Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Inventors at Work

The educated eyeball

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In the late 1940s, I read an article called “Soaring Over the Open Ocean” by an oceanographer named [Alfred H.] Woodcock. It really stuck in my mind because this scientist had been doing serious oceanographic work in the North Atlantic and began, as a hobby, watching various birds soaring over the water. But instead of just looking at the birds and thinking, How pretty, he began noting how they soared. Sometimes they soared in circles, sometimes in straight lines parallel to the wind, sometimes in straight lines perpendicular to the wind—and sometimes they couldn’t soar at all.

So he thought about it and began measuring the temperature difference between the air and water as well as the wind speed each time he saw a bird soaring a particular way. Then he plotted these variables on a scatter diagram and found that each type of soaring was always associated with a particular combination of wind speed and temperature difference. And it became evident that these different soaring techniques were illuminating the flow patterns of the convective cells in the atmosphere…What was going on in the lab in dimensions of millimeters was exactly analogous to what was going on in the atmosphere on a scale of kilometers. I thought this was a wonderful research project. Woodcock didn’t need a cyclotron or a huge radar. He just used some educated eyeballs, some insight, and he used birds as free sensors.

Paul MacCready, to Kenneth A. Brown in Inventors at Work

Written by nevalalee

July 7, 2018 at 7:30 am

Keeping up the pace

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The bow-tie team

In the wonderful book Inventors at Work, there’s an interview with Wilson Greatbatch, who invented the first practical implantable pacemaker. After describing the hours that he spends tinkering at his workbench—“I put something together, test it out on the scope, and see what it does”—Greatbatch is asked whether carefully planned experiments are more important than sudden intuitive leaps. He responds:

I’m a proponent of the big jump. I like to throw something together, see if it works, and go on from there. Later, I might go back and fill in the gaps, but I might even let someone else do that.

One problem I have with the people I work with at universities is that they like to work step by step by step. And in their view, you don’t start one step until you’ve finished the last one. But there’s usually a place in any project where you can say, “Well, maybe if I just built this thing, I could jump way over here.”

In the case of the pacemaker, Greatbatch continues, “the big jump” was a matter of throwing a bunch of parts together and verifying that you could touch the wires to a dog’s heart to make it beat. (It’s also worth noting that his first key insight was the result of an experimental accident.) He goes on:

After that jump, I could go back and fill in different details. What kind of materials can be used in the body? What kind of circuitry can be used? A pacemaker is nothing more elaborate than a flasher that you see on a highway construction site. But you’ve got to redesign that flasher so that it will work off its battery for ten years instead of only a few nights. You’ve got to wrap it in something that the body won’t reject, like silicon rubber or platinum or stainless steel. You have to find what’s right and what isn’t.

All those details are important, but if I’ve at least made the big jump, I know that I can make the heart go with a tiny pulse of electricity.

Patent sketches for the implantable pacemaker

And it’s revealing that Greatbatch contrasts this approach with the one that he observes in his academic counterparts: “They essentially lay out a research project ahead of time and call it an experiment.” Most extended projects of any kind consist of two alternating phases. The first consists of large conceptual leaps that focus on the big picture and can’t be predicted in advance; the second of the long stretches that are less a matter of transformation than of aggregation, as you fill in the gaps and gather the data. Both types of work are necessary, and there’s a very real sense in which each one depends on the other. Without a few intuitive jumps, you won’t know what you’re supposed to be researching in the first place, but those insights usually come into being only after you’ve laid some of the boring groundwork, and they often emerge in the act of gathering the raw material itself. The danger is that the aggregation phase can last forever. There’s something oddly hypnotic, even seductive, about the act of research. You can see that you’re making progress; you’re adding to your collection of information; and there’s always more to be done. It’s incontestable that you’re moving forward, however incrementally, and there’s no pressing reason to stop. If you’re mostly interested in the work for its own sake, you can continue it indefinitely—which is why it’s possible for a graduate student to spend a decade or more on a doctoral thesis that could have been polished off in a couple of years.

So how do you prevent yourself from falling into an intellectual holding pattern? The obvious answer is to come up with a big conceptual breakthrough that will allow you to shape or circumvent some of the research, guiding you toward promising paths and cutting off other avenues before they take up too much of your time. The trouble, of course, is that you can’t will yourself into having a transformative insight, although you can certainly foster the conditions in which such ideas are more likely to occur. This points to a second strategy that I’ve come to regard as essential: you set a deadline for when you think you’ll be done with your research, and then you move it forward by a third. For example, if you think you’ll need about six weeks to finish your background reading, give yourself four weeks, and stick to it. The actual schedule doesn’t matter as much as the fact that it needs to hurt a little. Once you force yourself to think big, you’ll generally find that you didn’t need all that research time anyway, and if you do need to fill in some of the blanks, you have a much better sense of what actually matters. At the end of this week, for instance, I’m forcing myself to make a hard stop on the research for my nonfiction book Astounding and start the outlining phase. It stings, but I also know that I’ll be better off if I just throw together what I have now and see how it holds up. Maintaining that steady pace is important—but sometimes you need to jolt yourself into a new pattern.

Written by nevalalee

October 6, 2016 at 9:00 am

Coding at midnight

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Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs

I remember once that I designed a PC board for our disk interface. I did a rare thing for an engineer: I laid out the board myself. At Apple, we had departments that usually did that. But I came in many nights in a row, working very, very late. I laid out the whole board, and then I got an idea to save one feedthrough. So I took the board apart, I trashed maybe a week’s worth of work, and then I started over.

And I did it another way that saved another feedthrough. No big deal. Nobody in the world would ever know that I laid it out to have very few feedthroughs—three instead of maybe fifty. None of this would ever be seen, but for some reason it seemed important in an artistic sense. You can have a feeling that all these things are important, but you can’t necessarily justify them logically. The effort comes from being so close to your art…

I feel that I do my best work at night. But even though I’ve had a few all-nighters in the last couple of years at this company, some of them I spent wishing that this piece of code had been written at midnight like it should have been. The all-nighters I like aren’t the ones when you stay up solving a problem because it needs to be solved, but when you stay, after everything’s been solved, to put a little extra quality in, to add something here or there. Sometimes I wanted a code to be so perfect before I released it that I put in whole sections of code that were not even planned for the program and that nobody would even notice—so that it would be good and right. When something inside motivates you like that, you don’t even notice time. You can go without sleep and not even sleep the next day.

Steve Wozniak, to Kenneth A. Brown in Inventors at Work

Written by nevalalee

January 24, 2015 at 9:00 am

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