Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Thomas Henry Huxley

Quote of the Day

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And thus from the region of disorderly mystery, which is the domain of ignorance, another vast province has been added to science—the realm of orderly mystery.

Thomas Henry Huxley, “The Structure and Functions of Nerve”

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March 2, 2018 at 7:30 am

The foundations of novelty

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Yesterday, I was leafing through the journalist Charles Duhigg’s recent book Smarter, Faster, Better when my eye was caught by a discussion of a study conducted several years ago by two professors at Northwestern University. It dealt with the importance of unexpected combinations in creative thinking, which is a subject that is dear to my heart, and they emerged with some fascinating conclusions. Duhigg writes:

The researchers—Brian Uzzi and Ben Jones—decided to focus on an activity they were deeply familiar with: writing and publishing academic papers…They could estimate a paper’s originality by analyzing the sources authors had cited in their endnotes…Almost all of the creative papers had at least one thing in common: They were usually combinations of previously known ideas mixed together in new ways. In fact, on average, ninety percent of what was in the most “creative” manuscripts had already been published elsewhere—and had already been picked over by thousands of other scientists. However, in the creative papers, those conventional concepts were applied to questions in manners no one had considered before. “Our analysis of 17.9 million papers spanning all scientific fields suggests that science follows a nearly universal pattern,” Uzzi and Jones wrote. “The highest-impact science is primarily grounded in exceptionally conventional combinations of prior work yet simultaneously features an intrusion of unusual combinations.” It was this combination of ideas, rather than the ideas themselves, that typically made a paper so creative and important.

As Uzzi later explained in an interview with Duhigg: “A paper that combines work by Newton and Einstein is conventional. That combination has happened thousands of times. But a paper that combines Einstein and Wang Chong, the Chinese philosopher, that’s much more likely to be creative, because it’s such an unusual pairing.”

The late Arthur Koestler called this phenomenon “bisociation,” and its appearance here inspired me to look up the original paper, “How Atypical Combinations of Scientific Ideas Are Related to Impact.” Its most intriguing insight—which Duhigg mentions only in passing—is that not all combinations are equally useful. As you might expect, the study found that the majority of published scientific papers draw on a conventional set of sources, with most of their references occurring within a predictable subset of journals. Yet a novel combination of references in itself isn’t any guarantee of originality or importance. In fact, papers that have “high tail novelty” alone are actually less likely to be widely cited than papers that don’t stray far from conventional wisdom. The best combination, it seems, is a core of conventional work spiced up with a few unusual ingredients. An article on their research in the magazine of the Kellogg School of Management makes this point more explicit:

What’s interesting,” says Uzzi, “is most of the work done is conventional. And some of the work is truly novel. And the chances of either one of those classifications of papers being hits is about the same.” Only about five percent of research papers that draw from only very novel or only very conventional sources were among the most highly cited papers in the database. But there was a third category of research that had nearly twice the likelihood of making it big: papers that relied mostly on conventional combinations of sources but also included a small subset of highly novel ones. “It isn’t all about novelty or conventionality. It’s about both,” explains Jones, who was somewhat surprised by this result…“You want to be grounded in something that’s well understood and yet be adding in the piece that’s truly unusual. And if you do those two things [and] stretch yourself in both directions, then you radically increase your probability of hitting a home run.”

This point is technically present in Duhigg’s book, but it’s easy to miss, and it strikes me as the real takeaway here. Innovation doesn’t happen when you combine ideas haphazardly, but when you incorporate novel insights into a more conventional foundation. I’ve noticed this pattern in my own work. When I first started writing science fiction, my favorite method for generating ideas was to browse through a stack of science magazines and pick two or three articles at random, trusting that I would find a connection between them if I looked hard enough. My early novelette “The Last Resort,” for instance, was a combination of articles about lake eruptions, snowmaking, and the snake pits of Manitoba. “The Boneless One,” which was my first really good story, did the same with bioluminescence, octopus intelligence, and an expedition to catalog genetic material in the ocean. It was a reliable trick, and it served me well over the course of half a dozen stories. Around the time that I wrote “Stonebrood,” however, followed by “The Proving Ground” and my upcoming story “The Spires,” I began to get tired of that process, and I tried a different approach. These days, I usually start with one big subject or setting that I’d like to explore—wilderness firefighting, climate change in the Marshall Islands, bush piloting in Alaska. From there, I’ll look for an unusual angle that ties back into the main theme, often by searching the archives of science magazines until I come up with a promising hook. Instead of choosing a few random ideas and treating them equally, in other words, I start with a central premise that feels like it would make a good story and then look for unexpected offshoots. In some ways, this approach is riskier, since it that initial hunch is wrong, it’s easier to follow it into a dead end. But the results seem better. In the past, some of my stories, like “The Voices,” have had visible seams. The ones that I’m writing now are more of a piece, but they haven’t lost their ability to surprise me along the way, which is the main reason that I write them at all.

Obviously, this is a very minor example, and it probably isn’t all that interesting to anyone but me. But the notion that we should proceed by adding novelty to an established foundation, rather than by combining ideas purely at random, is a valuable one. It’s similar to the familiar principle that it’s hard to do interesting work across multiple disciplines until you’ve mastered one field well, both because of the habits of thinking that it teaches and the body of information that it provides. It was partly for this reason that Charles Darwin spent years studying barnacles, or cirripedes, as the scientist Thomas Henry Huxley observed:

The great danger which besets all men of large speculative faculty is the temptation to deal with the accepted statements of facts in natural science, as if they were not only correct, but exhaustive; as if they might be dealt with deductively, in the same way as propositions in Euclid may be dealt with. In reality, every such statement, however true it may be, is true only relatively to the means of observation and the point of view of those who have enunciated it. So far it may be depended upon. But whether it will bear every speculative conclusion that may be logically deduced from it is quite another question…The value of the Cirripede monograph lies not merely in the fact that it is a very admirable piece of work, and constituted a great addition to positive knowledge, but still more in the circumstance that it was a piece of critical self-discipline, the effect of which manifested itself in everything [Darwin] wrote afterwards, and saved him from endless errors of detail.

What the barnacles taught Darwin, in Huxley’s words, was “the speculative strain” that certain ideas would bear, and this applies as much to individual projects as to the work of a lifetime. Random combination can be a valuable tool, but it needs to be the right kind of randomness. Creativity, as Gregory Bateson wonderfully put it, often consists of “a raid on the random.” But like most raids, it’s more likely to succeed when it starts from a position of strength.

Someday it might be important

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You had your whole life to prepare for this moment. Why aren’t you ready?

—David Mamet, Spartan

When you’re raising a toddler who can’t wait to exercise her little legs, it can be hard to teach her to stop when you say so. If you’re anything like me, you find yourself shouting “Stop!” when she gets within fifteen feet of the curb, even if there aren’t any cars for miles. The trouble is that you end up repeating yourself so often that any particular instance doesn’t carry any weight. (I’ve since learned that I get a faster response when I say “Freeze,” which is what her coach says to her at gym class.) About a year ago, when my daughter consistently refused to listen to me, I tried to explain why it mattered. There wasn’t any danger now, but if there were, there wouldn’t be any time to talk about it, so she had to get used to doing what I said—which is the same logic, I gather, that underlies much of basic training. In a lot of ways, it’s the best reason why we should try to teach our kids to obey at all. Nine out of ten times, it doesn’t really make a difference, but the tenth time, or the hundredth, it might. This obviously applies to issues of safety, but also to social behavior. I tell Beatrix, truthfully, that she can’t make me like her any less, but that may not be true of everyone, so she might as well practice being nice to me. I provide a rationale whenever I can, but I also try to make the case that she needs to do what I say immediately, and that we can discuss the reasoning later. It doesn’t always work, and like every parent, I often find myself laying down arbitrary rules. But as I’ve said to Beatrix more than once: “Someday it might be important.”

And for whatever reason, the notion has stuck with me. We spend most of our lives preparing for a future test or trial, and we don’t know in advance what it will be. Thomas Henry Huxley once said:

Perhaps the most valuable result of all education is the ability to make yourself do the thing you have to do, when it ought to be done, whether you like it or not; it is the first lesson that ought to be learned; and, however early a man’s training begins, it is probably the last lesson that he learns thoroughly.

He’s right, of course. But it’s even better to do the thing you have to do before it ought to be done. Education itself is a kind of guess about what we think will be useful down the line, and it’s almost never valuable in the moment. (If it is, it isn’t education, but on-the-job training, which is a very different concept.) In many cases, it never becomes applicable at all. It’s often been said that a liberal education is more about learning how to think than about mastering a particular body of information, which is true enough. But it’s also a justification, imposed retroactively, for the fact that we have little idea what a particular human being will need to know. This is even true for fields outside the liberal arts, which is how we get such dubious screening methods as the whiteboard interview, which is a sort of ritual performance that has nothing in common with how coding actually works. If we knew what we needed, we’d test for it. But we don’t.

As a result, much of life comes down to a series of judgment calls about how best to prepare for whatever might be coming. You could even say that this is why most of us prefer to work for money, which can be stockpiled and exchanged for future needs that we can’t predict. Money is useful because it partially absolves us of having to foresee everything. A surprising number of issues can be resolved by throwing money at the problem, and if you’ve ever thought about stocking a survival retreat, even as a daydream, you know how difficult it can be to anticipate your needs for even a year in the future. But it’s also a choice that we make constantly when it comes to the information we acquire. Some of this material we can safely outsource, and there’s no particular reason to stock our brains with facts, like how to get the length of a Python string, that we can always look up when necessary. As Indiana Jones’s dad once said, I write it down so I don’t have to remember it. (You’ll occasionally hear arguments in favor of rote memorization as an educational tool, but its value seems to lie mostly in giving students something to do while they mature in other ways, and there are probably better uses of that time.) But some forms of knowledge need to be internalized, and it can be hard to know how best to allocate our limited energies. I was going to say that it never hurts to learn how to write, but you probably shouldn’t trust me. Anyone who gives you advice in print presumably thinks that writing is important, and maybe we should pay more attention to those who don’t write down what they have to teach us.

And a lot of it comes down to whose advice you’re willing to take. When it came to choosing a college major, I depended on a piece of advice that seems pretty shaky in retrospect. More recently, I spent a month doing CrossFit, mostly because a studio had opened a block away from my house, and its pitch comes down to the idea that someday it might be important. As its official description states:

Overall, the aim of CrossFit is to forge a broad, general and inclusive fitness supported by measurable, observable and repeatable results. The program prepares trainees for any physical contingency—not only for the unknown but for the unknowable, too. Our specialty is not specializing.

The premise of CrossFit—which, incidentally, is obsessed with whiteboards—is that you’re subjecting yourself to pain in the present to avoid a moment of regret later on, when you’re stuck, say, in a burning car. I respect that, but I also quit after a few weeks, after deciding that its expected value wasn’t high enough to justify it. Maybe I’ll be sorry later. But risk, by definition, is predictable in the aggregate and utterly unforeseeable for any one individual, and it rarely takes the form for which we’ve been practicing. Some of our hunches on the subject are better than others, and it makes sense to prepare for risk in a way that enhances the present. (As I’ve pointed out before, the consolation prize for failing to become an astronaut is a really good job.) But you never know. And when I tell my daughter that this might all be important one day, I’m really talking to myself.

Written by nevalalee

March 10, 2017 at 9:23 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

October 27, 2016 at 7:30 am

The fair game

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The Newberry Library Book Fair

I have measured out my life with book sales. Not with bookstores, mind you, which have played an equally important but altogether different role in my dreams, but by the high school cafeterias or parish halls filled with books, donated by friends of the local library or church, that appear once a year and then vanish, like a treasure hoard conjured up in a fairy tale. Some of the most intense memories of my childhood revolve around the book sales once held at Faith Lutheran Church in my hometown of Castro Valley, California, where, on the last day, you could fill up a brown paper grocery bag for about five bucks. At the age of ten, amazingly, I actually had five dollars, which meant that I could get to the indispensable work of stocking my bedroom shelves with the tattered volumes that seem to fill everyone’s home library: the Stephen King and Michael Crichton paperbacks, the ten matching tombstones of Will and Ariel Durant’s The Story of Mankind, the Reader’s Digest collections of household hints. Few of those books have survived the dozen times I’ve moved since then, but they served their purpose, like the seven tons of food and water that temporarily become a part of the body before passing on. But at least one find has remained with me for nearly two decades. One year, I found a complete set of the Great Books of the Western World, missing only the volumes for Darwin and Marx—which tells you a lot, I think, about the home in which they once resided. I literally sat on top of them until my parents could come to pick me up that day, and I still own them all, with the two forbidden authors restored. And I’m not kidding when I say that when I open one at random and inhale the scent of its pages, it transports me back at once to the happiest time in my life.

That book sale, obviously, wasn’t particularly exceptional, and similar ones are held each year in every town across America—which doesn’t make any of them any less precious. But ever since moving to the Chicago area, I’ve been lucky enough to live near the epicenter of three fantastic book events: the Printers Row Lit Fest, the Newberry Library Book Fair, and the Oak Park Book Fair. I missed the Lit Fest this year because I was out of town, but to make up for it, the Newberry and Oak Park book fairs took place on the very same weekend. As a result, I spent four consecutive days gorging on used books. It should have been wonderful, and it was, but it also forced me to confront a fact that still makes me a little uncomfortable: after three decades of buying, owning, and culling volumes for my own library, a book fair is bound to present diminishing returns, at least compared to the almost painful excitement that it afforded me when I was growing up. I’ve bought so many books over the years that most of the titles I see either leave me cold or generate a brief spark of nostalgia: I remember when I bought that one. When you’re twelve years old and don’t own many books, a copy of The Source or A Brief History of Time or a James Clavell doorstopper seems like a fantastic find, and maybe it is. Later, after you’ve been to a few more book fairs, you realize that they’re all glutted with copies of The Source and The Story of Mankind and, yes, even complete sets of the Great Books of the Western World. And in the meantime, your own shelves have become full to bursting, which means that for a new book to grab you, it has to squeeze through the eye of an increasingly tiny needle.

The Newberry Library Book Fair

These days, when I step into the Newberry Library Book Fair, I begin with a sense of limitless potential, as if I’ve arrived the book fair of my dreams. As I browse the tables over the next couple of hours, that feeling of uncut possibility dwindles into—well, not disillusionment, exactly, but a rational lowering of expectations. Before the book fair begins, it’s possible that it has all the weird, eccentric books that I need to fill out my collection, and that I’ll stumble across, say, a complete five-volume set of The Lisle Letters for less than fifty dollars. (This might seem absurdly optimistic, but remember, this is the same book fair where I found the sixteen volumes of Sir Richard Francis Burton’s Arabian Nights last year for the same price. Miracles can and do happen.) It doesn’t take long for your fond wishes of what might be there to collide with the knowledge of what actually exists for the taking, much of which is great, but nearly all of which falls just a bit short of your hopes. It’s the equivalent of the kind of narrowing of possibility in writing fiction that Joan Didion describes to The Paris Review: “By the time you’ve laid down the first two sentences, your options are all gone.” In science, Thomas Henry Huxley called it “the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.” If you want to get really existential, you could say that it’s like the reduction of options in life, or politics, when the inconvenient truths insist on impinging themselves on the ideals you cherished when you weren’t limited by reality. When you’ve been a dedicated bibliophile for most of your life, every book fair turns into a picky exercise in the art of the possible.

This might seem like a lot of symbolic freight to place on such an innocent pleasure. But I’ve begun to realize that what I love about book fairs is their annual renewal of possibility, even if it only lasts for an hour or two. I’ve spoken frequently about the art of browsing, which is part luck, part skill, and all serendipity: it’s the one time in our adult lives when we’re most fully exposed to happy accidents. A book fair is browsing at its most intense: the collection of books before us is one that will never exist again, just as when we shuffle a deck of cards, we get an order that has never been seen before in all of human history. Playing the book fair game is a matter of sharp eyes, a relaxed but active brain, and an ability to spend hours on your feet, scanning a hodgepodge of titles. Not every book fair results in a moment of revelation, and although I’d love to wind up this post by saying that I was blindsided by a great find, that wasn’t the case this year. (The one that gave me the most happiness was a copy of Wolfgang Langewiesche’s Stick and Rudder, which is one of those books that I always have at the back of my mind whenever I enter a bookstore, and which cost me all of three dollars at the Newberry.) But I still wouldn’t have missed it for anything. As John Gardner might have said, browsing is a yoga, or a way of life in the world, and at a time when I’m preoccupied with reading a narrow slice of books for my work, it’s good to have a reminder that the universe of ideas is so much greater than any one person can ever absorb. For thirty dollars, you can buy an entire liberal education, as long as you’re willing to look for it. And there’s always next year.

Written by nevalalee

August 1, 2016 at 8:58 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

May 14, 2015 at 7:30 am

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Asimov’s ABCs

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Isaac Asimov

By now, many of you have probably already seen the previously unpublished essay on creativity by Isaac Asimov that appeared last week in Technology Review. We owe its appearance to Arthur Obermayer, who worked for Allied Research Associates in Boston and asked Asimov, a friend of his, to sit in on some of their brainstorming sessions. Asimov eventually declined to participate further, saying that receiving access to classified information would inhibit his work as a writer, but he left behind a short piece on creative thinking and the conditions that encourage it, both individually and in groups. It’s a charming, useful read, and it centers on a point that I’ve made here many times before:

Obviously, then, what is needed is not only people with a good background in a particular field, but also people capable of making a connection between item 1 and item 2 which might not ordinarily seem connected…Once the cross-connection is made, it becomes obvious.

Asimov mentions the famous example of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, who independently saw a connection between Malthus’s “Essay on Population” and the problem of evolution, inspiring Thomas Henry Huxley to exclaim: “How extremely stupid not to have thought of that!” This kind of thinking by combinations, or what Arthur Koestler calls “bisociation” in The Act of Creation, lies at the heart of all creativity, and that’s as much the case today as when Asimov was writing. Earlier this year, for instance, the lab headed by Eric Betzig—who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry this month—announced an approach for improving the resolution and speed of microscopy images, using adaptive optics techniques that had originally been developed for astronomy and ophthalmology. Much of Betzig’s work over the last decade has consisted of taking cues from one field and joining them to another: “We combined the descan concept from the ophthalmologists with the laser guide stars of the astronomers, and came up with what amounts to a really good solution for aberrating but non-scattering transparent samples, like the zebrafish.”

Eric Betzig

These days, most scientific breakthroughs don’t arise in isolation, but through an intense collaborative process: the original paper cited above lists eight authors, headed by postdoctoral student Kai Wang and ending with Betzig himself. At times, as Asimov points out, stimulating connections can only emerge from an environment in which intelligent people have a chance to exchange ideas:

No two people exactly duplicate each other’s mental stores of items. One person may know A and not B, another may know B and not A, and either knowing A and B, both may get the idea—though not necessarily at once or even soon.

Furthermore, the information may not only be of individual items A and B, but even of combinations such as A-B, which in themselves are not significant. However, if one person mentions the unusual combination of A-B and another unusual combination A-C, it may well be that the combination A-B-C, which neither has thought of separately, may yield as answer.

The problem, of course, is that such ideas or connections don’t come on demand, and the pressure to show results, in academia and elsewhere, can inhibit the kind of relaxed, associative contemplation that inspiration requires. As Asimov notes: “To feel guilty because one has not earned one’s salary because one has not had a great idea is the surest way, it seems to me, of making it certain that no great idea will come in the next time, either.” He goes on to suggest that the thinkers be officially paid for “sinecure” tasks—reports, summaries, and other busywork—so that brainstorming sessions can occur without the additional distraction that arises when one’s livelihood is directly on the line. In other words, he proposes a model that allows for extended rendering time, those amorphous, sometimes unproductive, but always essential stretches of apparent inactivity that allow ideas to coalesce. (It’s the opposite, in fact, of the kind of intense focus on short-term results that drives so much of startup culture.) There’s no surefire recipe for innovation; insights, especially those that make connections between unrelated fields, don’t arrive on schedule. But it’s only by creating an environment in which such connections can emerge, and having the patience to wait, that we can come up with any insights at all.

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