Bisociation: Koestler’s Take on Humour and Scientific Enquiry

An image of the Carbon 60 molecule, also called Buckminsterfullerene

Buckmiinsterfullerene (C60) - image via Wikipedia

One of Hungarian-born Arthur Koestler‘s best-known non-fiction works is probably The Act of Creation, written in 1964.  In this seminal text he explores the notion of human creativity from a number of angles, including humour, science and the arts. Koestler’s premise is that creative acts are likely to involve the synthesis of concepts derived from two or more different bodies of thought or disciplines that are not normally related, a process he called “bisociation”. The concept has since been formalised as “Conceptual Blending/Integration” theory within cognitive science by Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner.   A relatively recent example of this associative process in science is the discovery of the structure of macro molecules of Carbon 60 (C60) in 1985 by Harold Kroto, Richard Smalley and Robert Curl at Rice University. They determined that a stable allotrope of carbon consisting of 60 carbon atoms could be produced with a high energy laser directed at a graphite disk, but were initially unable to determine its exact crystalline structure.

Author Arthur Koestler

Arthur Koestler - Image via Wikipedia

The team reasoned that the structure had to be spherical, but it took Kroto’s memory of a visit to Expo 67 in Montreal where he walked into a geodesic dome designed by architect Buckminster Fuller to trigger the realization that the molecule must be based on an icosahedron (specifically, a truncated icosahedron) with 60 vertices; the exact shape of a standard soccer ball and logically the most stable arrangement of that number of carbon atoms. This insight led the team to call the C60 allotrope “buckminsterfullerene” in honor of the genius from another discipline and was the starting point for the whole new science of nanotechnology.

So how does humour come into the picture?  Koestler discusses the mechanism of humour in similar terms to the synthesis of ideas mentioned above. “Punchline” humour, for example, depends on a wholly unexpected conclusion for its effect.  It’s as if you’ve been led down a garden path then directed to turn left, only to be confronted by an elephant’s knee (or a spring-loaded boxing glove). Humour uses exaggeration, imagination and absurd juxtapositions of seemingly unrelated things to create a comic effect, somewhat like the bisociative processes discussed above that are the basis of most creative acts in Koestler’s analysis.

One of the highlights of Open Day at Macquarie University is the Chemistry Magic Show put on in one of the lecture theatres by dedicated members of the School of Chemistry every year.  The master of ceremonies manages to combine humour with science in a wholly engaging way while showing the audience some rather dramatic chemical processes – each of which manages to supply its own punchline.  If only all science subjects were taught that way …

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