Posted in History & Literature

Gordian Knot

Legend tells the tale of the Gordian Knot, a knot tied so tightly that it seemed impossible to undo it. The Phrygians’ oracle even prophesised that the person who untied the knot would become the ruler of all of Asia Minor. Many tried to loosen the knot, but the knot remained secure for years.

In fourth century BC, Alexander the Great came to the city amidst his business of conquering everything around him. Of course, he could not pass the challenge by, so he too attempted to unravel the Gordian Knot. But alas, not even the great Alexander could untie it.

He then took a step back and thought to himself that it did not matter how the knot was undone. So he took his sword and sliced the knot in half, much to the shock of his audience. As the oracle prophesised, Alexander ruled the great Macedon Empire, stretching its border past Asia Minor, almost reaching present day China and India.

The story of the Gordian Knot teaches the importance of thinking outside the box. We can tackle a problem again and again without fruition if we try only one method. Just when you start to feel frustrated, take a step back and consider a different approach.

Another lesson is the value of combining two different fields. Instead of using typical knot-untying skills, Alexander chose to use military skills. Many innovations have arisen from borrowing skills and ideas from different fields – known as cross industry innovation.

For example, instead of complicated controller designs for drones, the US Army found using an Xbox 360 controller was far more effective. Computer models simulate the way ants find optimum paths to solve complex mathematical problems such as the Travelling Salesman Problem. The combination of waffles and shoes resulted in the creation of waffle rubber soles to increase traction in running shoes. Many engineering feats borrow ideas from nature, such as the aerodynamic design of planes and structural strength of arches and curves as observed by Gaudi.

This is the philosophy of 1 + 1 = 3.

Posted in Science & Nature

Imaginal Cells

How does a caterpillar become a butterfly? Every child and adult knows that they undergo a process of metamorphosis while in a chrysalis. But few know that the caterpillar has to dissolve all of its internal organs to form a pool of raw materials that it will use to build itself into a new butterfly. Although from the outside we only see a beautiful shell that appears to be just sitting there, in reality the caterpillar is undergoing a change so profound that it completely rebuilds its foundation.

What is interesting about the metamorphosis process is that it is not as simple as breaking down a caterpillar and rebuilding the pieces into a butterfly like one would do with Lego blocks. Once the puddle of cells is formed within the chrysalis, a new type of cells called imaginal cells appear. We do not know where they come from, but they just appear at a certain time. These cells are completely different from the original caterpillar cells – so different that the original cells begin attacking it as if it was a virus. However, even with all this cellular genocide, more and more imaginal cells pop up, until eventually the original cells cannot keep up. The imaginal cells start to cluster together, multiplying at an exponential rate. These clusters then grow and differentiate to form the parts of the new butterfly, such as wings and antennas. The original caterpillar cells slowly wither away as they are overrun by the new, fresh imaginal cells. The caterpillar becomes a butterfly.

Human beings, in general, are not good with change. We as a society fear something that would completely shift our paradigms and proceed to attack it viciously. Throughout history, ideas that would shake the foundations of society were often challenged and oppressed: the concept that the Earth is round, that the Earth revolves around the Sun or that we are the product of millions of years of evolution. These “imaginal cells” of society such as Charles Darwin and Galileo Galilei were faced with criticism, mocking and even punishment by those who could not accept the fact that what we know can be wrong. However, their ideas spread among like-minded people, until the number of people who believed in these new ideas greatly outweighed the people who did not. This is how society evolves and metamorphosed over time.

Change is difficult and scary, whether you are on the receiving end or on the side trying to change the world. Being the first imaginal cells of society is a painful road one to travel, but the effects of your actions can cause ripples throughout society to change the world for the better. Or perhaps you are experiencing change at a more personal scale, with your traditional way of life being threatened by some new force. But no matter what the change is – for better or for worse – you will adapt and society will adapt. Great ideas persevere and change for the better is inevitable.

There is no reason to be afraid, for everything is and will be okay.