Novels, science, and novel science

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I was chatting with a friend in a monthly book group. A rare event happened this month: everybody in the group really liked the book. It turns out that that most of the books they read are not well-liked by the group. How does that happen? Well, this is a discriminating group, and there are lot of books on the market; many books aren’t that good.

We speculated about why so many non-good books are sold by publishers. The answer is embedded within the question: those books sell.

Let me overgeneralize and claim that there are two kinds of novels: First, there are those that were brought into the world because the author had a creative vision and really wanted to write the book. Second, there are novels that are written with the purpose of selling and making money. Of course, some visionary works of art also sell well, but many bestselling books aren’t great works of art. (No venn diagram should be required.) Some amazingly great novels don’t sell well, and weren’t created to be sold easily in the marketplace.

Most novels were never intended for greatness. The authors and the publishers know this, but have designed them to be enjoyed and to have the potential to sell well. When someone is shopping for a certain kind of book, then they’ll be able to buy that kind of book. Need a zombie farce? A spy thriller? A late-20s light-hearted romance? I have no problem with people writing and selling books that aren’t great. Books can be a commodity to be manufactured and sold, just like sandwiches or clothing. A book that is designed to sell fits easily fits into a predetermined category, and then does its best to conform to the expectations the category, to deliver to the consumer what was expected.

I think a similar phenomenon happens when we do experiments and write scientific papers.

First, some research happens because the investigators are passionately interested in the science and have a deeply pressing creative urge to solve problems and learn new things.

On the other hand, some research is designed to be sold on the scientific marketplace.

To advance in our careers, we need to sell our science well. The best way to do this, arguably, is to not aspire to do great science. We can sell science by taking the well trod path on theoretical bandwagon, instead of blazing our own paths.

If you want a guarantee that your science will sell well, you need to build your research around questions and theories that are hot at a given moment. If you do a good set of experiments on trendy topic, then you should be able to position your paper well in a well-regarded journal. If you do this a dozen times, then your scientific career is well on its way.

On the other hand, you could choose a topic that you are passionately interested in. You might think that this is an important set of questions that has the potential to be groundbreaking, but you don’t know if other people will feel the same way. You might be choosing to produce research that doesn’t test a theory-of-the-moment, but you think will be of long-term use to researchers in the field for many years to come. However, these kinds of papers might not sell well to high-profile journals.

Just like a novelist attempting to write a great novel instead of one that will sell well, if you are truly attempting to do great science, there is no guarantee that your science will sell. Just like there are all kinds of would-be-great novelists, there are some would-be-great scientists who are not pursuing established theories but are going off in more unexplored directions.

Of course, some science created for the marketplace is also great science, too. But the secrets to creating science that sells, are very different than the secrets to doing great science.

After all, most papers in Science and Nature are easily forgettable, just like the paperbacks for sale at your local chain bookstore.

Update: For the record, y’all, I’m not claiming that I am above doing science to be sold. That’s mostly what I do. I’m just owning that fact. There’s more on this in the comments.

Is innovation stifled by overwork? The case of Iceland

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A few years ago, I spent some vacation time in Iceland. I saw plenty of the country, and probably visited most of its museums.

near Husavik (photo by A. Chapman)

near Husavik (photo by A. Chapman)

I learned a lot about the the place, the people, and their history. I took many things home. The biggest thing I brought back was one prevailing idea — or question. It’s continued to fuel some thought:

What facilitates and what inhibits innovation?

I’m sure a historian of Iceland will cringe at this encapsulated history of the island, but here it goes anyway: The Vikings came by about a thousand years ago, and set up a number of settlements. Eventually an ice age hit, and the Viking ships stopped showing up. It got really cold, and every accessible tree was cut down as people made a subsistence living off of sheep, cattle, and fishing. Life in Iceland, before the 20th century, was hardscrabble and meager. To persist in an environment with such low productivity, people had to work very hard to simply not die. As an event of vicariant biogeograpy, the language, culture and genes of the Vikings persisted in Iceland more so than other homelands of the Vikings.

Iceland was a developing nation until the influence of World War II brought some prosperity to the island. However, there were imperialistic and trade connections with the European continent for many hundreds of years. However, most trade was the shipping of processed fish and finished wool products away from Iceland. These natural resources were harvested using traditional methods that were less efficient than the techniques practiced on the continent. They just didn’t have any other way of doing things.

The mid-atlantic ridge in Iceland (photo by T. McGlynn)

The mid-atlantic ridge (photo by T. McGlynn)

To make the long story short, people in Iceland had retained cultural practices and technologies that were no longer used in other parts. Some of these things were very inefficient compared to other ways of doing things, but the more efficient technologies hadn’t made it to Iceland.

So, this meant that people worked really, really hard, all of the time. There was little time for leisure, it seems. For example, what is the classic children’s toy from yesteryear in Iceland? Leftover sheep bones.

Here are a three examples I particularly recall about how Iceland retained inefficient practices.

  • Icelanders did not use the a spinning wheel for hundreds of years after spinning wheels had been widely adopted in Europe. Instead, Icelanders used small hand-spools which took far more time to produce a smaller quantity of thread. This is no small deal because more than one fifth of all people, including children, were working with wool, mostly for domestic use, full-time, for seven months per year.
  • Icelanders didn’t make leather. Instead, they made shoes and other material out of hide, without processing it into leather, which made these materials far less durable. When people had to take long journeys, they would have to make several pairs of hide shoes for the journey, because they would wear out so quickly en route.
  • Iceland now gets nearly all of its energy from geothermal power. Hot water is underground all over the place, and this is circulated for heating homes and public buildings. They didn’t pick up this habit until the 1940s, facilitated by the influence of foreign military powers. Meanwhile, for a thousand years, Icelanders were freezing their bottoms off, and lived in the same buildings as their livestock (sometimes in a loft directly above), in part just to stay warm.

Why didn’t Iceland have spinning wheels, or leather, or use hot spring water for heat? Because nobody had the idea, or the opportunity to implement such an idea. (Of course, people with better direct knowledge can correct me on these things. I don’t speak Icelandic, after all, and though I don’t think I was hoodwinked as a tourist this is how I understood things as was I was making my way around.)

I have two competing hypotheses that could explain the relative lack of innovation in Iceland.

  1. People were just working so damn hard, all of the time, that there was no opportunity to make the investment into developing a better way of doing things. You can’t fuss around with building a machine to process wool when you’ve got to make thread! You can’t waste hide trying to make better shoes when you need to make shoes! Maybe.
  2. Iceland had a very small population, so small and recent that the entire history of the population of the island is known. (Worried about dating a relative? There’s an app for that.) With so few people, back in the day Iceland never had an extraordinary innovator that happened to be born there. Iceland has a rich history of civic leaders, it founded the world’s first parliament, has a great history of literature and music, and nowadays has remarkable public art. But when things were really cold and dark, and isolated from the rest of the world, by the fluke of history a special person that makes major innovations just didn’t happen to be born in Iceland. Maybe.

I continue to wonder whether the answer is the first or the second, or if my premise is mistaken.

Why is this on Small Pond Science? We all keep ourselves busy with teaching, research and service. If we didn’t have things to do, then that wouldn’t be fun. However, do we keep ourselves so busy tending to minutia, that we aren’t allowing ourselves the time to innovate?

When we’re writing up our syllabi, are we so busy just getting through it that we don’t focus enough to visualize innovative — and more efficient — ways to do things? Are we so busy getting things done that we don’t use our (relative) freedom from the publish-or-perish universe to do completely new science that others aren’t willing to take a chance on? If I’m not taking the time to evaluate my current practices, then I can’t improve. Which means I need to not live too quickly. I’m clearly not that rare Ben Franklin-esque character that changes the world with a series of spectacular thoughts and deeds. But I can make sure I’m not working with my head in a rut, so that I can be open to new ideas.