Category Archives: emergence

Magnet Mushroom

At the end of 2013 Sonny Hallett and I invented a game. We’re calling it Magnet Mushroom, and you can play it too if you have an iron or steel tray, a bunch of magnets and some small pieces made of iron or steel. We used a baking tray, a pack of polished magnetite from a museum shop and the leftover metal bits from some Ikea bookshelves.

Here are the rules:

  1. Each player gets an equal set of magnets and metal bits.
  2. Take turns to place a magnet, with as many bits of metal as you like, on the tray, or on something which is already on the tray.
  3. If any magnet touches the tray during your turn, you lose. The last player to place a piece wins.
  4. At the end of a round, collect back all your pieces.
  5. The winner starts the next round.

Some Magnet MushroomsThe most basic move is a simple mushroom: a magnet stood on an upright metal piece. Because the metal becomes instantly magnetised, the magnet sits on it quite stably, however unlikely the configuration might look.

In fact, it is possible to make a mushroom two or three pieces tall and only moderately unstable. You can also support a magnet on two or three pieces, making it more stable, or attach more metal to the top or sides for added interest.

The challenge of the game comes mainly from the fact that every magnet is attracted or repelled by every other magnet – if you place one mushroom too close another, those forces will pull them down in an instant. There is a surprising amount of strategy involved in leaving the board in a stable enough configuration not to fall down, but unstable enough to make things difficult for the next player. Much of the fun of the game also comes from the creation of beautiful and wildly improbable-looking structures.

Some Magnet MushroomsThe simplest version of the game uses similar magnets and identical metal pieces, but if you want to mix things up a bit – or you run out of the pieces you started with – you can open it up by using  more different pieces. Experiment with it! Let me know what you come up with.

Extended Magnet Mushrooms

Reading about Thinking

This year I’ve found myself reading a bunch of books about the mind, the brain, and the nature of the self. For some reason I’m reading them all in parallel, picking one or the other depending on how I’m feeling on any given day, which is probably why I haven’t actually finished any of them yet. I’m loving them all, in different ways. I could probably do with spending more time talking to people about all this stuff, as well, which is one reason I’m posting this now rather than waiting till I’ve finished the books to write about them (although I will probably do that, too).

Here are a few words about what’s in the Mind/Brain section of the towering pile on my bedside table right now… Does anyone else have any thoughts about any of these, or interest in discussing them?

  1. Consciousness Explained, by Daniel Dennett
    I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to get round to tackling this book; I’ve known for a long time that Dennett is a very compelling, interesting writer and thinker. I had the feeling that his thoughts about how the mind works have a lot of overlap with my own, but until this year I’d only ever read a few of the essays from his collection ‘Brainstorms’, which is excellent if somewhat repetitious. What surprised me when I finally picked this up was what an entertaining writer he is.
  2. I am a Strange Loop, by Douglas Hofstadter
    I first met Hofstadter’s magnum opus, Gödel, Escher, Bach, when I was a kid – I was probably about twelve years old. I was enchanted, and I it may well have had a more profound influence on my thinking than any other single book, but in spite of that I could never finish it. It’s so much fun to dip into, especially the dialogues; but then its mathematical excursions are so involved, it can be hard to stay with it to the next flight of fancy without feeling like you’re either breaking your head or skimming too much. His later book covers much of the same ground – about the meaning of meaning, and how such a thing could possibly emerge from constituents that seem to obey the mathematical rules of physics – while avoiding most of those pitfalls. It’s dense, but never overwhelmingly so, and it’s just whimsical enough to make you smile without getting waylaid.
  3. The Feeling of What Happens, by Antonio Damasio
    Damasio is a medical doctor and neurologist by training, and more than any of the other books I have been reading, this one is grounded in science, particularly the study of the human brain. His approach to thinking rightly takes in the whole body, though – he is very concerned with the importance of looking at the whole organism if we want to understand thought, the nature of the self, and particularly emotions. What I find odd is that he has essentially written a whole book about embodied cognition in a book which doesn’t list that term or embodiment in its index; he does briefly name-check Francesco Varela and Maturana, but rather a lot of the time he seems to be writing as if he hasn’t noticed that anybody has ever had similar ideas. His science is impeccable, but I’m thrown by his lack of engagement with existing philosophy. Then again, this is a short book – much the shortest of these four – and I know that some people switch off the moment they see the word ‘phenomenology’.
  4. Mind in Life, by Evan Thompson
    This is probably the least accessible of the books in my stack, but still, the writing is lucid and uses no more jargon than it needs. This book was conceived as a follow-up to Thompson’s book with Varela and Eleanor Rosch, ‘The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience’, which I haven’t read. Thompson is rounding up relevant thoughts from all over science and philosophy, in order to put together a strong case for thinking about the mind as something arising from life; not something unique to the human brain, but a process naturally arising from and involving any organism – and also, in some sense, extending beyond it. It’s a grand project, and my sense is that it’s a very worthwhile one. This is a pretty fat book, though, written very clearly but without a great deal of levity, so I’m relying on sheer fascination value to carry me through. I think it will.

Ice and Frost

Slab of wonderI think most people don’t pay nearly enough attention to what they’re walking on, especially in cold weather. The richness of the patterns that ice forms is staggering, and provides an intriguing glimpse into the physical processes going on both at a molecular level and on a much larger scale. Some of the most fun shapes emerge when the temperature varies enough so that ice alternates with water, and flow patterns meet crystal dendrites.

Ice creaturesI have two theories about the sort of sideways icicles we sometimes see. Either they come from ice that has cracked and water has seeped through and refrozen, or they are caused by fingers of ice crystal which get a head start on the rest of the puddle for some reason – most likely, some facet of the surface they’re growing on just happens to provide a perfect nucleation point, and the crystals grow out from there because there’s nowhere else for them to get a foothold. Even though this starts at the level of water molecules forming neat little piles too tiny for any microscope to pick apart, in the right conditions these minuscule fingers of crystal just grow bigger and bigger…

Ice danceSome bubbles usually form in ice as it’s freezing. These are due to the presence of dissolved air in the water, which is no longer able to stay dissolved when it gets colder, so it migrates into pockets as the water freezes around it. Bubbles like these, trapped in the Antarctic ice core, tell us what the air on Earth has been like over hundreds of thousands of years, providing the strongest evidence that the temperature on Earth varies in proportion to the amount of carbon dioxide in its atmosphere. We know, for instance, that levels of carbon dioxide and methane are higher, and rising faster, than they have been in 800,000 years.

Larger bubbles also form under ice when it starts to melt from beneath, forming a space between the frozen layer and the water underneath. This process is dominated by the formation of liquid water, dripping and surface tension coming to the fore, so rather than the complex, angular crystals associated with freezing, we see the air forming in great bubbles and voluptuous curves.

Cold, hard cashThe patterns formed by frost depend on a number of factors – the relative temperature of the air and the ground and how much they vary, the speed of the wind and the level of moisture, and so on. Another factor is the nature of the surface the frost forms on – sometimes frost closely follows the lines of the surface, and sometimes it forms much more quickly in some spots than others, where imperfections in a smooth surface get the crystallisation process started. The patterns formed can give us insight into hidden features of the surface below, the subtleties we see speaking of deeper subtleties beyond our perception…

a quickr pickr post

Salt Forms

The salt bin grinsThe salt bin opposite my flat provides me with a suprising amount of intrigue. Somewhere down the line, it filled up with water enough to become distended – or became distended enough to fill with water – so now it sits there and forever grins invitingly, like some kind of fat plastic crocodile.

It’s permanently full up with water now – intensely saline water, of course, which does some pretty interesting things when it’s stagnant… when someone dumped an old paperback in there, for example, it quickly became encrusted with those characteristically square salt crystals, like the ones you can buy at fancy delicatessens (‘fleur de sel‘)… although not so appetising.

Jagged salt spike layerLater, days of intense, steady sunshine led to some fascinatingly rich crystal formations around the borders of the salt bin, as an inch or two of the water evaporated.

Then, most recently, a combination of wear and tear with hot, hot sun and heavy rains have led the bin to start cracking at the sides, sweating its saline drips in waves to leave a story of the weather inscribed on its sides.

I suppose this would be a good place to write about the way crystals derive their shapes from the way their component molecules stack together, or about the echoes of geological forms in small-scale emergences like this.

…maybe some other time.