Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘W.I.B. Beveridge

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

December 18, 2017 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

“He knows what needs to be done…”

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"The front door had been removed from its hinges..."

Note: This post is the thirty-sixth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 35. You can read the previous installments here.

A few days ago, I was browsing the shelves of my neighborhood thrift store when my eye was caught by a book called Alaska Bush Pilots in the Float Country. Its dust jacket reads: “The men who brought airplanes to Alaska’s Panhandle were a different breed: a little braver than the average pilot and blessed with the particular skills and set of nerves it requires to fly float planes, those Lockheed Vegas made of plywood that were held together by termites holding hands, as well as the sturdy Fairchild 71s and Bellanca Pacemakers.” And while this isn’t a title that might appeal to your average reader, I came very close to buying it—and I have a feeling that I will soon. Why? Like most writers, I’m constantly on the lookout for promising veins of material, and my inner spidey sense began to tingle as soon as I saw that cover. If I had to describe the kind of short stories I like to write, I’d call them plot-driven works of science fiction, usually staged against a colorful backdrop, and often with elements of horror. The Alaskan Panhandle in the early twenties seems like as good a setting as any for this kind of narrative, and that little book on bush pilots was visibly packed with more information than I would ever need to construct a novelette. Writers of a certain stripe come to treasure works of nonfiction that provide a narrow but deep slice of knowledge about a previously unexplored area, and finding that book automatically set me thinking about bush pilots in Alaska, even though the subject had never occurred to me before.

When you’re a writer, you often find yourself shaping the elements of a story, or even entire premises, based on the material that happens to be available. Constructing a plot of any kind is hard enough without having to squeeze useful color out of a bare handful of facts, and the richer and more abundant your source material, the better your chances of emerging with something good. Elsewhere, I’ve called this the availability factor, with a nod to a similar principle that W.I.B. Beveridge discusses in The Art of Scientific Investigation: “The great American bacteriologist Theobald Smith said that he always took up the problem that lay before him, chiefly because of the easy access of material, without which research is crippled.” The italics here are mine. Finding a promising source can mean the difference between a story that seems to write itself and one that never gets off the ground. As I’ve stated before, I often leaf through tattered science magazines in search of articles that might lead to an interesting combination of ideas. (And it isn’t enough to have just one. A good story almost always comes from the intersection of two or more.) But during the initial browsing stage, I’m not just looking for topics that pique my interest: I’m looking for articles of a certain length and density of detail. Within a few seconds, I can usually tell if the article will have enough of the raw goods to be worth revisiting, and I fold down that page before moving on.

"He knows what needs to be done..."

Of course, in most cases, you don’t end up using all of the material that a source provides: more often, you’re lucky to get a couple of tidbits that can be turned into the germ of a scene or plot point. Yet that doesn’t undermine the validity of this approach; if anything, it confirms it. I never tire of quoting the words of the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky: “Poetry is like mining for radium. The output an ounce, the labor a year.” And good ore is more likely to yield those few useful fragments. Let’s say that one percent of what a writer reads while doing research ends up being used in the finished work—a fraction that is probably on the high side. You’re better off, then, if you learn to concentrate your reading on sources fruitful enough for that proportion to pay off in a meaningful way, and, even more usefully, to nudge the story in one direction or another based on the presence of existing material. If writing a story is like an excursion into unknown territory, there’s no harm in bending the path a little in order to pass through caches that previous explorers have left behind. And as with Alaskan Bush Pilots in the Float Country, the discovery of one especially dense, unexploited mine of ideas can be enough to encourage you to spend more time in one area, and maybe to even set up camp there for good. (Like a bush pilot, a consistently productive writer needs particular skills and a set of nerves, especially when the plot is held together by termites holding hands.)

In the case of Eternal Empire, I don’t think I would have taken the story into one important direction—Ilya’s excursion into Moldova—if I hadn’t stumbled across the book Siberian Education by Nicolai Lilin. As a work of nonfiction, Lilin’s memoir has been questioned, and even while reading it for the first time, I found it hard to shake the nagging sense that it was too tidy to be real. (It was a little like the “exercise in counterintelligence” that Norman Mailer describes in the afterword to Harlot’s Ghost, as the researcher learns “to penetrate the obfuscations, cover-ups, evasions, and misapprehensions” of a dubious work.) But much of the detail, when separated from its autobiographical substrate, was convincing, and there was so much worth preserving that I deliberately bent Ilya’s path across Europe to take advantage of it. A few of the details, notably the idea of the symbolic objects that thieves use to send coded messages, ended up being important to the plot. But there was so much else that I liked that I essentially invented Chapter 35 as a kind of clearinghouse to hold it all. The pigeons on the old man’s rooftop; the door taken off its hinges, indicating that all are free to enter the house; the slightly stooped posture of a former convict used to knocking his head on the bunk above; the elaborate way the thieves make tea; how they pass a shared cigarette back and forth; all of this is taken from Lilin, and it added a lot of flavor to what was otherwise a purely functional scene. As a writer, you learn not to spurn such gifts. And taking any novel to completion is an education in itself…

The availability factor

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Theobald Smith

Whenever I do a reading from The Icon Thief, I like to joke that I wrote a novel about the Rosicrucians mostly because they were available. Other conspiracy thrillers had already sucked most of the pulp out of the likes of the Freemasons, the Illuminati, and the Priory of Sion, and although the Rosicrucian novel was a genre of its own as late as the nineteenth century, there hadn’t been any examples of it in a long time. There was also a huge amount of material—not all of it particularly interesting—on Rosicrucianism and its relationship to later occult and artistic movements, so I knew early on that I’d have my choice of sources. And I suspect that if I’d done some digging and discovered that there wasn’t much there, I would have chosen a different subject entirely. The shape of that novel, in short, was largely determined by the access I had to the resources I needed: I knew before I even began laying out the plot that I wouldn’t suffer for lack of background. The same is true of many of my short stories, the majority of which were inspired by an existing book or article that offered up an abundance of useful, concrete ideas. In many cases, the plot was explicitly tailored around the facts that I had at my disposal, and if I ended up focusing on one area rather than others, it was because of the tools I happened to have at hand.

The question of availability—or, more specifically, of whether or not you have a reasonable expectation of finding the materials you need—governs a surprising amount of creative work, both in the arts and in other fields. In The Art of Scientific Investigation, W.I.B. Beveridge tells us: “The great American bacteriologist Theobald Smith said that he always took up the problem that lay before him, chiefly because of the easy access of material, without which research is crippled.” It’s a strategy that has affinities with bricolage, or the art of making do with whatever is lying around, and it also reflects the sifting and filtering process required to distill any body of information into a readable form. (“The output an ounce, the labor a year,” as Mayakovsky says, and it only works if you have plenty of ore in the first place.) There seems to be a critical mass you need to reach before you can start serious work on any project, and although much of it has to be spun out of the creator’s own substance, like Whitman’s noiseless patient spider, it doesn’t hurt to have a ready reservoir of ideas from the outside world. Making anything worthwhile is hard enough as it is, so it helps to know from the start that you have access to a decent body of material. And this can come from the details of your own life as much as from anything else: “Write what you know” is less an admonition from up on high than a practical guideline for ensuring that you have enough with which to proceed.

Robert Scott Root-Bernstein

Of course, there are risks to this approach, since it can lead to an excessive focus on the obvious. In his valuable book Discovering, Robert Scott Root-Bernstein writes:

Where does one find problems? Not where answers already exist. There is an old story about a drunk who loses his key in a dark alley. A policeman wandering by later finds the drunk on his hands and knees under the street lamp at the corner. “Hey! What are you doing there?” “Looking for my key.” “Where’d ya lose it?” “In the alley.” “Then why are you looking under the lamp?” “It’s too dark to see in the alley.” Like the drunk, too many scientists choose their research projects within the sphere of existing light. They are scared to be ignorant, scared to founder. They are what Peter Medawar calls “philagnoists”—lovers of their own ignorance. Not so the best scientists, who seek out the unknown. Peter Carruthers, head of theoretical physics at Los Alamos, speaks for many when he says: “There’s a special tension to people who are constantly in the position of making new knowledge. You’re always out of equilibrium. When I was young, I was deeply troubled by this. Finally, I realized that if I understood too clearly what I was doing, where I was going, then I probably wasn’t working on anything very interesting.” Don’t be paranoid of the void.

Later on, Root-Bernstein adds: “There will be a crowd searching under the light. If you assume that keys to understanding nature are fairly randomly spread about, your chances of finding one are much better out in the dark because you’re likely to be the only one searching there.” The problem, then, is how to reconcile this with the availability factor, and as with most aspects of the creative process, the key lies in striking a balance: the excursions we make into the unknown are most likely to succeed if we’ve tethered ourself to a stable body of known facts, particularly if it happens to border an area of darkness. And such islands of material are more common than you might think. As a writer, I’ve learned to focus on information that is available but obscure: the world is full of ideas or subjects that have been explored up to a point and then abandoned, or relegated to a forgotten corner of intellectual history. It’s why I’ve made a point of seeking out the books that nobody reads anymore, or using a single idea as a wedge to pry my way into a body of knowledge that I wouldn’t have found if I hadn’t been looking for it. Again and again, I’ve been amazed to find ideas that were neglected, or known only to specialists, that provided a foundation for fascinating stories. It’s a big world out there, and not every lamp has a crowd beneath it. If half of being a writer is knowing where the lamps are, and being able to recognize one when you see it, the other half lies in pushing past that circle of illumination into the shadows. And you’ll have better luck if you move from the light into the dark, or the other way around, than if you focus solely on one or the other.

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.

Written by nevalalee

September 2, 2015 at 9:32 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

August 17, 2015 at 7:30 am

The act of combination

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Twyla Tharp

In the empty room you’re trying to connect the dots, linking A to B to C to maybe come up with H. Scratching is a means to identifying A, and if you can get to A, you’ve got a grip on a slippery rock wall. You’ve got purchase. You can move on to B, which is mandatory. You cannot stop with one idea. You don’t really have a workable idea until you combine two ideas.

Twyla Tharp

I have coined the term “bisociation” in order to make a distinction between the routine skills of thinking in a single “plane,” as it were, and the creative act, which, as I shall try to show, always operates on more than one plane.

Arthur Koestler

If there is any novelty in the suggestion I am about to make—and I must confess I fear there is—it lies only in the juxtaposition of ideas.

Charles Sanders Peirce

Henri Poincaré

Every day I seated myself at my work table, stayed an hour or two, tried a great number of combinations, and reached no results. One evening, contrary to my custom, I drank black coffee and could not sleep. Ideas rose in crowds; I felt them collide until pairs interlocked, so to speak, making a stable combination.

Henri Poincaré

Scientists who have made important original contributions have often had wide interests or have taken up the study of a subject different from the one in which they were originally trained. Originality often consists in finding connections or analogies between two or more objects or ideas not previously shown to have any bearing on each other.

W.I.B. Beveridge

It is obvious that invention or discovery, be it in mathematics or anywhere else, takes place by combining ideas.

Jacques Hadamard

Jacques Derrida

The philosopher must form a new combination of ideas concerning the combination of ideas.

Jacques Derrida

The essential possibility of [metaphor] lies in the broad ontological fact that new qualities and new meanings can emerge, simply come into being, out of some hitherto ungrouped combination of elements.

Philip Wheelwright

Instead of thoughts of concrete things patiently following one another in a beaten track of habitual suggestion, we have the most abrupt cross-cuts and transitions from one idea to another, the most rarefied abstractions and discriminations, the most unheard of combination of elements, the subtlest associations of analogy; in a word, we seem suddenly introduced into a seething cauldron of ideas, where everything is fizzling and bobbling about in a state of bewildering activity, where partnerships can be joined or loosened in an instant, treadmill routine is unknown, and the unexpected seems only law.

William James

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