Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Alfred North Whitehead

Going with the flow

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On July 13, 1963, New York University welcomed a hundred attendees to an event called the Conference on Education for Creativity in the Sciences. The gathering, which lasted for three days, was inspired by the work of Dr. Myron A. Coler, the director of the school’s Creative Science Program. There isn’t a lot of information available online about Coler, who was trained as an electrical engineer, and the best source I’ve found is an unsigned Talk of the Town piece that ran earlier that week in The New Yorker. It presents Coler as a scholar who was interested in the problem of scientific creativity long before it became fashionable: “What is it, how does it happen, how is it fostered—can it be isolated, measured, nurtured, predicted, directed, and so on…By enhancing it, you produce more from what you have of other resources. The ability to exploit a resource is in itself a resource.” He conducted monthly meetings for years with a select group of scientists, writing down everything that they had to say on the subject, including a lot of wild guesses about how to identify creative or productive people. Here’s my favorite:

One analyst claims that one of the best ways that he knows to test an individual is to take him out to dinner where lobster or crab is served. If the person uses his hands freely and seems to enjoy himself at the meal, he is probably well adjusted. If, on the other hand, he has trouble in eating the crab, he probably will have trouble in his relations with people also.

The conference was overseen by Jerome B. Wiesner, another former electrical engineer, who was appointed by John F. Kennedy to chair the President’s Science Advisory Committee. Wiesner’s interest lay in education, and particularly in identifying and training children who showed an early aptitude for science. In an article that was published a few years later in the journal Daedalus, Wiesner listed some of the attributes that were often seen in such individuals, based on the work of the pioneering clinical psychologist Anne Roe:

A childhood environment in which knowledge and intellectual effort were so highly valued for themselves than an addiction to reading and study was firmly established at an early age; an unusual degree of independence which, among other things, led them to discover early that they could satisfy their curiosity by personal efforts; an early dependence on personal resources, and on the necessity to think for oneself; an intense drive that generated concentrated, persistent, time-ignoring efforts in their studies and work; a secondary-school training that tended to emphasize science rather than the humanities; and high, but not necessarily remarkably high, intelligence.

But Wiesner also closed on a note of caution: “We do not now have useful techniques for predicting with comfortable reliability which individuals will turn out to be creative in the sciences or in any other field, no matter how great an investment we make in their education. Nor does it appear likely that such techniques will be developed in the immediate future.”

As it happened, one of the attendees at the conference was Isaac Asimov, who took the bus down to New York from Boston. Years afterward, he said that he couldn’t remember much about the experience—he was more concerned by the fact that he lost the wad of two hundred dollars that he had brought as emergency cash—and that his contributions to the discussion weren’t taken seriously. When the question came up of how to identify potentially creative individuals at a young age, he said without hesitation: “Keep an eye peeled for science-fiction readers.” No one else paid much attention, but Asimov didn’t forget the idea, and he wrote it up later that year in his essay “The Sword of Achilles,” which was published by The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. His views on the subject were undoubtedly shaped by his personal preferences, but he was also probably right. (He certainly met most of the criteria listed by Weisner, aside from “an unusual degree of independence,” since he was tied down for most of his adolescence to his father’s candy store.) And science fiction had more in common with Coler and Wiesner’s efforts than they might have appreciated. The editor John W. Campbell had always seen the genre as a kind of training program that taught its readers how to survive in the future, and Weisner described “tomorrow’s world” in terms that might have been pulled straight from Astounding: “That world will be more complex than it is today, will be changing more rapidly than now, and it will have jobs only for the well trained.” Weisner closed with a quotation from the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead:

In the conditions of modern life, the rule is absolute, the race which does not value trained intelligence is doomed…Today we maintain ourselves. Tomorrow science will have moved forward one more step, and there will be no appeal from the judgment which will then be pronounced on the uneducated.

These issues tend to come to the forefront during times of national anxiety, and it’s no surprise that we’re seeing a resurgence in them today. In last week’s issue of The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik rounded up a few recent titles on education and child prodigies, which reflect “the sense that American parents have gone radically wrong, making themselves and their kids miserable in the process, by hovering over them like helicopters instead of observing them from a watchtower, at a safe distance.” The catch is that while the current wisdom says that we should maximize our children’s independence, most child prodigies were the result of intensive parental involvement, which implies that the real secret to creative achievement lies somewhere else. And the answer may be right in front of us. As Gopnik writes of the author Ann Hulbert’s account of of the piano prodigy Lang Lang:

Lang Lang admits to the brutal pressures placed on him by his father…He was saved because he had, as Hulbert writes, “carved out space for a version of the ‘autotelic experience’—absorption in an activity purely for its own sake, a specialty of childhood.” Following the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Hulbert maintains that it was being caught in “the flow,” the feeling of the sudden loss of oneself in an activity, that preserved Lang Lang’s sanity: “The prize always beckoned, but Lang was finding ways to get lost in the process.”

This is very close to the “concentrated, persistent, time-ignoring efforts” that Weisner described fifty years ago, as well as his characterization of learning as “an addiction.” Gopnik concludes: “Accomplishment, the feeling of absorption in the flow, of mastery for its own sake, of knowing how to do this thing, is what keeps all of us doing what we do, if we like what we do at all.” And it seems to have been this sense of flow, above all else, that led Asimov to write more than four hundred books. He was addicted to it. As he once wrote to Robert A. Heinlein: “I like it in the attic room with the wallpaper. I’ve been all over the galaxy. What’s left to see?”

Quote of the Day

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Each task of creation is a social effort, employing the whole universe…A new actuality may appear in the wrong society, amid which its claims to efficacy act mainly as inhibitions. Then a weary task is set for creative function, by an epoch of new creations to remove the inhibition. Insistence on birth at the wrong season is the trick of evil.

Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality

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January 12, 2018 at 7:30 am

Quote of the Day

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Alfred North Whitehead

All that we can observe consists of conceptual persuasions in the present. Such is the outcome of the literary habit of dwelling upon the long future or upon the long past. Literature preserves the wisdom of the human race; but in this way it enfeebles the emphasis of firsthand intuition. In considering our direct observation of past, or of future, we should confine ourselves to timespans of the order of magnitude of a second, or even of fractions of a second.

Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas

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July 8, 2016 at 7:30 am

Quote of the Day

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December 19, 2014 at 7:43 am

The Ian Malcolm rule

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Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park

A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to leave alone.

—Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Last week, at the inaugural town hall meeting at Facebook headquarters, one brave questioner managed to cut through the noise and press Mark Zuckerberg on the one issue that really matters: what’s the deal with that gray shirt he always wears? Zuckerberg replied:

I really want to clear my life to make it so I have to make as few decisions as possible about anything except best how to serve this community…I’m in this really lucky position where I get to wake up every day and help serve more than a billion people. And I feel like I’m not doing my job if I spend any of my energy on things that are silly or frivolous about my life…So even though it kind of sounds silly—that that’s my reason for wearing a gray t-shirt every day—it also is true.

There’s a surprising amount to unpack here, starting with the fact, as Allison P. Davis of New York Magazine points out, that it’s considerably easier for a young white male to always wear the same clothes than a woman in the same situation. It’s also worth noting that wearing the exact same shirt each day turns simplicity into a kind of ostentation: there are ways of minimizing the amount of time you spend thinking about your wardrobe without calling attention to it so insistently.

Of course, Zuckerberg is only the latest in a long line of high-achieving nerds who insist, rightly or wrongly, that they have more important things to think about than what they’re going to wear. There’s more than an echo here of the dozens of black Issey Miyake turtlenecks that were stacked in Steve Jobs’s closet, and in the article linked above, Vanessa Friedman of The New York Times also notes that Zuckerberg sounds a little like Obama, who told Michael Lewis in Vanity Fair: “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.” Even Christopher Nolan gets into the act, as we learn in the recent New York Times Magazine profile by Gideon Lewis-Kraus:

Nolan’s own look accords with his strict regimen of optimal resource allocation and flexibility: He long ago decided it was a waste of energy to choose anew what to wear each day, and the clubbable but muted uniform on which he settled splits the difference between the demands of an executive suite and a tundra. The ensemble is smart with a hint of frowzy, a dark, narrow-lapeled jacket over a blue dress shirt with a lightly fraying collar, plus durable black trousers over scuffed, sensible shoes.

Mark Zuckerberg

If you were to draw a family tree between all these monochromatic Vulcans, you’d find that, consciously or not, they’re all echoing their common patron saint, Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park, who says:

In any case, I wear only two colors, black and gray…These colors are appropriate for any occasion…and they go well together, should I mistakenly put on a pair of gray socks with my black trousers…I find it liberating. I believe my life has value, and I don’t want to waste it thinking about clothing.

As Malcolm speaks, Crichton writes, “Ellie was staring at him, her mouth open”—apparently stunned into silence, as all women would be, at this display of superhuman rationality. And while it’s easy to make fun of it, I’m basically one of those guys. I eat the same breakfast and lunch every day; my daily uniform of polo shirt, jeans, and New Balance sneakers rarely, if ever, changes; and I’ve had the same haircut for the last eighteen years. If pressed, I’d probably offer a rationale more or less identical to the ones given above. As a writer, I’m called upon to solve a series of agonizingly specific problems each time I sit down at my desk, so the less headspace I devote to everything else, the better.

Which is all well and good. But it’s also easy to confuse the externals with their underlying intention. The world, or at least the Bay Area, is full of young guys with the Zuckerberg look, but it doesn’t matter how little time you spend getting dressed if you aren’t mindfully reallocating the time you save, or extending the principle beyond the closet. The most eloquent defense of minimizing extraneous thinking was mounted by the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, who writes:

It is a profoundly erroneous truism, repeated by all copy-books and by eminent people when they are making speeches, that we should cultivate the habit of thinking of what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them. Operations of thought are like cavalry charges in a battle—they are strictly limited in number, they require fresh horses, and must only be made at decisive moments.

Whitehead isn’t talking about his shirts here; he’s talking about the Arabic number system, a form of “good notation” that frees the mind to think about more complicated problems. Which only reminds us that the shirts you wear won’t make you more effective if you aren’t being equally thoughtful about the decisions that really count. Otherwise, they’re only an excuse for laziness or indifference, which is just as contagious as efficiency. And it often comes to us as a wolf in nerd’s clothing.

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

August 5, 2014 at 7:30 am

Quote of the Day

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December 10, 2012 at 7:30 am

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