Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Hilaire Belloc

Quote of the Day

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Anyone of common mental and physical health can practice scientific research, whether in physics, or biology, or history or literary documents. Anyone can count the number of times in which the word ingens occurs in the Aeneid and compare the proportion of its frequency there with some other Latin poem….Anyone can try by patient experiment what happens if this or that substance be mixed in this or that proportion with some other under this or that condition. Anyone can vary the experiment in any number of ways. He that hits in this fashion on something novel and of use will have fame. He who, having hit upon a series of such things, comes to some very obvious conclusion through the coordination of that series, will also have fame. The fame will be the product of luck and industry. It will not be the product of special talent.

Hilaire Belloc, “Science as the Enemy of Truth”

Written by nevalalee

April 2, 2018 at 9:07 am

The physical minimum

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Vitaly Ginzburg

When you’re entering a new field, or even after you’ve been there for a while, you eventually need to decide how much to specialize. We’re at a moment in history in which it’s impossible for any one person to know everything about his or her profession, and the most meaningful work tends to occur when we drill down deeply at one particular point. Yet somehow we need to remain generalists, too, if we’re going to have the insight and perspective to use what we find. In his Nobel Prize lecture, the physicist Vitaly Ginzburg summed up this predicament:

In the recent past it was possible to be guided by the requirement “to know something about everything and to know everything about something”…but now, it seems to me, this is no longer possible. At the same time, I am startled and dispirited when young physicists (and sometimes not so young ones) restrict themselves to the knowledge in “their” area and are not informed, if only in a general way, about the state of physics as a whole and its “hottest” areas…It is possible, on the basis of theoretical physics studied in one’s student days, to understand all modern physics, or, more precisely, to understand how matters stand everywhere in physics and be aware of the situation. Every physicist…should simultaneously know, apart from theoretical physics, a wealth of facts from different branches of physics and be familiar with the newest notable accomplishments.

So how do we keep ourselves properly informed about a field that is too complex to grasp in its entirety? We perform a kind of triage, as Ginzburg advises, and focus on the “hottest” areas—the places where important work all but begs to be done in our lifetimes. More specifically, we can make a list. As Ginzburg notes:

At the same time, we in Russia like to quote a certain Kozma Prutkov, a fictitious character, who said pompously, in particular, that “there is no way of comprehending the incomprehensible.” So one has to choose something. And so I took this path: I have made a “list” of the top problems of the day. Any such “list” is admittedly subjective. It is also clear that the “list” should vary with time. Lastly, it is clear that subjects not included in the “list” can in no way be regarded as unimportant or uninteresting…I only suggest some enumeration of the questions that, in my view, every physicist should have at least a superficial idea of. Supposedly less trivial is the statement that this is not as difficult as it might seem at first glance. The time to be spent for this purpose is, I believe, no longer than the time a good student spends preparing for an examination, say, on electrodynamics. Acquaintance with all subjects included in this “list” is what I call the “physical minimum.”

Ginzburg goes on to provide an annotated list of thirty subjects in physics, from “controlled nuclear fusion” to “neutrino physics and astronomy.” (Note that this is a list of problems, not of topics for basic education. For the latter kind of list, Gerard ’t Hooft, another Nobel laureate whom I quoted recently on the subject of how to become a bad theoretical physicist, provides a useful one here.)

Richard Feynman

And this strategy is worth following no matter what your field happens to be. (As Ginzburg says: “Naturally, this equally applies to other specialties, but I restrict myself to physicists for definitiveness.”) We can’t know everything about it, but we can prioritize, putting together a list of active problems that might benefit from new approaches, and making a point of learning enough about them to recognize any useful ideas on which we happen to stumble. Even the act of writing up the list itself has a way of directing your attention onto what actually matters. When you’re preoccupied solely with what is in front of you, it’s easy to forget about the big issues that your discipline as a whole is confronting. And even if you’re mostly aware of the top ten unsolved problems in your profession, it can be enlightening to extend the list to thirty, as Ginzburg does: there may be something to which you can contribute two-thirds of the way down, which is still pretty high. Obviously, this technique can also be applied on a smaller scale—you can list the problems that present themselves in your current project, your job, or your personal life, and make sure that they’re constantly before your eyes. But it also makes sense to aim as high as possible. There’s a huge incentive in every field to turn ourselves into what Hilaire Belloc memorably called “masters of the earthworm,” in which we spend a lifetime focusing on the one tiny corner that we can claim for our own. And it’s probably necessary. But an awareness of the larger problems is what allows us to select the most promising slice of territory.

Best of all, it enables what the scientist W.I.B. Beveridge called the transfer method, in which ideas from one area are applied to seemingly unrelated problems. It’s perhaps the most fertile source of innovation we have, but it doesn’t happen by accident. It occurs, in fact, when smart people make a list of important problems and keep them continuously in mind. As the physicist Gian-Carlo Rota says, in one of my favorite pieces of advice of any kind:

Richard Feynman was fond of giving the following advice on how to be a genius. You have to keep a dozen of your favorite problems constantly present in your mind, although by and large they will lay in a dormant state. Every time you hear or read a new trick or a new result, test it against each of your twelve problems to see whether it helps. Every once in a while there will be a hit, and people will say: “How did he do it? He must be a genius!”

We can’t all be like Feynman, but we can at least position ourselves to make whatever contributions we can. This means remaining attuned to the meaningful problems that remain unresolved; picking specialties that are likely to matter, rather than counting the spots on a sea urchin’s egg; and being ready to pivot whenever our area of expertise seems useful. In the end, we may all need to be masters of the earthworm. But even a worm can turn.

Written by nevalalee

November 16, 2016 at 8:42 am

Masters of the earthworm, or the generalist’s dilemma

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Buckminster Fuller

Over the past year or so, I’ve scaled back on the number of books I buy each month, mostly for reasons of shelf space. Every now and then, though, my eye will be caught by a sale or special event I can’t resist, which is how I ended up receiving a big carton last week from Better World Books. (As I’ve noted before, this is the best site for used books around, and a fantastic resource for filling in the gaps in your library.) The box contained what looks, at first, like a random assortment of titles: Strong Opinions, the aptly named collection of interviews and essays by Vladimir Nabokov; Art and Illusion by E.H. Gombrich, which was named one of the hundred best nonfiction books of the century by Modern Library; Cosmic Fishing, a short memoir by E.J. Applewhite about his collaboration with Buckminster Fuller on the book Synergetics; and best of all, Ernest Schwiebert’s magisterial two-volume Trout, which I’ve coveted for years. If it seems like a grab bag, that’s no accident: I really had my eye on Trout, which I ended up getting for half the price it goes for elsewhere, and the others were mostly there to fill out the order. But my choices here also say a lot about me and the kind of books and authors I find most appealing.

The most obvious common thread between all these books is that they lie somewhere at the intersection of art and science. Nabokov, of course, was an accomplished lepidopterist, and Strong Opinions concludes with a sampling of his scientific papers on butterflies. Art and Illusion is a work on the psychology of perception written by an art historian, and the back cover makes its intentions clear: “This book is directed to all who seek for a meeting ground between science and the humanities.” Fuller always occupied a peculiar position between that of engineer, crackpot, and mystic, and this comes through strongly through the eyes of his literary collaborator, who strikingly argues that Fuller’s primary vocation is that of a poet, and reveals that he briefly considered rewriting all of Synergetics in blank verse. And in Schwiebert’s hands, the humble trout becomes a lens through which he considers nearly all of human experience: in the first volume, he wears the hats of historian, literary critic, biologist, ecologist, and entomologist, and that’s before he even gets to the intricacies of rods, flies, and waders. As Schwiebert writes: “[Angling’s] skills are a perfect equilibrium between tradition, physical dexterity and grace, strength, logic, esthetics, our powers of observation, problem solving, perception, and the character of our experience and knowledge.”

Hilaire Belloc

In short, these are all books by or about generalists, original thinkers who understand that the divisions between categories of knowledge are porous, if not outright fictional, and who can draw freely on a wide range of disciplines. Yet these authors also share another, more subtle quality: a relentless focus on a single subject as a window onto all of the rest. Nabokov was as obsessed by his butterflies as Fuller was by the tetrahedron. Gombrich returns repeatedly to “the riddle of style,” or what it means when we say that we draw what we see, and Schwiebert, of course, loved trout. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that any of them became generalists by accident; it takes a certain inborn temperament, and an inhuman degree of patience and curiosity, to even attempt such a comprehensive vision. But it’s no accident that all four of these men—and most of the generalists we know and remember—arrived at their expansive vistas through the narrowest of gates. Occasionally, a thinker with global ambitions will begin by deliberately constraining his or her focus, in a kind of apprenticeship or training ground: Darwin spent long eight years studying the cirripedes, a kind of barnacle, in what Thomas Henry Huxley called “a piece of critical self-discipline.” He knew that you need to go deep before you can go really wide.

And that hasn’t changed. The entomologist Edward O. Wilson recently published a book entitled The Meaning of Human Existence, which would seem insufferably grandiose if he hadn’t already proven himself with decades of laborious work on the ants and other social insects. When we think of the intellectuals we respect, nearly all are men and women who made fundamental contributions to a single, clearly defined field before moving on to others. That’s the generalist’s dilemma: it’s hard to think in an original way about everything until you know one thing well. Otherwise, you end up seeming like a dilettante or worse. I’m acutely aware of my own shortcomings here: I’ve spent all my life trying to be a generalist, to the point of becoming a writer so I had an excuse to poke into whatever subjects I like, but I’ve rarely had the patience to drill down deeply. And while I’m content with my choice, I’m not sure I’d recommend it to anyone else. Hilaire Belloc once said that the best way for a writer to become famous was to concentrate on one subject, like the earthworm, for forty years: “When he is sixty, pilgrims will make a hollow path with their feet to the door of the world’s great authority on the earthworm. They will knock at his door and humbly beg to be allowed to see the Master of the Earthworm.” Belloc pointedly failed to take his own advice, but he has a point. We need to become masters of the earthworm before we become masters of the earth.

Quote of the Day

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Hilaire Belloc

My advice to a young writer—who is merely thinking of fame—is to concentrate on one subject. Let him, when he is twenty, write about the earthworm. Let him continue for forty years to write of nothing but the earthworm. When he is sixty, pilgrims will make a hollow path with their feet to the door of the world’s great authority on the earthworm. They will knock at his door and humbly beg to be allowed to see the Master of the Earthworm.

Hilaire Belloc

Written by nevalalee

February 7, 2014 at 7:30 am

Posted in Quote of the Day, Writing

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