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From Curiosity To Creativity

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The never-ending murmur of the scouring sand that spans the ancient Egyptian desert has little effect on the traveler’s mood. Equipped with nothing but a walking stick and a light backpack, the stranger defies turbulent seas, sandy deserts, and dusty roads, only to arrive at yet another half-deserted village. He calmly rests his walking stick against a palm tree, shakes off the sand from his clothing, and without hesitating, strikes up a conversation with a local. After a long chat and a shared but meager meal, he unrolls a partially finished manuscript and starts writing, beginning with the iconic words: “I was told that…”.

That man was Herodotus, and he was on a mission: to record the history of the world. his work Histories is now regarded as one of the first meticulously detailed investigations in cultural, geographical, and historical events, in particular the Greco-Persian wars. Herodotus is the world’s first true fearless historians, willing travel long and far, whatever the risks. Histories records not just the world view from the viewpoint of his beloved Greece, but also from the Persian Empire, where he was born.

Herodotus' curiosity about what is happening to ordinary inhabitants of his era combined with his wit and keen senses sprouted literature that was considered essential reading material—and nowadays still should be. Three hundred years later, Cicero called Herodotus “The Father of History”. Technically speaking, Thucydides came first, although Thucydides’s writing isn’t steeped in anthropological questions and answers.

Twenty centuries later, the chaotic but everyday maelstrom of masts creaking, sailors yelling, and waves sloshing indicates a boat is about to set sail. The Beagle, under the command of Royal Navy officer and scientist Robert FitzRoy, was tasked with charting the coastline of South America. A twenty-two years old Brit managed to persuade FitzRoy to join the crew as a naturalist. That young man was called Charles Darwin.

The captain sent Darwin ashore to investigate the local geology while the Beagle itself continued surveying and charting the coasts. Darwin’s curiosity wasn’t limited to geology: it was the perfect excuse for him to explore and collect samples of local fauna and flora, making extensive notes while back on the ship—not only on what he saw, but also on theoretical speculations.

Darwin wasn’t an expert in biology: he only knew a little bit about geology and had the odd beetle collection back home. He was a novice at pretty much all other areas, but his curiosity wasn’t diminished because of it: precisely the opposite happened. Despite suffering from prolonged periods of seasickness, he still managed to write down anything that piked his interest—which was almost everything.

In 1836, the Beagle finally returned to Plymouth, after a journey of five years. Six months after the grand adventure, Darwin slowly but surely started connecting the dots. His extensive notes, reworked into papers and his Journal, revealed that “one species does change into another”. His seminal work, On the Origin of Species, eventually published in 1859, would still be a long way off (23 years!), first requiring several more essays, conversations with befriended scientists, more revisions, and very long thought walks.

Robert Taylor Pritchett's 1890 drawing of the HMS Beagle in Chile. Image public domain.

One hundred and sixty years later, the sizzling of molten tin accompanied with small circles of smoke fill a small office space in Colindale, London. The floor is littered with DIY-printed circuit boards and unscrewed Tetris Game Boy cartridges. A couple of software and electronics engineers are hacking together a Game Boy development kit by reverse-engineering Tetris.

Jez San, founder of British video game developer Argonaut Games, crossed paths with Nintendo’s Game Boy during an electronics fair in 1989. The lovely “little” Gray Brick immediately attracted his attention. Once back home, San decided to direct programming efforts from the Spectrum and Amiga to Nintendo’s ecosystems. Only, Nintendo was very stingy at handing out official development kits, especially outside of Japan. The solution? Build one yourself by connecting wires from a cartridge to chips on a home-made circuit board.

New programming recruit Dylan Cuthbert was tasked with the development of Aronaut’s first Game Boy game that would become X, or Ekkusu. San thought it would be cool to develop a 3D space simulator for the Game Boy—something they had already achieved on other platforms with the Starglider series. Only, the withered Game Boy technology houses a variant of the meager Z80 CPU, running at 3.5 MHz. Even worse, it can only display four shades of drab gray. Luckily, Cuthbert proved to be up for the task. The fully 3D-rendered meshes in the game even impressed Nintendo, inviting the team over to Japan.

X would be the beginning of a shared history between Argonaut Games and Nintendo. Nintendo’s interest in British boldness got Argonaut and Cuthbert heavily involved in the development of the Super FX RISC co-processor, powering Yoshi’s Island (2D sprite scaling), the DOOM Super Nintendo port (Binary Space Partitioning), and of course, Star Fox (true 3D polygons), also developed by Argonaut. Cuthbert’s 3D hardware experience landed him a job at Sony, helping developers unlock the power of the first two PlayStation generations. He eventually started his own company Q-Games based in Japan, well-known for the PixelJunk series.

What is the greatest common divisor between Herodotus' herculean effort to meet people and write down their story, Charles Darwin’s extensive notes on geology and biology, and Argonaut Games' soldering hack to peek inside a Tetris cartridge? All three examples showcase a lot of curiosity: about the tales of others and the history of empires, about the evolution of nature and the origin of species, and about the inner workings of a piece of hardware.

If it weren’t for the curiosity and persistence of these people, we would have lost even more ancient Greek and Persian knowledge, we would still have no idea how nature evolves when sea life crawled upon land, and a Super FX chip might never have been released on time to prolong the life of the Super Nintendo. Perhaps Sega might have won the 16-bit war!

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s interviewed geniuses attribute curiosity and perseverance as the two most important personality traits for their creative success. Without curiosity, there is little motivation to learn or build something. Without perseverance, there is little chance of effectively finishing the work. Creativity is not creativity without the initial curiosity that gets everything started.

As Charles Darwin proved: the best kind of curiosity is an all-encompassing curiosity. Don’t limit the intent to the domains you’re very familiar with!

This is part four of my creativity story. Be sure to also read part 1: collective creativity, part 2: constraint-based creativity, part 3: creative critical thinking, part 5: a creative state of mind, part 6: technical knowledge brews creativity, and part 7: the creative techniques toolbox.

I'm Wouter Groeneveld, a level 36 Brain Baker, and I love the smell of freshly baked thoughts (and bread) in the morning. I sometimes convince others to bake their brain (and bread) too.

If you found this article amusing and/or helpful, you can buy me a coffee - although I'm more of a tea fan myself. I also like to hear your feedback via Mastodon or e-mail. Thanks!