Ideas Are Like Waves

Waves come in many forms. And usually, that form isn’t too keen on revealing itself… until it does. Whether you’re floating in the currents or watching from ashore, for the duration of an afternoon or in the telephoto’s microsecond snapshot, you’re never getting a full picture. Superstition is practically inevitable.


Even the sharpest of spectators too often take the surface-level fluctuations to be the objects of study; like studying a tree but ignoring the roots. But waves don’t exist in isolation. Each ebb and flow arises from an ongoing fusion of forces and factors that can’t easily be seen — the shape of the sea floor, global wind patterns, heat convection, and Earth’s gravity propelling it all.


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Understanding any one of these components requires years of study; so to fathom the system in its entirety and predict it’s output? Good luck. What precisely emerges from this planetary wave machine is impossible to predict. Unless, of course, you simply expect noise and chaos. Then you’ll be right most of the time.


But maybe (and this is a big maybe) if the conditions are just right, the chaos might briefly coalesce into something more than rogue splashes of sea foam; something coherent; an actual… dare I say, shape. And this rare form, if it so chooses to reveal itself, may actually accept you along for the ride. That is, if you’ve armed yourself with the right device and enough practice maneuvering it (a little luck won’t hurt either). So when that one comes along — that righteous, glorious one — you better damn well be ready for it.


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Hold up. Before we go any further, let me remind you the real topic at hand here: ideas — the mysterious forces that produce them, and the inexplicable euphoria we find in riding them out. You can imagine, waves are much easier to write about. But the oceanic system turned out to be a surprisingly fluid proxy for our mental processes.


They’re both just flows of energy, after all — whether through a web of neurons or good-old H2O. And both systems, impelled by the all-reaching hand of entropy, generally tend toward disorder. Especially when you zoom waaaay out to imagine these energy flows on cosmological scales of time and space, the incredible serendipity of a coherent form becomes impossible to ignore. Waves and ideas (forget that, planet Earth and life itself!) represent local, momentary reversals of the natural flow toward chaos.


So what does that mean for us puny rock-dwellers, who occasionally want to harness our own little sliver of these spectacular forces? In this comic, Nick Sousanis puts it better than I ever could:

Each of us, during our brief time in the stream, has the opportunity to reflect on the forces that set this in motion, and reach in to send up something uniquely our own against the flow.

As the latest crop of a 4.6-billion-years-and-running unfoldment, we’re lucky enough just to be here. So given the even rarer chance to coast atop a wave or an idea, it’s probably bad karma to be overly greedy about it.


Remember what I said about waves being shy to reveal themselves? Yeah, same with ideas. No amount of skill, experience, or mysticism will coax out the perfect ride. Sure, there’s an intuition to being in the right place to catch one, and a privilege in being in that water in the first place. But when it all comes down to it, we’re all at the mercy of forces out (WAY out) of our control.


Best buckle up, because that ball of energy will do exactly what it wants to do. And by the time you realize what that is, you’re probably already inside it. So your job as a participant in this grand system — governed either by geological or neurological laws — is simply to remember: I have less control than I think.


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