42 years ago tomorrow (Wednesday, 8th March, 1978), a radio series called The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was launched on BBC Radio 4 at 10.30pm. The author, Douglas Adams, was disappointed with the timing of the broadcast, as the timeslot was guaranteed to turn the programme into a ‘cult’ with a small but dedicated audience.
Happily, the programme gained a very large mainstream audience, and spawned books, a second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth radio series, a TV show and two films to date.
Earlier this year, Simon Watt and I recorded an episode of our podcast, Level Up Human, live at the Barbican in association with The Physiological Society. This episode was recorded with expert guests, marine biologist, writer and documentary maker, Helen Scales and KCL professor of developmental neurobiology, Robert Hindges.
First we look at human enhancements from around the world. Helen brings news of a man with an exo-skeleton allowing him to walk.
Robert tells us about developments in prosthetics which allow users to experience feedback from artificial limbs. And Rach has evidence that thumbs are getting faster.
Next: pitches from our guest experts, the studio audience and Mother Nature herself.
Robert wants a higher flicker frequency in the human eye. Helen suggests we all become extreme free divers with the breath holding abilities of the sperm whale.
The audience want improved cooling systems, reduced urination, lego wrists and multi-sensory anaesthesia. Simon pitches the arsenic resistant qualities of the Mono lake nematodes.
Which will make it onto the shortlist? And which will win? Have a listen to find out.
My podcast, Level Up Human, is back for a brand new series!
The first series of the podcast was supported by the Wellcome Trust. This time we are working with the Physiological Society. We have a residency at the Barbican in London, and we’ve just launched the first episode of the new series.
We asked Clare onto the podcast to talk about synaesthesia, a condition in which one sense is perceived as if by one or more additional senses. Clare tells us how she can ‘see’ the calendar, and explains loads more about synaesthesia: what it is, and how it would be great if everyone had it.
Miles is working on ‘liquid biopsies’ which might allow us to detect cancerous tumours via blood test in the future. He has lots to say on the pituitary gland, the ‘conductor of the endocrine-orchestra’ and explains how the condition acromegaly inspired the name of Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland.
The team have brought news stories from the world of science to share before we kick off the pitches. Clare explains why elephants are basically cancer-proof, Miles sings the praises of the pituitary, and Rach has tardigrade news.
Then we hear pitches for how we should redesign the human body from each of the panellists, the studio audience and Mother Nature herself.
Clare would like every human to have synaesthesia and Miles would like to tone down testosterone. The audience want to eat like termites, recognise faces better and have more control of adrenaline. Simon really wants to make humans stripy. Which suggestions will make it onto Rach’s shortlist?
“The pituitary gland is the most under-rated gland in the whole body. It is the size of a pea and it’s the conductor of the endocrine-orchestra (thyroid gland, adrenal gland, ovaries, testes, pancreas and all other glands in the body.) It controls every hormone in the body. It’s the most important, yet the most misunderstood and ignored part of the body.” – Miles Levy
“Everyone should have synaesthesia. It’s a completely harmless, possibly even helpful neurological condition where your senses get mixed up. So you might see colours when you’re listening to music, you might taste words, or in my case, you might see the calendar and numbers and letters of the alphabet all laid out in space in front of you which is hugely useful.” – Clare Jonas
“Mums are better. Actually, Grandmothers are better. Grandparents have the knowledge. They remember the last time there was a famine and we had to eat those weird berries. So old people are basically libraries of the past. They are a repository of knowledge that we have to keep.” – Simon Watt
First of all, forget new ideas. There aren’t any. See through toaster? Already exists. Dusting drones? Done. DIY bath milk? What are you even talking about Harriet, that’s not a thing. Oh alright then, it is.
Whatever you come up with, it won’t be new. New is just old + old smooshed into a ball. All the way back to, “I wonder what happens if I bang these rocks together?”
Think about it. See through toaster = toaster + window. Dusting drones = drone + your Nan. You can work out the bath milk one.
Point is, you’ve got nothing. I’ve got nothing. Nobody’s got anything – every thought has been thought before. The good news is, it doesn’t matter. Smashing old ideas together is a valid way to become Elon Musk/Cardi B/any other entrepreneur you can think of.
How is it done though?
Years ago, this dude J.W.Young wrote a thing about how to come up with fresh stuff. He was in advertising, so we can assume he had to produce every day. He didn’t believe in ‘new’ either.
Here’s his method:
Collect ‘materials’. Both general materials and those specific to what you’re making.
Digest the stuff. Here we have to be like a ‘curious octopus.’ Pick each thing up, feel it all over like a randy, sorry, curious octopus. Feel for the meaning of it. Bring two things together, see how they fit. You’re looking for relationships and ‘synergies’.
This is my favourite part. ‘Make absolutely no effort of a direct nature.’ I read this as: take the afternoon off and go to the pub.
The ‘A-ha’ moment. Yes! This is what we’ve been waiting for. The ‘new’ idea hits us as we soak in a tub full of bath milk. There’s nowhere to write it down so we squirt it as best we can on the wall in Original Source Shower Gel.
Idea meets reality. “The cold, grey dawn of the morning after.” We’ve all been there. See if the thing has legs. Tell people whose thoughts you value for feedback.
The good idea, according to Young, has ‘self-expanding qualities.’ If a friend thinks of things to add, you may be onto something. If they say nothing but nod politely as their eyes glaze gently over, you might want to drop it.
Coming back to his method years later, Young added that pursuing ‘general materials’ for the idea producer’s reservoir is best done as an end in itself, rather than whilst boning up for something.
With thanks to Maria Popova at Brain Pickings for an article about Young and a bunch of other stuff on creativity, productivity and how to be a human in the world.
Excited to be heading to Jodrell Bank for Blue Dot Festival tomorrow to celebrate the anniversary of the moon landing. We’ll be recording Level Up Human on the Notes stage with Simon Watt, geomicrobiologist and comedian Sarah Jones and Dr. Holly Shiel.
How would you redesign the human body?
If you’ve not heard the podcast before, get involved here!
“There are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they’re going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there’s going to be. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up.
The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows. And I’m much more a gardener than an architect.” – George RR Martin
This gave me great hope when I read it a few weeks ago.
“Maybe I’m a gardener!” I thought to myself, watering some tomato plants. Maybe that’s why I’m rubbish at writing long stuff. I get scared by the bigness of a project and dive into a completely alien way of working.
Maybe, I think, if I work out what all the sections of this are, and plan it to the nth degree, then eventually I’ll just fill in the detail in all the little compartments I’ve created and the thing will be finished and beautifully structured.
But I just don’t work like that. Neil Gaiman explains his writing method:
“Your first draft can go way off the rails, your first draft can absolutely go up in flames, it can — you can change the age, gender, number of a character, you can bring somebody dead back to life. Nobody ever needs to know anything that happens in your first draft. It is you telling the story to yourself.
Then, I’ll sit down and type. I’ll put it onto a computer, and as far as I’m concerned, the second draft is where I try and make it look like I knew what I was doing all along.” – Neil Gaiman (The Tim Ferriss Show”)
Another gardener! Write it, allow anything at all to happen, and then pick out the bits that make up an elegant plot in draft 2. He even goes on to say he prefers hand-writing his first drafts because then he can pick out the bits he wants when typing up, rather than having to delete whole pages of work on the computer.
Then I listened to another interview today which suggests that we may not be in control of our creative projects at all.
A true creator knows that you follow the thing to where it’s going, not where you think it ought to go.” – Adam Savage (via Tim Ferriss, again.)
Now that’s really interesting.
Is it that a creative project has a life of its own, and we’re not the master of the thing we came up with at all?
“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” – Michelangelo
It’s all very well for people of extraordinary vision like Michelangelo, but not everything is captured inside a block of marble. And if it is, not everybody can see the statue. Some just see a very difficult and painful afternoon.
I guess if you look at it from outside your own skull and the point in time that you’re at, every creative project has a trajectory and a rate of ‘success’, but we can’t see all of it from the beginning.
So maybe the point is just to set off along the path, and see where we get to.