Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Richard Feynman

The memory of persistence

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In Origins of Genius, which is one of my favorite books on creativity, the psychologist Dean Simonton makes an argument that I’ve tried to bear in mind ever since I first read it. While discussing the problem of creative productivity, Simonton states emphatically: “If the number of influential works is directly proportional to the total number of works produced, then the creators with the most masterpieces will be those with the most ignored and neglected products! Even the most supreme creative genius must have their careers punctuated with wasted efforts.” After quoting W.H. Auden, who observes that a major poet will tend to write more bad poems than a minor one, he continues:

If the creative genius is generating failures as well as successes, this seems to support the assumption that the creative process is to a certain extent blind. Even the greatest creators possess no direct and secure path to truth or beauty. They cannot guarantee that every published idea will survive further evaluation and testing at the hands of audiences or colleagues. The best the creative genius can do is to be as prolific as possible in generating products in the hope that at least some subset will survive the test of time.

This still ranks as one of the most significant insights into the creative process that I’ve ever seen, and Simonton sums it up elsewhere, like a true poet, in a form that can be easily remembered: “Quality is a probabilistic function of quantity.”

Simonton has a new book out this week, The Genius Checklist, with a long excerpt available on Nautilus. In the article, he focuses on the problem of intelligence tests, and in particular on two cases that point to the limitations of defining genius simply as the possession of a high IQ. One revolves around Lewis M. Terman, the creator of the modern intelligence scale, who had the notion of testing thousands of students and tracking the top performers over time. The result was an ongoing study of about 1,500 men and women, known as the “Termites,” some of whom are still alive today. As Simonton notes, the results didn’t exactly support Terman’s implicit assumptions:

None of [the Termites] grew up to become what many people would consider unambiguous exemplars of genius. Their extraordinary intelligence was channeled into somewhat more ordinary endeavors as professors, doctors, lawyers, scientists, engineers, and other professionals…Furthermore, many Termites failed to become highly successful in any intellectual capacity. These comparative failures were far less likely to graduate from college or to attain professional or graduate degrees, and far more likely to enter occupations that required no higher education whatsoever…Whatever their differences, intelligence was not a determining factor in those who made it and those who didn’t.

Terman also tested two future Nobel laureates—Luis Alvarez and William Shockley—who were rejected because they didn’t score highly enough. And Simonton notes that neither James Watson nor Richard Feynman, whose biography is actually called Genius, did well enough on such tests to qualify for Mensa.

Even if you’re a fan of Marilyn vos Savant, this isn’t particularly surprising. But I was even more interested in Simonton’s account of the work of Catharine Cox, Terman’s colleague, who decided to tackle the problem from the opposite direction—by starting with a list of known luminaries in all fields and trying to figure out what their tested IQs would have been, based solely on biographical information. This approach has obvious problems as well, of course, but her conclusion, which appears in her book The Early Mental Traits of Three Hundred Geniuses, seems reasonable enough: “High but not the highest intelligence, combined with the greatest degree of persistence, will achieve greater eminence than the highest degree of intelligence with somewhat less persistence.” And in her discussion of qualities that seem predictive of success, persistence is prominently mentioned:

We may conclude that the following traits and trait elements appearing in childhood and youth are diagnostic of future achievement: an unusual degree of persistence—tendency not to be changeable, tenacity of purpose, and perseverance in the face of obstacles—combined with intellective energy—mental work bestowed on special interests, profoundness of apprehension, and originality of ideas—and the vigorous ambition expressed by the possession to the highest degree of desire to excel.

Cox concludes: “Achievements…are not the accidents of a day. They are the natural outgrowth in individuals of superior general powers of persistent interest and great zeal combined with rare special talents.”

If we really want to identify the geniuses of the future, it seems, we should look for persistence as well as intelligence, and we might even be tempted to develop a test that would gauge a student’s “tenacity of purpose.” The ability to remain focused in the face of failures and setbacks is clearly related to Simonton’s rule about quality and quantity, which implies that a genius, to borrow John Gardner’s definition of the true writer, is someone who doesn’t quit. But there’s an even more important point to be made here. As I noted just the other day, it’s easier to fail repeatedly when you occupy a social position that protects you to some extent from the consequences. It can be hard to be “as prolific as possible in generating products” when even one mistake might end your creative journey forever. And our culture has been far more forgiving of some categories of people than of others. (In discussing Terman’s results, Simonton makes the hard decision to omit women from the group entirely: “We’re talking only of the males here, too. It would be unfair to consider the females who were born at a time in which all women were expected to become homemakers, no matter how bright.” And he might also have cited the cultural pressures that discourage a woman from taking risks that are granted to a man.) When you look at lists of canonical geniuses, like the authors of the great books, they can start to seem maddeningly alike—and if we define privilege in part as the freedom to make repeated mistakes, it’s no wonder. Over time, this also reduces the diversity of the ideas that are available for cultural selection, which can lead to a crisis in itself. The only solution is to increase the range of voices, and it isn’t easy. In the absence of such advantages, even the individuals who beat the odds must have been confronted at every turn by excellent reasons to give up. But nevertheless, they persisted.

Quote of the Day

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In saying that we do not know the meaning of existence, we have probably found the open channel—if we will allow only that, as we progress, we leave open opportunities for alternatives, that we do not become enthusiastic for the fact, the knowledge, the absolute truth, but remain always uncertain—[that we] “hazard it.” The English, who have developed their government in this direction, call it “muddling through,” and although a rather silly, stupid sounding thing, it is the most scientific way of progressing. To decide upon the answer is not scientific. In order to make progress, one must leave the door to the unknown ajar—ajar only.

Richard Feynman, The Pleasure of Finding Things Out

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April 23, 2018 at 7:30 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

The transfer method

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Richard Feynman

A few weeks ago, I picked up a worn paperback copy of The Art of Scientific Investigation by W.I.B. Beveridge, which I expect will join the short list of books on creativity that I’ll never get tired of reading. It was first published in 1950, but it’s still in print, and it isn’t hard to understand why. Beveridge’s book is essentially a collection of recipes or approaches for coming up with ideas, with meaty chapters devoted to the roles of reason, intuition, chance, and imagination, and it’s loaded with concrete, practical advice. Take the section on what Beveridge calls the transfer method:

Sometimes the central idea on which an investigation hinges is provided by the application or transfer of a new principle or technique which has been discovered in another field. The method of making advances in this way will be referred to as the “transfer” method in research. This is probably the most fruitful and the easiest method in research, and the one most employed in applied research. It is, however, not to be in any way despised. Scientific advances are so hard to achieve that every useful stratagem must be used.

The italics are mine. Success or failure in resolving any problem often boils down to a knowledge of the available tools, and this often requires familiarity with advances in apparently unrelated fields. One of my favorite recent examples comes from the field of adaptive optics. When astronomers are viewing an object through the earth’s atmosphere, which distorts light, they’ll shine a laser in the same direction. When the light from this artificial “guide star” returns, they can measure the distortion, then use that data to adjust their telescope to cancel out the aberrations, which gives them a much more accurate view of the object under observation. The physicist Eric Betzig took the idea of a guide star and applied it to microscopy, which also has to deal with optical information being warped by an intervening medium, which in this case is organic tissue. Taking a cue from astronomy, the technique creates a guide star by focusing light from the microscope on a fluorescent object in the sample, like an embedded bead. After using a wavefront sensor to determine how the light was warped, it can make the appropriate corrections. And because tissue causes more complex distortions than the atmosphere does, it employs yet another strategy—derived from ophthalmology, which uses it to correct images of a patient’s retina—to average out the error. The result won Betzig a Nobel Prize.

Eric Betzig

And it isn’t hard to see why Betzig paid close attention to astronomy and ophthalmology. These fields may study different classes of objects, but they’re all ultimately about dealing with properties of light as it passes from the observed to the observer, which has clear implications for microscopy. Betzig and his collaborators were shrewd enough to frame their work in the most general possible terms: it wasn’t about microscopes, but about light, and everything that dealt with similar problems was potentially interesting. Being able to correctly define your field—which has more to do with the concrete problems you’re addressing than with labels imposed from the outside—is the first step in identifying useful combinations. And even trained scientists have trouble doing this. As Beveridge notes:

It might be thought that as soon as a discovery is announced, all its possible applications in other fields follow almost immediately and automatically, but this is seldom so. Scientists sometimes fail to realize the significance which a new discovery in another field may have for their own work, or if they do realize it they may not succeed in discovering the necessary modifications.

Of course, it isn’t possible to read or absorb everything, so you need to be smart about how you filter the universe of available material, which can be done from either end. You can start with a solution and then look for interesting problems: Beveridge cites several examples of techniques, such as partition chromatography, in which researchers systematically cast about for fields in which it could be put to use. Alternatively, you can keep a handful of problems perpetually before you, and use it as a kind of sieve to isolate useful ideas, as Gian-Carlo Rota describes:

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!”

This is essentially what novelists do. When you have the basic premise of a story in mind, suddenly everything you see becomes relevant—which is a good argument for coming up with at least a general outline as early as possible. But you don’t need to be a novelist, or a scientist, to find a guide star of your own.

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September 2, 2015 at 9:32 am

Quote of the Day

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March 12, 2015 at 7:30 am

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Quote of the Day

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Richard Feynman

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!”

Gian-Carlo Rota, “Ten Lessons I Wish I Had Been Taught”

Written by nevalalee

December 11, 2013 at 7:30 am

Feynman the Magician

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There are two kinds of geniuses, the “ordinary” and the “magicians.” An ordinary genius is a fellow that you and I would be just as good as, if we were only many times better. There is no mystery as to how his mind works. Once we understand what they have done, we feel certain that we, too, could have done it. It is different with the magicians. They are, to use mathematical jargon, in the orthogonal complement of where we are and the working of their minds is for all intents and purposes incomprehensible. Even after we understand what they have done, the process by which they have done it is completely dark. They seldom, if ever, have students because they cannot be emulated and it must be terribly frustrating for a brilliant young mind to cope with the mysterious ways in which the magician’s mind works. Richard Feynman is a magician of the highest caliber.

Mark Kac, quoted by James Gleick in Genius

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July 29, 2012 at 9:50 am

Quote of the Day

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April 23, 2012 at 7:50 am

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