After a long week, on Friday night I was laying down in bed with my eyes closed. As my wife does quite often, at one point she started reading out loud an article from this week’s Newsweek magazine. For nearly twenty years, she has always managed to find exactly the right inspiration for me whenever I run out of fuel.
This particular article – See Darwin Evolve, authored by Jesse Ellison, happens to be about Ben Fry and his ability to visualize various editions of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in color coding.
If you visit Ben Fry’s website The Preservation of Favoured Traces (http://benfry.com/writing/archives/529) you can watch the theory of evolution evolve. On the website, color coding shows where language was tweaked and ideas were changed over time.
To quote Ben Fry about Darwin’s work:
‘We often think of scientific ideas, such as Darwin’s theory of evolution, as fixed notions that are accepted as finished. In fact, Darwin’s On the Origin of Species evolved over the course of several editions he wrote, edited, and updated during his lifetime. The first English edition was approximately 150,000 words and the sixth is a much larger 190,000 words. In the changes are refinements and shifts in ideas — whether increasing the weight of a statement, adding details, or even a change in the idea itself.’
Ben Fry’s specialty lies in the intersection of computer science, graphic design, and data visualization. Among other things he develops – Processing, an open source programming environment for teaching computational design and sketching interactive media software.
As the author states, Ben Fry is using his expertise “to reimagine the work of the very pre-Information Age Charles Darwin.”
Back in the days when I was studying Computer Science, I became briefly fascinated with visual representation of data, especially with fractals (a story for another day). So I can somewhat relate to Ben Fry’s work…
Ben Fry’s work is nothing but impressive, but what is more inspiring is to understand how Darwin evolved his own work over time.
Jesse Ellison writes in the article….
“It’s not necessarily new technologies themselves that always dazzle, but rather the way they are applied. When done so with nuance, they can challenge and change our understanding of ideas that have long been taken for granted. Such is the case with a new project from Ben Fry…[Darwin’s] ideas had an impact beyond measure, but they were not fixed. The phrase “survival of the fittest” didn’t even appear until the fifth edition, and it wasn’t originally Darwin’s – it was borrowed from the British philosopher Herbert Spencer.
Seeing Darwin’s ideas evolve is a reminder that genius usually does not come as a bolt of lighting, but as a result of labored, painstaking work. Sometimes that work takes a really long time (in Darwin’s case 13 years). In the age of internet immediacy, it is a lesson well worth savoring.”
And most of us are not Darwin!
When I am tired and down
Fed up with wrong and right,
I cast away my frown,
And open the eye of light,
Of light and love and laughter,
Glad tears in flowing streams,
With no more ever after,
And only a dream of DREAMS.
– The Tao Poems, Dwight Cavanagh