In biology, and more specifically ecology, the term “emergent properties” refers to the notion that patterns emerge from grouping things together, from organization. This leads to thinking in a broader scope, that the sum of a system is greater than its individual parts. Consider a river, which if broken down, is really water moving, and if you break down that further, you have water molecules grouped together. And that’s along with whatever dissolved nutrients and other bits might be in the river. Expand it out, and you have a dynamic feature. A river then has emergent properties: it is a whole entity, it is an ecosystem, and it is a supporter of life. It is a place where animals and plants interact, and it is a place for you to wade in, or traverse.
Sometimes I think about how we, as writers and artists, take something that is a group of symbols or smears of pigment, and we make art from that. Art, then, has emergent properties: it is greater than the sum of its parts. It is more than the combination of molecules it is physically made from. It becomes something intangible and yet more tangible.
In the header, you see scratches of black pigment molecules (ink) pulled across a material made from reconstituted tree mash, comprised of cellulose molecules (paper). I’ve zoomed in on this unfinished piece of concept art I’m working on for Book Two of The Questrison Saga. I’ve given you only a snippet, so that you can visualize that it is not anything more than ink scratches right now. But when it is finished, it will be an illustration. It will be an object, and it will be symbolic, and a plot point—weaving together writing and art into something that uniquely exists on its own. The piece will, therefore, have emergent properties.
Have a look around you as you wend your way through the day. What are things made of? Have you looked under a magnifying glass at the fibers in your clothes? Imagine if you could look further, using an electron microscope, or further still, to the molecules making up the fabric? And yet to you, this is something that keeps you warm and protects your skin, and maybe further than that, it might have sentimental value.
Whenever I feel a bit stalled or overwhelmed, sometimes I look to the smallest pieces of something, and then expand my perception of it out, so I can really appreciate it more. Thinking about emergent properties can be another way of keeping one in the present.
Image Credit: Magnified sketch by J. Dianne Dotson Copyright 2019.