Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Siobhan Roberts

The unfinished lives

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Yesterday, the New York Times published a long profile of Donald Knuth, the legendary author of The Art of Computer Programming. Knuth is eighty now, and the article by Siobhan Roberts offers an evocative look at an intellectual giant in twilight:

Dr. Knuth usually dresses like the youthful geek he was when he embarked on this odyssey: long-sleeved T-shirt under a short-sleeved T-shirt, with jeans, at least at this time of year…Dr. Knuth lives in Stanford, and allowed for a Sunday visitor. That he spared an entire day was exceptional—usually his availability is “modulo nap time,” a sacred daily ritual from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. He started early, at Palo Alto’s First Lutheran Church, where he delivered a Sunday school lesson to a standing-room-only crowd.

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of the first volume of Knuth’s most famous work, which is still incomplete. Knuth is busy writing the fourth installment, one fascicle at a time, although its most recent piece has been delayed “because he keeps finding more and more irresistible problems that he wants to present.” As Roberts writes: “Dr. Knuth’s exacting standards, literary and otherwise, may explain why his life’s work is nowhere near done. He has a wager with Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google and a former student…over whether Mr. Brin will finish his Ph.D. before Dr. Knuth concludes his opus…He figures it will take another twenty-five years to finish The Art of Computer Programming, although that time frame has been a constant since about 1980.”

Knuth is a prominent example, although far from the most famous, of a literary and actuarial phenomenon that has grown increasingly familiar—an older author with a projected work of multiple volumes, published one book at a time, that seems increasingly unlikely to ever see completion. On the fiction side, the most noteworthy case has to be that of George R.R. Martin, who has been fielding anxious inquiries from fans for most of the last decade. (In an article that appeared seven long years ago in The New Yorker, Laura Miller quotes Martin, who was only sixty-three at the time: “I’m still getting e-mail from assholes who call me lazy for not finishing the book sooner. They say, ‘You better not pull a Jordan.’”) Robert A. Caro is still laboring over what he hopes will be the final volume of his biography of Lyndon Johnson, and mortality has become an issue not just for him, but for his longtime editor, as we read in Charles McGrath’s classic profile in the Times:

Robert Gottlieb, who signed up Caro to do The Years of Lyndon Johnson when he was editor in chief of Knopf, has continued to edit all of Caro’s books, even after officially leaving the company. Not long ago he said he told Caro: “Let’s look at this situation actuarially. I’m now eighty, and you are seventy-five. The actuarial odds are that if you take however many more years you’re going to take, I’m not going to be here.”

That was six years ago, and both men are still working hard. But sometimes a writer has no choice but to face the inevitable. When asked about the concluding fifth volume of his life of Picasso, with the fourth one still on the way, the biographer John Richardson said candidly: “Listen, I’m ninety-one—I don’t think I have time for that.”

I don’t have the numbers to back this up, but such cases—or at least the public attention that they inspire—seem to be growing more common these days, on account of some combination of lengthening lifespans, increased media coverage of writers at work, and a greater willingness from publishers to agree to multiple volumes in the first place. The subjects of such extended commitments tend to be monumental in themselves, in order to justify the total investment of the writer’s own lifetime, and expanding ambitions are often to blame for blown deadlines. Martin, Caro, and Knuth all increased the prospective number of volumes after their projects were already underway, or as Roberts puts it: “When Dr. Knuth started out, he intended to write a single work. Soon after, computer science underwent its Big Bang, so he reimagined and recast the project in seven volumes.” And this “recasting” seems particularly common in the world of biographies, as the author discovers more material that he can’t bear to cut. The first few volumes may have been produced with relative ease, but as the years pass and anticipation rises, the length of time it takes to write the next installment grows, until it becomes theoretically infinite. Such a radical change of plans, which can involve extending the writing process for decades, or even beyond the author’s natural lifespan, requires an indulgent publisher, university, or other benefactor. (John Richardson’s book has been underwritten by nothing less than the John Richardson Fund for Picasso Research, which reminds me of what Homer Simpson said after being informed that he suffered from Homer Simpson syndrome: “Oh, why me?”) And it may not be an accident that many of the examples that first come to mind are white men, who have the cultural position and privilege to take their time.

It isn’t hard to understand a writer’s reluctance to let go of a subject, the pressures on a book being written in plain sight, or the tempting prospect of working on the same project forever. And the image of such authors confronting their mortality in the face of an unfinished book is often deeply moving. One of the most touching examples is that of Joseph Needham, whose Science and Civilization in China may have undergone the most dramatic expansion of them all, from an intended single volume to twenty-seven and counting. As Kenneth Girdwood Robinson writes in a concluding posthumous volume:

The Duke of Edinburgh, Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, visited The Needham Research Institute, and interested himself in the progress of the project. “And how long will it take to finish it?” he enquired. On being given a rather conservative answer, “At least ten years,” he exclaimed, “Good God, man, Joseph will be dead before you’ve finished,” a very true appreciation of the situation…In his closing years, though his mind remained lucid and his memory astonishing, Needham had great difficulty even in moving from one chair to another, and even more difficulty in speaking and in making himself understood, due to the effect of the medicines he took to control Parkinsonism. But a secretary, working closely with him day by day, could often understand what he had said, and could read what he had written, when others were baffled.

Needham’s decline eventually became impossible to ignore by those who knew him best, as his biographer Simon Winchester writes in The Man Who Loved China: “It was suggested that, for the first time in memory, he take the day off. It was a Friday, after all: he could make it a long weekend. He could charge his batteries for the week ahead. ‘All right,’ he said. ‘I’ll stay at home.’” He died later that day, with his book still unfinished. But it had been a good life.

The book of numbers

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Neil Sloane

The recent Nautilus article by Siobhan Roberts about the mathematician Neil Sloane, titled “How to Build a Search Engine for Mathematics,” is the most interesting thing I’ve read online in months. I stumbled across it around six this morning, at a point when I was thinking about little more than my first cup of coffee, and when I was done, I felt energized, awake, and excited about the future. At first glance, its subject might not seem especially promising: Sloane’s baby, The On-Line Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences, sounds about as engaging as the classic bestseller A Million Random Digits with 100,000 Normal Deviates. But the more you think about Sloane and his life’s work, the more it starts to seem like what the Internet was meant to do all along. It’s a machine for generating connections between disciplines, a shortcut that turns good hunches into something more, and a means of quickly surveying an otherwise unnavigable universe of information. In short, it does for numbers, or anything that can be expressed as a sequence of integers, what Google Books theoretically should do for words. The result is a research tool that led Rutgers University professor Doron Zeilberger to call Sloane “the world’s most influential mathematician,” although, if anything, this understates the possible scope of his accomplishments. And even if you’re already familiar with OEIS, the article is well worth reading anyway, if only for how beautifully Roberts lays out its implications.

The appeal of Sloane’s encyclopedia can best be understood by going back to its origins, when its creator was a graduate student at Cornell. While writing his doctoral dissertation on a problem in artificial intelligence, he calculated an integer sequence—0, 1, 8, 78, 944, and so on—that described the firing of neurons in a neural network. As Roberts writes:

The sequence looked promising, though Sloane couldn’t figure out the pattern or formula that would give him the next and all further terms, and by extension the sequence’s rate of growth. He searched out the sequence at the library to see if it was published in a math book on combinatorics or the like, and found nothing. Along the way, however, he came upon other sequences of interest, and stashed them away for further investigation. He eventually computed the formula using a tool from 1937, Pólya’s enumeration theorem.

But the roundabout process had been frustrating. The task should not have been so difficult. He should have been able to simply look up his sequence in a comprehensive reference guide for all extant integer sequences. Since no such thing existed, he decided to build it himself. “I started collecting sequences,” he said. “I went through all the books in the Cornell library…And articles and journals and any other source I could find.”

Neil Sloane's notebook

Reading this, I was inevitably reminded of the experience of writing my own senior thesis, in the days before universal book search was available, and the kind of random scavenging through the stacks that was required back then to track down references and make connections. Sloane’s impulse to collect such sequences initially took the form of a set of punchcards, followed years later by A Handbook of Integer Sequences, published by his employers at Bell Labs. Finally, about twenty years ago, he put it online. Before long, the database began to prove its value, as when it revealed that a sequence related to the problem of placing cell towers matched one from an unrelated subject in number theory. It’s the closest thing we have to a search engine for math, as long as you can express whatever you’re doing in terms of a sequence of numbers:

Ultimately, it all comes back to counting things, and counting is a universally handy tool. Which in turn makes the encyclopedia handy, too. “Suppose you are working on a problem in one domain, say, electronics, and while solving a problem you encounter a sequence of integers,” said Manish Gupta, a coding theorist by training who runs a lab at the Dhirubhai Ambani Institute of Information and Communication Technology. “Now you can use the encyclopedia and search if this is well known. Many times it happens that this sequence may have appeared in a totally unrelated area with another problem. Since numbers are the computational output of nature, to me, these connections are quite natural.”

As Roberts concludes: “The encyclopedia’s impact on scientific research broadly speaking can be measured by its citations in journals, which currently Sloane has tallied to more than 4,500, ranging through biology, botany, zoology, chemistry, thermodynamics, optics, quantum physics, astrophysics, geology, cybernetics, engineering, epidemiology, and anthropology. It is a numerical database of the human canon.” And although the humanities go mostly unrepresented in that list, that’s probably because the translation of such concepts into numbers isn’t always intuitive. But researchers in other areas can at least appreciate its usefulness by analogy. When I think of how I use Google as a creative tool, it’s less to find specific information than to unearth connections—as when I spent a month looking up pairs of concepts like “Dadaism” and “Vehmgericht” to populate the conspiracy theory in The Icon Thief—or to verify a hunch I’ve already had. (As E.L. Doctorow once put it: “[Research] involved finding a responsible source for the lie I was about to create, and discovering that it was not a lie, which is to say someone else had thought of it first.”) Sloane’s encyclopedia essentially allows mathematicians and scientists to do the same, once they’ve converted their ideas into a searchable sequence, which can be a useful exercise in itself. And even if you aren’t in one of those fields, a few minutes browsing in OEIS is enough to remind you of how large the world is, how patterns can emerge in unexpected places, and how the first step to insight is making sure that those connections are accessible.

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