Using Nothing But Empty Space To Think Creatively
It was my first day attending The Philosophy Of Creativity, a course at Columbia University. I was beaming, for this was after all Columbia, as I walked into the classroom of the renowned Professor Schneider, a German Philosopher and guest speaker originally from the University of Dresden. The syllabus did not indicate the subject of the days’ lecture, but he had a reputation for being a bit eccentric, a man in his early seventies with a handlebar mustache neatly waxed, wearing a rather shabby looking brown pinstriped suit, a creased Grey shirt and a Lime Green tie poorly knotted. His shoes, brown with large scuff marks, did not appear shined for some time. He wore mismatched orange socks with horizontal brown stripes.
After the students took their seats and attendance had been called, the professor announced that the day’s lesson would be about using nothing but empty space to think creatively, then he went to the cubbard and placed a large empty jar of Hellman’s Extra Light mayonnaise on the desk. The class looked on as I wondered whether it was a 32 or 64 oz jar.
The professor pulled out a bucket of golf balls, standard size, and began dropping them one by one into the empty jar of Extra Light Mayonnaise. I was quite surprised that the jar didn’t crack from the physical force of the falling balls. When no more could be passed through the aperture of the glass opening, the professor asked in a clear and resonating German accent as he moved away from the desk and pointed to the glass “Is the jar full?”
One student from Paris said “Oui” although none of the other students knew what she said, as all the English speaking students responded: “Yes”.
Then the Professor, gazing into the audience, asked:
“Are you sure?”
“Yes”, everyone said.
I, however, said “No.”
“And what is the basis for your answer,” he asked as the class silently looked at me clearing my throat.
“There is still the space between the balls that hasn’t been accounted for, a situation quite similar to finding the area under a curve, a Calculus problem, accomplished by adding an increasing number of rectangles to the axis under the curve, into infinity, but never quite filling the space completely. In this case, I am convinced that there is still space in the jar left empty between the balls that can be calculated, so it’s not full.”
Professor Schneider said nothing, exposing a large bag of sand laying behind the desk, then he poured it in a stream of thousands of grains into the spaces between the golf balls as we watched wondering what the point of all this was. He once again interrupted us and he asked: “Now, is the jar full?”
The majority of my classmates said, “Yeah, it looks filled up.”
“And what do you think?” he asked, casting his gaze upon me.
“Nothing has changed. There is still empty space between the grains of sand, although much smaller,” I responded confidently.
“How about if I pour some extra fine ground French coffee?” said professor Schneider as he gestured towards the jar.
“Could you please make it Colombian,” I responded. “French brews have a strong scent and create a bit of a stink.”
The professor paced the floor in thought. He looked at me, then the rest of the class, then said: “What conclusions can you draw from this display?”
I took a few moments to collect my thoughts, gazing into empty space, before responding, “Well, aside from the fact that space isn’t ‘the final frontier,’ but an infinite frontier since there will always be room to stuff things into the remaining unoccupied area even if it can’t be seen. Another consideration, I suppose, is that ordering the space differently can profoundly impact the course of life. Assuming the golf balls represent important elements such as health, shelter, profession, family, children and creative skills, just to name a few. If one occupies the space with sand first, it will obscure the ability to perceive what’s really important and the old expression, seeing the forest from the trees comes to mind. The granules cram the space with less essentials, perhaps luxuries that misguide the focus from sensible priorities while the coffee grounds leave additional imperceptible emptiness. The remaining area can perhaps represent hope for unanticipated things that come along possibly adding texture, character and flavor to existence enough to introduce noticeable visceral change, suggesting there is always room for something new, if one has an open mind to see it.”
“And if you only use the golf balls and sand?” asked professor Schneider.
“Well, even if life seems filled to the brim, there will still be room to go to the local Starbucks and have a cup of coffee with a friend, as long as it isn’t a French blend”, I added.
Then the professor responded with a snicker, “Even those with space between their ears can find ways to use the empty gaps creatively,” as he gazed at the class, stroking his handlebar mustache.