Stray thoughts and found morsels on life, research, and the beauty in the art of ideas.

I always thought that my research would be my legacy. But when I ask my students, none of them recognize the names of my famous advisers. Their work continues to matter, but often people have forgotten who did it. I hope my work continues to make a difference, in the sense that it gives way to the contributions of the future. Our students and their students are not here to perpetuate our ideas, but rather to incorporate — often without attribution — our ideas into the ideas of tomorrow.
— Professor Robert J. Sternberg, Career Advice from an Oldish Not-Quite Geezer, 2015
Science is not a body of facts that emerge, like an orderly string of light bulbs, to illuminate a linear path to universal truth. Rather, science (to paraphrase Henry Gee, an editor at Nature) is a method to quantify doubt about a hypothesis, and to find the contexts in which a phenomenon is likely. Failure to replicate is not a bug; it is a feature. It is what leads us along the path — the wonderfully twisty path — of scientific discovery.
— Professor Lisa Feldman Barrett, Psychology is not in Crisis, 2015
You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, “Look at that, you son of a bitch.”
— Ed Mitchell, Apollo 14 Astronaut, 1930-2016
There are men charged with the duty of examining the construction of the plants, animals, and soils which are the instruments of the great orchestra. These men are called professors. Each one selects one instrument and spends his life taking it apart and describing its strings and sounding boards. The process of dismemberment is called research. The place for dismemberment is called a university. A professor may pluck the strings of his own instrument, but never that of another, and if he listens for music he must never admit it to his fellow or to his students. For all are restrained by an ironbound taboo which decrees that the construction of instruments is the domain of science, while the detection of harmony is the domain of poets. Professors serve science and science serves progress. It serves progress so well that many of the more intricate instruments are stepped upon and broken in the rush to spread progress to all backward lands. One by one the parts are thus stricken from the songs of songs. If the professor is able to classify each instrument before it is broken, he is well content.
— Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, 1949
I was in the cafeteria and some guy, fooling around, throws a plate in the air. As the plate went up in the air I saw it wobble... I had nothing to do, so I start to figure out the motion of the rotating plate... I went on to work out equations of wobbles. Then I thought about how electron orbits start to move in relativity. Then there’s the Dirac Equation in electrodynamics. And then quantum electrodynamics. And before I knew it I was ``playing’’ - working, really - with the same old problem that I loved so much, that I had stopped working on when I went to Los Alamos: my thesis-type problems; all those old-fashioned, wonderful things. It was effortless. It was easy to play with these things. It was like uncorking a bottle: Everything flowed out effortlessly. I almost tried to resist it! There was no importance to what I was doing, but ultimately there was. The diagrams and the whole business that I got the Nobel Prize for came from that piddling around with the wobbling plate.
— Richard Feynman, "Surely you're joking, Mr. Feynman'', 1985
The advice I like to give young artists, or really anybody who’ll listen to me, is not to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. Things occur to you. If you’re sitting around trying to dream up a great art idea, you can sit there a long time before anything happens. But if you just get to work, something will occur to you and something else will occur to you and something else that you reject will push you in another direction. Inspiration is absolutely unnecessary and somehow deceptive. You feel like you need this great idea before you can get down to work, and I find that’s almost never the case.
— Chuck Close, Wisdom, 2008
This day I completed my thirty first year, and conceived that I had, in all human probability, now existed for about half the period which I am to remain in this sublunary world. I reflected that I had as yet done but little, very little, indeed, to further the happiness of the human race, or to advance the information of the succeeding generation. I viewed with regret the many hours I have spent in indolence, and now sorely feel the want of that information which those hours would have given me had they been judiciously expended. But, since they are past and cannot be recalled, I dash from me the gloomy thought, and resolve in the future to redouble my exertions and at least endeavor to promote those two primary objects of human existence, by giving them the aid of that portion of talents which nature and fortune have bestowed on me; or, in the future, to live for mankind, as I have heretofore lived for myself.
— Merriweather Lewis, August 18, 1805
You don’t need complex sentences to express complex ideas. When specialists in some abstruse topic talk to one another about ideas in their field, they don’t use sentences any more complex than they do when talking about what to have for lunch. They use different words, certainly. But even those they use no more than necessary. And in my experience, the harder the subject, the more informally experts speak. Partly, I think, because they have less to prove, and partly because the harder the ideas you’re talking about, the less you can afford to let language get in the way.
— Paul Graham, "Write Like You Talk", 2015
There’s a vastness here and I believe that the people who are born here breathe that vastness into their soul. They dream big dreams and think big thoughts, because there is nothing to hem them in.
— Conrad Hilton, on Texas
Being a geek is all about being honest about what you enjoy and not being afraid to demonstrate that affection. It means never having to play it cool about how much you like something. It’s basically a license to proudly emote on a somewhat childish level rather than behave like a supposed adult. Being a geek is extremely liberating.
— Simon Pegg
I think provincialism is an endemic characteristic with mankind. I think everyone everywhere is provincial. But it is particularly striking with Texans, and we tend to be very Tex-centric.
— Author Molly Ivins, 2004
One of the things that’s been really refreshing in dealing with scientists—as opposed to say politicians or most business people—is that scientists are wonderfully candid, they’ll talk shit on their colleagues. They’re just firing on all cylinders all the time because they traffic in ideas, and that’s what’s important to them.
— Ross Anderson, Longform Podcast, July 2015
The more you can convince yourself that you need never make difficult choices – because there will be enough time for everything – the less you will feel obliged to ask yourself whether the life you are choosing is the right one.
— Oliver Burkeman, "Why Time Management is Ruining Our Lives", 2016
Stay afraid, but do it anyway. What’s important is the action. You don’t have to wait to be confident. Just do it and eventually the confidence will follow.
— Carrie Fisher, 2013
We have lots of different attitudes, but in one of our attitudes as human beings, we make up a romantic tale about ourselves. Falling in love is mysterious, thinking is mysterious... and so we create great words like “creativity.” Creativity is thinking; it just happens to be thinking that leads to results that we think are great.
— Herb Simon, Interview, 1990
What good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns, and prosperous farms, embellished with all the improvements art can devise and industry execute?
— Andrew Jackson, Inaugural Address, 1829
People didn’t think we’d be able to build an engine. So we built an engine. They said, “you’ll never get to orbit.” So we got Falcon 1 to orbit. [...] Difficult problems are difficult to solve, and most people are afraid to jump into something where failure is a highly likely outcome. True world-changing humans are those that are like, Screw it. This is an important problem. I don’t care if I fail, I’ve got to try.
— Gwynne Shotwell, President of SpaceX, 2014
It is only half-an-hour’ – ‘It is only an afternoon’ — ‘It is only an evening,’ people say to me over and over again; but they don’t know that it is impossible to command one’s self sometimes to any stipulated and set disposal of five minutes — or that the mere consciousness of an engagement will sometimes worry a whole day…
— Charles Dickens to Maria Winter, 1855
Anyone who says the artist’s field is all answers and no questions has never done any writing or had any dealings with imagery. The artist observes, selects, guesses and synthesizes … You are right to demand that an author take conscious stock of what he is doing, but you are confusing two concepts: answering the questions and formulating them correctly. Only the latter is required of an author.
— Anton Chekov, Selected Letters, 1888
There is still no substitute for hard work and humility. And if you want to get your foot in the door, it helps to get your fingers off your smartphones, look people in the eye, engage. Ultimately, your future is in the hands of humans, not electronic devices. Unless, of course, people like Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, and Steve Wozniak are right about artificial intelligence, in which case we’ll all end up the family pets to some android.
— Meredith Vieira, Boston University Commencement Address, May 2015
Sonder. n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.
— John Koenig, Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, 2013
The love of complexity without reductionism makes art; the love of complexity with reductionism makes science.
— E.O. Wilson, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, 1998
First you set yourself to rights. And then your house. And then your corner of the sky. And then after that...
— Auri, The Slow Regard of Silent Things, 2014
Either this is madness or it is Hell.” “It is neither,” calmly replied the voice of the Sphere, “it is Knowledge; it is Three Dimensions: open your eye once again and try to look steadily.
— Edwin A Abbott, "Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions", 1884
Gentlemen, some of the ideas I have expressed may appear to many of you hardly realizable; nevertheless, they are the result of long-continued thought and work. You would judge them more justly if you would have devoted your life to them, as I have done. With ideas it is like with dizzy heights you climb: At first they cause you discomfort and you are anxious to get down, distrustful of your own powers; but soon the remoteness of the turmoil of life and the inspiring influence of the altitude calm your blood; your step gets firm and sure and you begin to look—for dizzier heights.
— Nikola Tesla, "On Electricity", 1897
In the end, you know, we are very minor blips in a cosmic story. Aspirations for importance or significance are the illusions of the ignorant. All our hopes are minor, except to us; but some things matter because we choose to make them matter. What might make a difference to us, I think, is whether in our tiny roles, in our brief time, we inhabit life gently and add more beauty than ugliness.
— Jim March, "Ideas as Art", 2006
How strange and wonderful is our home, our earth, with its swirling and vaporous atmosphere, its flowing and frozen liquids, its trembling plants, its creeping, crawling, climbing creatures, the croaking things with wings that hang on rocks and soar through the fog, the furry grass, the scaly seas. To see our world as a space traveler might see it for the first time, through Venusian eyes or Martian antennae, how utterly rich and wild it would seem, how far beyond the power of the craziest, spaced-out, acid-headed imagination, even a god’s, to conjure up from nothing.
— Edward Abbey, Appalachian Wilderness, 1970
The idea of innovation is the idea of progress stripped of the aspirations of the Enlightenment, scrubbed clean of the horrors of the twentieth century, and relieved of its critics. Disruptive innovation goes further, holding out the hope of salvation against the very damnation it describes: disrupt, and you will be saved.
— Jill Lepore, The Disruption Machine, 2014
Once you decide on your occupation... you must immerse yourself in your work. You have to fall in love with your work. Never complain about your job. You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That’s the secret of success... and is the key to being regarded honorably.
— Jiro Ono, "Jiro Dreams of Sushi", 2011
Business art is the step that comes after art. I started as a commercial artist, and I want to finish as a business artist. Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. During the hippie era people put down the idea of business. They’d say “money is bad” and “working is bad”. But making money is art, and working is art - and good business is the best art.
— Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, 1977
A pernicious excitement to learn and play chess has spread all over the country, and numerous clubs for practicing this game have been formed in cities and villages. Why should we regret this? it may be asked. We answer, chess is a mere amusement of a very inferior character, which robs the mind of valuable time that might be devoted to nobler acquirements, while at the same time it affords no benefit whatever to the body.
— Scientific American, Chess-Playing Excitement, 1859
It is an old and true maxim that ‘a drop of honey catches more flies than a gallon of gall.’ So with men. If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend. Therein is a drop of honey that catches his heart, which, say what he will, is the great highroad to his reason, and which, once gained, you will find but little trouble in convincing him of the justice of your cause, if indeed that cause is really a good one.
— Abraham Lincoln, Temperance Address, 1842
The ecstasies of the spoken word, when scholarship is at stake, leave the deep reader and the long listener hungry for more. Writing is an often-painful task that can feel like the death of one’s past. Equally discomfiting is seeing one’s present commitments to truths crumble once one begins to tap away at the keyboard or scar the page with ink. Writing demands a different sort of apprenticeship to ideas than does speaking. It beckons one to revisit over an extended, or at least delayed, period the same material and to revise what one thinks. Revision is reading again and again what one writes so that one can think again and again about what one wants to say and in turn determine if better and deeper things can be said.
— Michael Eric Dyson, The Ghost of Cornel West, 2015
Relax. You’re a monkey, barely out of the trees. You had to be trained not to shit yourself. And it took years. Now you’re thousands of miles from the savannah, wrapped in plant fiber and animal skin to keep warm, and you’re walking around grumbling about how some other monkeys don’t like what kind of monkey you are. Go climb a tree or jump in a lake! Dig a wild flower and gift it to a monkey you like! But for God’s sake, don’t spend your short little monkey life sad.
— Zach Weiner, "Darwin's Advice", 2013
How deep into the muck of mediocrity a creative project can sink as it takes those first vulnerable steps from luxurious abstraction to unforgiving reality.
— Hugo Lindgren, NYTimes, 2013
Scavenging is a richly generative mode - a way of being in the world that sharpens our attention, deepens our curiosity, and gives us an astounding wealth of material.
— Leni Zumas, Working the Hole, 2013
The most contentious question in business is whether success comes from luck or skill…Steve Jobs, Jack Dorsey, and Elon Musk, have created several multibillion-dollar companies. If success was mostly a matter of luck, these types of serial entrepreneurs probably wouldn’t exist.
— Peter Thiel, Zero to One, 2014
Nobody said I was capable, nobody said I was smart. Nobody said that I would be a very capable person that would do something significant or meaningful in the future. I’m curious why I would be able to come along such a long way and be able to still be so healthy.
— Jack Ma, Founder of Alibaba, 2013
Talent is able to achieve what is beyond other people’s capacity to achieve, yet not what is beyond their capacity of apprehension; therefore it at once finds its appreciators. The achievement of genius, on the other hand, transcends not only others’ capacity of achievement, but also their capacity of apprehension; therefore they do not become immediately aware of it. Talent is like the marksman who hits a target which others cannot reach; genius is like the marksman who hits a target, as far as which others cannot even see.
— Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, 1818
Here lies a man who knew how to get around men much cleverer than himself.
— Andrew Carnegie, 1902
I aim to fight as if I am right, and listen as if I am wrong.
— Robert Sutton, HBR, 2010
The future is already here - it’s just not evenly distributed yet.
— William Gibson, The Economist, 2003
I think that one thing that I do is bring ideas from one field of knowledge into another field of knowledge. And, I’ve often said I don’t think that I’m smarter than a lot of other scientists, but perhaps I think more about the problems. I have a picture, a sort of general theory of the universe in my mind that I’ve built up over the decades. If I read an article, or hear someone give a seminar talk, or in some other way get some piece of information about science that I hadn’t heard before, I ask myself, “How does that fit into my picture of the universe?” and if it doesn’t fit, I ask, “Why doesn’t it fit in?”
— Linus Pauling, Quoted in "Creativity", 1996
Science contributes moral as well as material blessings to the world. Its great moral contribution is objectivity, or the scientific point of view. This means doubting everything except facts; it means hewing to the facts, let the chips fall where they may. One of the facts hewn to by science is that every river needs more people, and all people need more inventions, and hence more science; the good life depends on the indefinite extension of this chain of logic.
— Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, 1949
One of the sneakier pitfalls of an efficiency-based attitude to time is that we start to feel pressured to use our leisure time “productively”, too – an attitude which implies that enjoying leisure for its own sake, which you might have assumed was the whole point of leisure, is somehow not quite enough. And so we find ourselves, for example, travelling to unfamiliar places not for the sheer experience of travel, but in order to add to our mental storehouse of experiences, or to our Instagram feeds. We go walking or running to improve our health, not for the pleasure of movement; we approach the tasks of parenthood with a fixation on the successful future adults we hope to create.
— Oliver Burkeman, "Why Time Management is Ruining Our Lives", 2016
I am an intelligent, unsociable, but adaptable person. I would like to dispel any untrue rumors about me. I am not edible. I cannot fly. I cannot use telekinesis. My brain is not large enough to destroy the entire world when unfolded. I did not teach my long-haired guinea pig Chronos to eat everything in sight (that is the nature of the long-haired guinea pig).
— 11 year old boy with Asperger's, Self Description, in Osborne, 2000
It seems that the influence of your teacher has been to give you a false idea of what are worthwhile problems. The worthwhile problems are the ones you can really solve or help solve, the ones you can really contribute something to. A problem is grand in science if it lies before us unsolved and we see some way for us to make some headway into it. I would advise you to take even simpler, or as you say, humbler, problems until you find some you can really solve easily, no matter how trivial. You will get the pleasure of success, and of helping your fellow man, even if it is only to answer a question in the mind of a colleague less able than you.
— Richard Feynman, Letter to Koichi Mano, 1966
Before I go on with this short history, let me make a general observation — the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.
— F. Scott Fitzgerald, "The Crack-Up", 1936
I told her we were going to get married, and all she could talk about was frogs. She said there’s these hills where it’s hot and rains all the time, and in the rainforests there are these very tall trees and right in the top branches of the trees there are these like great big flowers called . . . bromeliads, I think, and water gets into the flowers and makes little pools and there’s a type of frog that lays eggs in the pools and tadpoles hatch and grow into new frogs and these little frogs live their whole lives in the flowers right at the top of the trees and don’t even know about the ground, and once you know the world is full of things like that, your life is never the same.
— Masklin, Wings, 2004
An expert is a person who has found out by his own painful experience all the mistakes that one can make in a very narrow field.
— Niels Bohr, LIFE Magazine, 1954
The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones, which ramify, for those brought up as most of us have been, into every corner of our minds.
— John Maynard Keynes, 1935
Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.
— Ira Glass, The Art of Storytelling, 2009