Sunday, April 01, 2012

`Emergent Properties of Fat and Water'

“We will always be the very surprised species. It is mankind’s best inclination.”

On Friday, shortly after boarding the 737 in Houston, I sat in the seat nearest the window, the one I prefer because I enjoy watching the clouds and landscape from 34,000 feet, especially as we fly over the Rocky Mountains. A young woman politely and a little hesitantly showed me her boarding pass and suggested I was in the wrong seat. She was right. I apologized and we switched places, which was also fine with me because the one on the aisle affords more leg room.

She seemed relieved that I had cheerfully exchanged seats and wasn’t upset. She, too, likes to look out the window, she explained. I pulled Raymond Chandler’s The Simple Art of Murder (1950) from my bag and prepared to finish reading “Red Wind.” On the tray in front of her, my seatmate set up an e-book in a pale green case. I asked what she was reading and she replied, like a school girl reciting: “The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler, a detective novel.” We laughed over the unlikely coincidence, swapped Chandler lore and exchanged favorite scenes from Howard Hawks’ movie of the novel she was reading.

By my count, even before takeoff we had experienced at least six surprises, individually or jointly. A capacity for enjoying surprise seems essential for some likelihood of happiness. Those who feign a cool knowingness aspire to the robotic. Somewhere over Idaho, after finishing the Chandler, I moved on to Bryan Appleyard’s new book, The Brain is Wider than the Sky: Why Simple Solutions Don’t Work in a Complex World (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2011). In his introduction, discussing the “emergent properties” of complex systems, Bryan writes:

“A computer may be predictable from parts such as its memory, processor, hard disc and screen; it is emphatically not predictable from the qualities of silicon, aluminum or glass. But the best example is the most complex system of all, the human brain. Somehow, this particular organisation of fat and water generates the conscious human mind. Cars, wars, office blocks and poetry are all emergent properties of fat and water.”

[The sentence quoted at the top is from The Straw Sandals: Selected Prose and Poetry by Pierre-Albert Jourdan (Chelsea Editions, 2011).]

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