collisions. There is something very funny, lovely and odd about the whole thing.

    I really like the wire-on-fence-post thing – that sounds like a great piece of installation art…

    And seeing a quite young-looking James Burke in that video piece reminds me of his ‘Connections’ show. Remember that series? He spoke about just this sort of ‘unintended consequence’ phenomenon.

    I’ll stop now (mix a good post from David Licata with several cups of coffee and watch the ideas spin…).

  2. OK, I just looked up the telescope (and discovered that Bell should’ve had a share of the Nobel, if not the whole thing) – it could be De Maria’s ‘Lightning Field’ all wired together. It is installation art.

  3. This is my favorite post.
    I think we are trained to feel bad about mistakes. It’s easy to get disheartened and then to console oneself by putting our ‘failures’ out of mind. But if not examined, the happy accidents would be missed. I think we can, and should be, trained not to feel so bad even if our mistakes don’t turn out to be happy accidents. We might instead perceive mistakes as opportunities to learn – even if it’s just learning what not to do.

  4. Jamie:

    What great comments! Keep drinking that coffee and reading the blog! Cage certainly tapped into the accident, made it an art, I’d say. And I agree, it is intriguing when scientists go this route. I think we have a tendency to think of science as rigid and unforgiving, but it is like you say, littered with people looking for one thing and finding another. It seems to me like many many of the greatest, discoveries, inventions and art came about this way.

    A Playa painter in my second month mentioned “Connections” after he saw the work in progress. How is that not only have I never seen it, but I never even heard of it?! Where was I when this show was on?

    So it goes with the Bell and the Nobel. Makes you wonder how many unsung heroes are out there. And now I’ll go look her “installation.”

  5. Eleni:

    Thanks. I think you’re right, we are trained to equate mistakes with failure. So maybe that’s the answer to my question. Maybe we are conditioned from an early age, and we need to unlearn that mindset.

    I remember watching a PBS show as a child, it was something like “Zen and the Art of Tennis.” I remember vividly the host of the show explaining that a first service fault should be looked at as an opportunity to make adjustments to the next serve and not as a mistake. I don’t know that I always employ this technique, but I remember the advice. That’s something.

  6. I heard an interview with a physicist who, when asked what would happen if they failed to find the Higgs-Bosen particle at the Large Hadron Collider, responded, “Now THAT would be really interesting.” The unexpected and trying to understand “failed” experiments is a much larger part of science than most people imagine. Creative thinking plays a tremendous role in both science and the arts.

    1. Well put, David. I wonder why most people don’t recognize the role “failed” experiments play. Duane Kelly, a playwright, recently left this comment on a blog I read. That post was about Failure, too.

      A mantra I’ve heard in the high-tech industry in Seattle and San Francisco is “Fail faster.” I always have liked that because it combines absolution with the presumption that the road to success is littered with failure.

      As I’m a slowpoke by nature, I don’t know about the “faster” part, but I like the sentiment.

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