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Autobiography of Five Ideas

Autobiography of Five Ideas

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Published by Tom Slattery
An essay on the formation of ideas. The early stages of five new and original ideas the author had are remembered as best he could decades later. They range from whistling bottles to physics research.
An essay on the formation of ideas. The early stages of five new and original ideas the author had are remembered as best he could decades later. They range from whistling bottles to physics research.

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Published by: Tom Slattery on Apr 11, 2008
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09/27/2012

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Autobiography of Five IdeasBy Tom Slattery
This composition is compiled from five email letters to my friend Richard. He had begun a discussion on the value of ignorance. I had countered with a play on a truism,"We do not know what we do not know."The real meaning beyond the truism was that prior to something being invented,discovered, or created we humans do not know about it. We just don't know. We don'tknow what may be out there in the realm of things to be known. Before it is known, we just don't know.There is an exception, though. For a fleeting instant at the moment of discovery,invention, or creation we know what we don't know. And after that instant goes by werealize that we now know what we did not know before.As that instant lingers before fading into the past tense, we realize that we nowknow what we did not know a fleeting instant prior to that. We cannot avoid theknowledge that during that fleeting instant our mind had reached into the realm of what itdid not know, what humans did not know, and knew something that it did not know.Into that individual's life, and in the collective knowledge of humanity, there hadcome a fleeting moment when he or she, and eventually all of the rest of us, had knownwhat he or she did not know. New ideas come constantly to us. Some of us may or may not have more newideas than others of us. Some of us do seem, however, to have more of those profoundnew ideas that radically alter concepts and perceptions and bring about great changes inhow we live and how we understand nature and ourselves, the Edisons, Newtons, or Einsteins among us.Whether these notable minds were just lucky and were just in the right place atthe right time to grasp a new idea probably cannot be known. But the mysterious processes generating new ideas could possibly be studied.And in that light, I have been fortunate enough over the years to have had severalmemorable new ideas. And their being ever so slightly significant is what made them"memorable" enough for me to remember. Otherwise they would have been lost in theconstant flow of new ideas that go through all of our brains, possibly even while we aresleeping.The order of these new ideas will not be chronological. I present them here in theorder of the email letters that I exchanged with Richard.
 
I begin with the "Whistling Bottle" idea because it was published, thus allowingme to remember it. It has an illustration for the reader to more easily grasp not only theidea itself but some of the processes involved in the formation of the idea.
WHISTLING BOTTLES 
By Tom Slattery
From:
"Readers Write" Column
 EastWest Journal 
(later renamed:
 Natural Health
)
,
August 1978
,
page 82Fifteen-hundred to two thousand years ago
,
people living along the coast of Perumade a strange-looking ceramic bottle
,
actually two bottles connected together 
,
whichlater archaeologists called a "whistling bottle
.
" The name was chosen because of awhistling sound produced when you blow into the spout
.
Scientists classified them as drinking vessels or children's toys
.
Other observerstheorized that they were musical instruments
,
or meditation devices used for psychic or spiritual healing
.
Whistling bottles were found only along the coast of present-day Peru
.
At leastone pot has a fish sculpted into it
.
It would seem that if these dual pottery flasks had amusical value they also would have been found inland
,
where the real center of Incancivilization developed
.
This information came to me after I had discovered these strange objects whilewandering through the Lowie Museum on the University of California's Berkeleycampus
.
At the time I was studying my Japanese language cards
.
The Lowie Museum isnot devoted to Japanese artifacts
,
but it is a nice place to walk through after burdening themind with
kanji
characters
.
I looked up
,
finally
,
at a whistling bottle
.
A monkey sculpted into one of the flaskswrapped its tail around the other 
.
On impulse
,
I sketched this on the back of the day'sJapanese lesson because its curious use of clay seemed to pose a question
.
I would take ithome and think about it
.
What happened was one of those wonderful flashes of creativity that discreditsconscious programming and the carefully developed thought processes we call theconscious mind
.
I went home and slept on it long and deep
.
Not long after waking
,
itcame to me in a flash — the whistling bottle could have been an ancient device for making drinking water from sea water 
.
From that flash I began to construct the logic of it
.
One of the bottles is sealed
,
theother open
.
Now why did they do that? I rolled my sketch over upside down
.
Ah! The flasks
,
if immersed in sea water up to the connecting tube
,
will let brinein only on the open side
,
and only up to a point below the connecting tube
.
Then thesunlight does its work 
.
Water evaporates inside the whistling bottle
.
Water vapor is a gas
,
 
and as a gas it obeys certain physical laws; for instance
,
it distributes itself with equaldensity through any volume containing it
.
The water vapor passes through the tube andcondenses on the walls of the sealed bottle
,
running down the walls to collect as drinking(distilled) water 
.
And it did
.
I made a plastic "whistling bottle" out of some old plastic bottles
,
connecting them with a tube cut from a smaller bottle
.
I glued them together and sealedthe cap on one side with waterproof airplane cement
.
I now had the world's first semi- plastic whistling bottle
.
I set the contraption in a pan of simulated sea water on the room of my Berkeleyapartment
,
and the summer sun distilled me a couple tablespoons of water 
.
But myeducation was not over 
.
The whistling bottle made drinking water from sea water 
,
but thisdoes not prove that the ancient people who lived on the Pacific coast of South Americaused
their 
carefully crafted whistling bottles for distillation
.
"Consider what would happen
,
" said a friend
,
"if someone came up to you with proof that the Irish harp was really meant to hang washing on — and then hung washingon one to prove it
.
"The people at the Lowie Museum seemed affronted at my theory
.
My idea — even my proof — found a cool reception
.
One anthropologist warned me that "theMuseum has very conservative ideas about these things
.
"

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