THINKER’S ALMANAC – February 14

Subject:  Creativity/Problem Solving – Zwicky’s Box

Event:  Birthday of Swiss astronomer Fritz Zwicky, 1898

Born on Valentine’s Day in 1898, Fritz Zwicky was a man who loved ideas.  As an astronomer, he is known for his discovery of dark matter, and he not only discovered many supernovae, he also coined the term “supernova.”

Perhaps Zwicky’s greatest discovery, though, was a strategy that allows anyone — even non-astrophysicists — to generate new ideas.  The strategy is called morphological analysis, a method that begins by identifying the parameters of a problem followed by generating alternative options for each parameter.  The magic comes from randomly combining different parameter options to spark creativity.  Zwicky was so proud of his invention that he compared it to the mystical practice of alchemy:  “I feel that I have finally found the philosopher’s stone in what I call the morphological outlook and method” (1).

To illustrate the process, imagine you were presented with the problem of designing a new office trash can.  To begin you would generate a variety of different parameters that make up a typical trash can, such as “size,” “material,” “shape,” “position,” and “additional features.”  List each of these parameters at the top of a piece of paper.  Next, under each parameter, you would brainstorm possible alternatives for each parameter; for example, under “additional features” you might list “a paper shredder,” ‘a clock,” “a whiteboard,” “hole punch,” and “stapler/staple remover.” Once you have a variety of options under each parameter, you should now have a matrix of options that make up a morphological box, also known as a Zwicky Box.  Once you have created your box, the magic can now begin by randomly combining different parameter options.  Imagine, for example, if you generated just five options for each parameter; a 5 x 5 matrix like this would generate over 3,000 different possible combinations.  Because the human brain loves associations, you can use each random combination as a spark to produce a new idea for a never-before-seen or produced office trash can.

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  How is a Zwicky Box used to generate ideas?

Challenge – Thinking Inside the Zwicky Box:  Imagine you are working for a greeting card company.  Your job is to produce new ideas for a Valentine’s Day card. Using the parameters and options below or ones that you create on your own, randomly combine some options to generate some ideas.  Write a pitch for your best idea, or better yet, create the card as your prototype.

Zwicky Box with Valentine’s Day Card Parameters

THEMEFEATURESHAPEMESSAGE FORMSTYLE
animalspop upheartsonnethumorous
heartsrecorded messagerectanglerhyming coupletselegant
famous loversmusicovalpuntraditional
candyscratch and sniffdiamondhyperbolequirky
vintage/nostalgiaconfettiamorphousmetaphorironic

ALSO ON THIS DAY:

-February 14, 1954:  Today is the birthday of cartoonist and creator of The Simpsons, Matt Groenig.  He said, “Love is a snowmobile racing across the tundra and then suddenly it flips over, pinning you underneath. At night, the ice weasels come.”

Sources:

1-”Remembering Zwicky

February 14:  Metaphors of Love Day

Our modern Valentine’s Day rituals date back to an ancient Roman fertility rite called Lupercalia, celebrated from February 13-15.  Roman myth tells of the twin brothers Romulus and Remus who were abandoned in a cave (Lupercal) of a she-wolf (lupa).  The twins survived and went on to become the founders of Rome thanks to the she-wolf who nursed them.

Wolf head, 1-100 CE, bronze, Roman, Cleveland Museum of Art.JPGTo commemorate the deliverance of Romulus and Remus each year, priests gathered at Palatine Hill above Rome to sacrifice goats and a puppy along with making an offering of grain.  Two young boys were then stripped naked and clothed in the freshly skinned coats of the sacrificed goats. In addition to the goatskins, the boys were also given a narrow strip (or thong) cut from the hide of the goats.  These thongs were called februa, meaning “instruments of purification.”  Running downhill and through the city streets, the two boys slapped everyone they met with the februa in a symbolic act of purification.  Women often came forth to be struck since they believed the ceremony rendered them fertile, as well as ensured an easy delivery in childbirth.

A less violent aspect of Lupercalia festival was a lover’s lottery where young men would be coupled with young women by drawing names randomly from a jar.

The modern name of Valentine’s Day also originated with the Romans; however, the day’s name resulted more from martyrdom than from a fertility rite.  In the 3rd century A.D., Roman Emperor Claudius II executed two men in two different years.  Both men were named Valentine and both men were executed on February 14.  Later, the Catholic Church commemorated the two saints’ martyrdom with the feast of St. Valentine.  In 494, attempting to expel pagan traditions, Pope Gelasius I outlawed Lupercalia and replaced it with Valentine’s Day (2).

Today we associate Valentine’s Day more with Venus – the Roman goddess of love – than with Catholic saints.  And the most ubiquitous symbol of the day is Venus’ son Cupid.  It’s his bow and quiver of arrows that represent the capriciousness of romantic love; anyone struck by one of his arrows is instantly filled with uncontrollable desire.

As we can see from the history of Valentine’s Day, it is a tradition filled with symbols that attempt to make the abstract ideas of romantic love and attraction more concrete.  In a similar fashion, lovers have attempted to make the abstract idea of love more concrete through the use of metaphor.  Notice in the following examples, the variety of metaphors used by various writers to define this elusive yet universal emotion:

Love is like war:  easy to begin but very hard to stop. -H.L. Mencken

Love is like a virus.  It can happen to anybody at any time.  -Maya Angelou

Love is an exploding cigar which we willingly smoke. -Lynda Berry

Love is the wildcard of existence. -Rita Mae Brown

Love is friendship set to music.  -E. Joseph Cossman

Love is a snowmobile racing across the tundra and then suddenly it flips over, pinning you underneath.  At night, the ice weasels come. -Matt Groening

Love is the master-key that opens the gates of happiness of hatred, of jealousy, and, most easily of all, the gates of fear. -Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

Love is like an hourglass, with the heart filling up as the brain empties. -Jules Renard

Love is the ultimate outlaw.  It just won’t adhere to any rules.  The most any of us can do is sign on as its accomplice. –Tom Robbins

Love is the only disease that makes you feel better. -Sam Shepard

Today’s Challenge:  Love Is a Metaphor

What is the best thing anyone has ever said about love?  What makes this person’s observations so insightful?  Select a quotation about love, either from the quotations above or from your research.  Your quotation can be lines from a poem, lyrics from a song, or prose from a Valentine’s Day card.  Explain why you find the quotation so insightful and specifically why you agree with it.  (Common Core Language 3 – Knowledge of Language)

Quotation of the Day:  Life is a journey. Time is a river. The door is ajar. -Jim Butcher

1-http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/secondary/SMIGRA*/Lupercalia.html

2-http://www.npr.org/2011/02/14/133693152/the-dark-origins-of-valentines-day

February 13:  Poetic Definition Day

On this date in 1890, the English writer Samuel Butler (1835-1902) presented a lecture in London entitled “Thought and Language.”  Butler was a novelist, a satirist, and a translator.  In 1898 and 1900 respectively, he translated both the Iliad and the Odyssey from the original Greek into English prose.  

Samuel Butler by Charles Gogin.jpgIn his 1890 lecture, Butler addressed age-old questions about the evolution of human language and whether or not language and reason are exclusive to the human species, as opposed to other animals.  In the course of his discussion of language, he presented a metaphorical definition of the word definition, presenting the reader with a fascinating figurative image:

Definitions . . . are like steps cut in a steep slope of ice, or shells thrown onto a greasy pavement; they give us foothold, and enable us to advance, but when we are at our journey’s end we want them no longer (2).

Another poetic definition – again of the word definition – is found in Butler’s Note-Books, which were published posthumously in 1912:

A definition is the enclosing a wilderness of ideas within a wall of words.

Butler’s poetic definitions remind us of the power of figurative language to help us to understand new ideas based on comparisons to old, familiar things, as well as its power to help us to see old ideas in new ways based on fresh comparisons.  Certainly, the literal, textbook definitions of words are helpful, allowing us to grasp new ideas in objective black and white.  But metaphor, simile, analogy, and personification provide such powerful subjective imagery that it is as if a spotlight is shining down, illuminating ideas so that they stand out in vivid color.

Today’s Challenge:  A Lexicographer Walked Into a Bard

What are some aspects of language that might be defined using figurative language, such as words, language, speech, writing, reading, dictionaries, the alphabet, specific parts of speech, grammar, syntax, etc?  Read the poetic definitions below, noticing how each writer uses different types of figurative language to define different aspects of language.  Then, craft your own poetic definition using metaphor, simile, analogy, or personification.

Language is the amber in which a thousand precious and subtle thoughts have been safely embedded and preserved. -Richard Chenevix Trench

The etymologist finds the deadest word to have been once a brilliant picture.  Language is fossil poetry. -Ralph Waldo Emerson

Language is a city to the building of which every human being brought a stone. -Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ideas are enclosed and almost bound in words like precious stones in a ring. -Giacomo Leopardi

Speech is the messenger of the heart. -Hebrew Proverb

Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap out tunes that can make bears dance, when we would move the stars. -Gustave Flaubert

Geometry is to sculpture what grammar is to the art of the writer. -Guillaume Apollinaire

The adjective is the banana peel of the parts of speech.  -Clifton Fadiman

Dictionaries are like watches:  the worst is better than none, and the best cannot be expected to go quite true. -Samuel Johnson

Writing enables us to find out what we know — and what we don’t know — about whatever we’re trying to learn.  Putting an idea into written words is like defrosting the windshield:  the idea, so vague out there in the murk, slowly begins to gather itself into shape. –William Zinsser (3)

(Common Core Language 3 – Knowledge of Language)

Quotation of the Day:  Life is like music, it must be composed by ear, feeling and instinct, not by rule. -Samuel Butler

1-http://www.victorianweb.org/science/butler.html

2-http://www.authorama.com/essays-on-life-art-and-science-9.html

3- Crystal, David and Hilary Crystal:  Words on Words:  Quotations About Language and Languages.