Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Aiming The Subconscious

Ever get a killer idea in the shower? And wonder where it came from and how you came to think it?

My physics prof told me this story and it may not be exactly true. I believe the truth is pretty close.

Once upon a time there were these missionaries in South America. They'd left the temperate North America to work in equatorial Ecuador. But instead of wearing pith helmets and tramping around the rain forests and doing whatever missionaries do, they went to a mountain top and built a radio station--a honking huge radio station.

The radio station was intended to broadcast world-wide via short-wave radio. There was something special about this spot on the globe that helps radio propagation. The important detail is that this radio station had significant effective radiated power.

All the equipment has been set up and tested successfully. They built the tower, installed the antennas, hooked everything up, and started broadcasting.

This station used what's called a "dipole antenna." You can make one by just cutting two straight rods of metal to the same length, lining them up sticking straight out in opposite directions, and hooking them up to your radio transmitter. These rods are called antenna elements. Each element is like a tuning fork in that it has a natural resonant frequency, but for electricity, not sound. If you change the rod's length, the resonant frequency changes. In a broadcast radio station, you match the antenna's resonant frequency to the transmitter's broadcast frequency.

It seems that the humidity in Ecuador interacted with the antenna elements when they were pumping a lot of power through them. It caused the ends of the antenna elements to erode in a process not unlike Saint Elmo's Fire. This shortened the length of the elements and causing antennas to become de-tuned. The radio station quit broadcasting.

The radio engineer struggled to solve this problem without success. It looked like the project would fail.

Defeated, he went to bed, and he had a dream of two snakes made of fire who were fighting. The snakes coiled around themselves and then bit each other in the mouth. This formed a loop made of two fire-snakes.

The radio engineer woke up with the idea for a "folded dipole element." By folding the ends of the two elements back toward themselves and joining them into a single piece of metal, there were no end-point to erode in the humid air and electricity. Without the metal eroding, the length remained the same and the antenna remained in tune. Huzzah, the folded dipole antenna proved an elegant solution.

(Dr. Google tells me the antenna is actually the "quad loop" whose driven element is indeed a loop, and that the dreamer's name was Clarence Moore.)

This story illustrates my recipe for aiming my subconscious to solve problems. Think through the problem from every conceivable angle. Work like a dog fully engaging the conscious mind. (You can call this phase programming the mental computer.) Consciously fill your noggin with everything that's known about the problem and everything you've tried that does not work. Engage your emotions and become passionate about solving the problem and how much you want the solution.

Then let go of the problem. Consciously set it aside. Go Running. Take a shower. Paint an apartment. Plant a garden. Do something unrelated to the problem at hand. When you've tired yourself out go to bed and sleep in--with a notepad beside the bed. Or by the shower.

While you're doing these Other Things, your subconscious should be beavering away at the facts you loaded it up with during phase one. How hard your subconscious works for you will be a function of your passion for solving the problem. With your conscious mind loosened up your subconscious will have a clear channel to send the solution to you.

This is similar to the process I described that A. E. Van Vogt followed. If you're stuck on a plot-problem, you should try both approaches and see what works best for you.

P.S. If you'd like a chuckle at the expense of HCJB and Radio Catolica Nacional, check out this story of how some risque QSL cards got sent out.


  1. I found this post to be very interesting and now I am wondering how do I loosen up my subconscious? I'm always striving for a clarity!


Those more worthy than I: