Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The cosmic engineers

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On May 18, 1966, the novelist C.P. Snow delivered a talk titled “The Status of Doctors” before the Royal Society of Medicine in London. Snow—who had studied physics and chemistry at the University of Leicester and Cambridge—spent much of his speech comparing the fields of engineering and medicine, noting that doctors enjoyed a more exalted social status than engineers, perhaps because their work was easier to understand: “Doctors have a higher place in the popular imagination and I think also in the more esoteric imagination. A novelist can bring a doctor into a novel without any trouble at all, people know who he is; but try bringing an engineer into a novel and it is terribly difficult—they have not got recognition symbols in the way the medical profession has.” He continued:

I do not think doctors suffer from the other great weakness of engineers, that is, their complete lack of verbalism. Engineers can often be extremely clever but they cannot spell and they cannot speak. The doctors I have known are extremely articulate. I suspect the descriptive processes they have to go through, both themselves and presumably with their patients, are extremely good verbal training, and I do not think it is an accident that the one thing the medical profession has done, apart from producing doctors, is to produce writers. I do not think it is an accident that there are almost no engineering writers, and very few from the scientific professions. On the other hand, the medical profession has produced some really good writers in the last hundred years.

Snow would presumably have been mortified by the idea of a magazine that published nothing but stories written by and for engineers, but by the time that he gave his talk, Astounding Science Fiction—which had changed its name several years earlier to Analog—had been in that business for decades. In practice, science fiction writers came from a wide range of professional backgrounds, but there was no doubt that John W. Campbell’s ideal author was a working engineer who wrote for his own pleasure on the side. In an editorial in the February 1941 issue, the editor delivered a pitch to them directly:

Most of Astounding’s authors are, in the professional sense, amateur authors, spare-time writers who earn their bread and butter in one field of work, and use their writing ability as a source of the jam supply…”Jam” in the above sense is useful. Briefly, it amounts to the equivalent of a couple of new suits, or a suit and overcoat, for a short story, a new radio with, say, FM tuning for a novelette, and a new car or so for a novel.

He also made no secret of what kind of professional he was hoping to find. By the end of the decade, a survey indicated that fully fifteen percent of the magazine’s readers were engineers themselves. As Damon Knight wrote in In Search of Wonder: “[Campbell] deliberately built up a readership among practicing scientists and technicians.” And he expected to source most of his writers directly from that existing audience.

But his reasons for looking for engineers were more complicated than they might seem. When Campbell took over Astounding in 1937, the submissions that he received tended to fall into one of two categories. Some were from professional pulp writers who wrote for multiple genres; others were written by younger fans who had grown up with science fiction, loved it, and desperately wanted to break into the magazine. Neither was the kind of writer whom Campbell secretly wanted. Working authors had to write quickly to make a living at a penny a word, and they were usually content to stick to the tricks and formulas that they knew best. They certainly weren’t interested in repeated revisions, which meant that they weren’t likely to be receptive to the notes that Campbell was planning to give. (Some writers, like Edmond Hamilton, bowed out entirely because they didn’t feel like changing.) The fans were even worse. They had only emerged as a force in their own right within the last few years, and you couldn’t tell them anything—they treated science fiction as their personal property, which made it hard to give them any feedback. What Campbell wanted was a legion of successful engineers who wrote science fiction because they liked it, didn’t take it so personally that they would push back against his suggestions, and had the time and leisure to rework a story to his specifications. These men were understandably hard to find, and few of the major writers of the golden age fit that profile completely. It wasn’t until after the war that the figure of the engineer who wrote science fiction as a hobby really began to emerge.

By 1967, a year after C.P. Snow delivered his talk, however, it was possible for Harlan Ellison to refer in the anthology Dangerous Visions to “John W. Campbell, Jr., who used to edit a magazine that ran science fiction, called Astounding, and who now edits a magazine that runs a lot of schematic drawings, called Analog.” And there’s little doubt that it was exactly the magazine that Campbell wanted. His control over it was even more complete than it had been in the thirties and forties, largely because of the type of writer he had selected for it, as Damon Knight pointed out: “He deliberately cultivated technically oriented writers with marginal writing skills…Campbell was building a new stable he knew he could keep.” And this side of his legacy persists even today. In Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession, Janet Malcolm writes:

Soon after the Big Bang of Freud’s major discoveries…the historian of psychoanalysis notes a fork in the road. One path leads outward into the general culture, widening to become the grand boulevard of psychoanalytic influence…The other is the narrow, inward-turning path of psychoanalytic therapy: a hidden, almost secret byway travelled by few.

Replace “Freud” with “Campbell” and “psychoanalysis” with “science fiction,” and you have a decent picture of what happened with Analog. Science fiction took over the world, while Campbell’s old magazine continued to pursue his private vision, and its writers fit that profile now more than ever. It’s no longer possible to write short fiction for a living, which makes it very attractive for engineers who write on the side. I love Analog—it changed my life. But if you ever wonder why it looks so different from even the rest of the genre, it’s because it was engineered that way.

Quote of the Day

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On the afternoon of October 24th 1917, four days after my marriage, my wife surprised me by attempting automatic writing. What came in disjointed sentences, in almost illegible writing, was so exciting, sometimes so profound, that I persuaded her to give an hour or two day after day to the unknown writer, and after some half-dozen such hours offered to spend what remained of life explaining and piecing together those scattered sentences. “No,” was the answer, “we have come to give you metaphors for poetry.”

W.B. Yeats, A Vision

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February 20, 2018 at 7:30 am

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The foundations of novelty

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Yesterday, I was leafing through the journalist Charles Duhigg’s recent book Smarter, Faster, Better when my eye was caught by a discussion of a study conducted several years ago by two professors at Northwestern University. It dealt with the importance of unexpected combinations in creative thinking, which is a subject that is dear to my heart, and they emerged with some fascinating conclusions. Duhigg writes:

The researchers—Brian Uzzi and Ben Jones—decided to focus on an activity they were deeply familiar with: writing and publishing academic papers…They could estimate a paper’s originality by analyzing the sources authors had cited in their endnotes…Almost all of the creative papers had at least one thing in common: They were usually combinations of previously known ideas mixed together in new ways. In fact, on average, ninety percent of what was in the most “creative” manuscripts had already been published elsewhere—and had already been picked over by thousands of other scientists. However, in the creative papers, those conventional concepts were applied to questions in manners no one had considered before. “Our analysis of 17.9 million papers spanning all scientific fields suggests that science follows a nearly universal pattern,” Uzzi and Jones wrote. “The highest-impact science is primarily grounded in exceptionally conventional combinations of prior work yet simultaneously features an intrusion of unusual combinations.” It was this combination of ideas, rather than the ideas themselves, that typically made a paper so creative and important.

As Uzzi later explained in an interview with Duhigg: “A paper that combines work by Newton and Einstein is conventional. That combination has happened thousands of times. But a paper that combines Einstein and Wang Chong, the Chinese philosopher, that’s much more likely to be creative, because it’s such an unusual pairing.”

The late Arthur Koestler called this phenomenon “bisociation,” and its appearance here inspired me to look up the original paper, “How Atypical Combinations of Scientific Ideas Are Related to Impact.” Its most intriguing insight—which Duhigg mentions only in passing—is that not all combinations are equally useful. As you might expect, the study found that the majority of published scientific papers draw on a conventional set of sources, with most of their references occurring within a predictable subset of journals. Yet a novel combination of references in itself isn’t any guarantee of originality or importance. In fact, papers that have “high tail novelty” alone are actually less likely to be widely cited than papers that don’t stray far from conventional wisdom. The best combination, it seems, is a core of conventional work spiced up with a few unusual ingredients. An article on their research in the magazine of the Kellogg School of Management makes this point more explicit:

What’s interesting,” says Uzzi, “is most of the work done is conventional. And some of the work is truly novel. And the chances of either one of those classifications of papers being hits is about the same.” Only about five percent of research papers that draw from only very novel or only very conventional sources were among the most highly cited papers in the database. But there was a third category of research that had nearly twice the likelihood of making it big: papers that relied mostly on conventional combinations of sources but also included a small subset of highly novel ones. “It isn’t all about novelty or conventionality. It’s about both,” explains Jones, who was somewhat surprised by this result…“You want to be grounded in something that’s well understood and yet be adding in the piece that’s truly unusual. And if you do those two things [and] stretch yourself in both directions, then you radically increase your probability of hitting a home run.”

This point is technically present in Duhigg’s book, but it’s easy to miss, and it strikes me as the real takeaway here. Innovation doesn’t happen when you combine ideas haphazardly, but when you incorporate novel insights into a more conventional foundation. I’ve noticed this pattern in my own work. When I first started writing science fiction, my favorite method for generating ideas was to browse through a stack of science magazines and pick two or three articles at random, trusting that I would find a connection between them if I looked hard enough. My early novelette “The Last Resort,” for instance, was a combination of articles about lake eruptions, snowmaking, and the snake pits of Manitoba. “The Boneless One,” which was my first really good story, did the same with bioluminescence, octopus intelligence, and an expedition to catalog genetic material in the ocean. It was a reliable trick, and it served me well over the course of half a dozen stories. Around the time that I wrote “Stonebrood,” however, followed by “The Proving Ground” and my upcoming story “The Spires,” I began to get tired of that process, and I tried a different approach. These days, I usually start with one big subject or setting that I’d like to explore—wilderness firefighting, climate change in the Marshall Islands, bush piloting in Alaska. From there, I’ll look for an unusual angle that ties back into the main theme, often by searching the archives of science magazines until I come up with a promising hook. Instead of choosing a few random ideas and treating them equally, in other words, I start with a central premise that feels like it would make a good story and then look for unexpected offshoots. In some ways, this approach is riskier, since it that initial hunch is wrong, it’s easier to follow it into a dead end. But the results seem better. In the past, some of my stories, like “The Voices,” have had visible seams. The ones that I’m writing now are more of a piece, but they haven’t lost their ability to surprise me along the way, which is the main reason that I write them at all.

Obviously, this is a very minor example, and it probably isn’t all that interesting to anyone but me. But the notion that we should proceed by adding novelty to an established foundation, rather than by combining ideas purely at random, is a valuable one. It’s similar to the familiar principle that it’s hard to do interesting work across multiple disciplines until you’ve mastered one field well, both because of the habits of thinking that it teaches and the body of information that it provides. It was partly for this reason that Charles Darwin spent years studying barnacles, or cirripedes, as the scientist Thomas Henry Huxley observed:

The great danger which besets all men of large speculative faculty is the temptation to deal with the accepted statements of facts in natural science, as if they were not only correct, but exhaustive; as if they might be dealt with deductively, in the same way as propositions in Euclid may be dealt with. In reality, every such statement, however true it may be, is true only relatively to the means of observation and the point of view of those who have enunciated it. So far it may be depended upon. But whether it will bear every speculative conclusion that may be logically deduced from it is quite another question…The value of the Cirripede monograph lies not merely in the fact that it is a very admirable piece of work, and constituted a great addition to positive knowledge, but still more in the circumstance that it was a piece of critical self-discipline, the effect of which manifested itself in everything [Darwin] wrote afterwards, and saved him from endless errors of detail.

What the barnacles taught Darwin, in Huxley’s words, was “the speculative strain” that certain ideas would bear, and this applies as much to individual projects as to the work of a lifetime. Random combination can be a valuable tool, but it needs to be the right kind of randomness. Creativity, as Gregory Bateson wonderfully put it, often consists of “a raid on the random.” But like most raids, it’s more likely to succeed when it starts from a position of strength.

Quote of the Day

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There is the story of how [Isaac Newton] informed Halley of one of his most fundamental discoveries of planetary motion. “Yes,” replied Halley, “but how do you know that? Have you proved it?” Newton was taken aback. “Why, I’ve known it for years,” he replied. “If you’ll give me a few days, I’ll certainly find you a proof of it.” As in due course he did.

John Maynard Keynes, “Newton the Man”

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February 19, 2018 at 7:30 am

Bumping your shins

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Like good old Pasteur said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” It helps to recognize something when you stumble over it…[Alan Chesney] was studying something that had to do with rabbits but, along the way, noted that his rabbits got goiters during certain times of year when they were eating nothing but cabbage for greens. He looked into this and found that it was a thio-compound in the greens that gave them the goiter. And this is where all those antithyroid drugs—thiouricil and so on—come from. He was the one that opened up that field. Chesney was very bright and observant. This was serendipity, but when he stumbled over something he knew that he had “bumped his shins.”

William Dock, quoted in Heart to Heart

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February 18, 2018 at 7:30 am

The prayer of the scientist

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If the truth be known, scientists are neither more nor less vain than other people. It is rather that their vanity is the more striking as it appears side by side with their well-known objectivity. The layman is scandalized, but the scandal is not so much the fault of the scientist as it is the layman’s canonization of scientists, which the latter never asked for.

The prayer of the scientist if he prayed, which is not likely: Lord, grant that my discovery may increase knowledge and help other men. Failing that, Lord, grant that it will not lead to man’s destruction. Failing that, Lord, grant that my article in Brain be published before the destruction takes place.

Walker Percy, Love in the Ruins

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February 17, 2018 at 7:30 am

This post has no title

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In John McPhee’s excellent new book on writing, Draft No. 4, which I mentioned here the other day, he shares an anecdote about his famous profile of the basketball player Bill Bradley. McPhee was going over a draft with William Shawn, the editor of The New Yorker, “talking three-two zones, blind passes, reverse pivots, and the setting of picks,” when he realized that he had overlooked something important:

For some reason—nerves, what else?—I had forgotten to find a title before submitting the piece. Editors of every ilk seem to think that titles are their prerogative—that they can buy a piece, cut the title off the top, and lay on one of their own. When I was young, this turned my skin pink and caused horripilation. I should add that I encountered such editors almost wholly at magazines other than The New YorkerVogue, Holiday, the Saturday Evening Post. The title is an integral part of a piece of writing, and one of the most important parts, and ought not to be written by anyone but the writer of what follows the title. Editors’ habit of replacing an author’s title with one of their own is like a photo of a tourist’s head on the cardboard body of Mao Zedong. But the title missing on the Bill Bradley piece was my oversight. I put no title on the manuscript. Shawn did. He hunted around in the text and found six words spoken by the subject, and when I saw the first New Yorker proof the piece was called “A Sense of Where You Are.”

The dynamic that McPhee describes at other publications still exists today—I’ve occasionally bristled at the titles that have appeared over the articles that I’ve written, which is a small part of the reason that I’ve moved most of my nonfiction onto this blog. (The freelance market also isn’t what it used to be, but that’s a subject for another post.) But a more insidious factor has invaded even the august halls of The New Yorker, and it has nothing to do with the preferences of any particular editor. Opening the most recent issue, for instance, I see that there’s an article by Jia Tolentino titled “Safer Spaces.” On the magazine’s website, it becomes “Is There a Smarter Way to Think About Sexual Assault on Campus?”, with a line at the bottom noting that it appears in the print edition under its alternate title. Joshua Rothman’s “Jambusters” becomes “Why Paper Jams Persist.” A huge piece by David Grann, “The White Darkness,” which seems destined to get optioned for the movies, earns slightly more privileged treatment, and it merely turns into “The White Darkness: A Journey Across Antarctica.” But that’s the exception. When I go back to the previous issue, I find that the same pattern holds true. Michael Chabon’s “The Recipe for Life” is spared, but David Owen’s “The Happiness Button” is retitled “Customer Satisfaction at the Push of a Button,” Rachel Aviv’s “The Death Debate” becomes “What Does It Mean to Die?”, and Ian Frazier’s “Airborne” becomes “The Trippy, High-Speed World of Drone Racing.” Which suggests to me that if McPhee’s piece appeared online today, it would be titled something like “Basketball Player Bill Bradley’s Sense of Where He Is.” And that’s if he were lucky.

The reasoning here isn’t a mystery. Headlines are written these days to maximize clicks and shares, and The New Yorker isn’t immune, even if it sometimes raises an eyebrow. Back in 2014, Maria Konnikova wrote an article for the magazine’s website titled “The Six Things That Make Stories Go Viral Will Amaze, and Maybe Infuriate, You,” in which she explained one aspect of the formula for online headlines: “The presence of a memory-inducing trigger is also important. We share what we’re thinking about—and we think about the things we can remember.” Viral headlines can’t be allusive, make a clever play on words, or depend on an evocative reference—they have to spell everything out. (To build on McPhee’s analogy, it’s less like a tourist’s face on the cardboard body of Mao Zedong than an oversized foam head of Mao himself.) A year later, The New Yorker ran an article by Andrew Marantz on the virality expert Emerson Spartz, and it amazed and maybe infuriated me. I’ve written about this profile elsewhere, but looking it over again now, my eye was caught by these lines:

Much of the company’s success online can be attributed to a proprietary algorithm that it has developed for “headline testing”—a practice that has become standard in the virality industry…Spartz’s algorithm measures which headline is attracting clicks most quickly, and after a few hours, when a statistically significant threshold is reached, the “winning” headline automatically supplants all others. “I’m really, really good at writing headlines,” he told me.

And it’s worth noting that while Marantz’s piece appeared in print as “The Virologist,” in an online search, it pops up as “King of Clickbait.” Even as the magazine gently mocked Spartz, it took his example to heart.

None of this is exactly scandalous, but when you think of a title as “an integral part of a piece of writing,” as McPhee does, it’s undeniably sad. There isn’t any one title for an article anymore, and most readers will probably only see its online incarnation. And this isn’t because of an editor’s tastes, but the result of an impersonal set of assumptions imposed on the entire industry. Emerson Spartz got his revenge on The New Yorker—he effectively ended up writing its headlines. And while I can’t blame any media company for doing whatever it can to stay viable, it’s also a real loss. McPhee is right when he says that selecting a title is an important part of the process, and in a perfect world, it would be left up to the writer. (It can even lead to valuable insights in itself. When I was working on my article on the fiction of L. Ron Hubbard, I was casting about randomly for a title when I came up with “Xenu’s Paradox.” I didn’t know what it meant, but it led me to start thinking about the paradoxical aspects of Hubbard’s career, and the result was a line of argument that ended up being integral not just to the article, but to the ensuing book. And I was amazed when it survived intact on Longreads.) When you look at the grindingly literal, unpoetic headlines that currently populate the homepage of The New Yorker, it’s hard not to feel nostalgic for an era in which an editor might nudge a title in the opposite direction. In 1966, when McPhee delivered a long piece on oranges in Florida, William Shawn read it over, focused on a quotation from the poet Andrew Marvell, and called it “Golden Lamps in a Green Night.” McPhee protested, and the article was finally published under the title that he had originally wanted. It was called “Oranges.”

Written by nevalalee

February 16, 2018 at 8:50 am

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