capturing creative genius like a Dyson Sphere

First, a couple of apéritifs to whet your appetite:

Todd Henry invited me on the Accidental Creative podcast for a chat about getting to the best idea. I was Todd’s editor on his first book and it remains a fondly remembered collaboration (as well as a solid backlist title). If you “write and otherwise make cool stuff”—the Maven Game’s target demo—you should read it. If you lead other creative types, get Todd’s latest, too.

The Thanos to my Marvel Universe, Matthew Butterick, takes on the space-between-sentences controversy. A new study—done on behalf of the APA—suggests that using two spaces after a period aids legibility. Considering the APA is the one significant player on the (wrong) side of this debate, get out your salt grains. (Interesting that duplicitous comes from the Latin duplex, for double. Never trust a double-spacer.) 

While not as incendiary as the Oxford comma heresy—let alone the IMHO apostasy—the use of two spaces after a period still gets my hemoglobins hopping. I habitually run a find-and-replace to strip out doubles at the beginning of every developmental edit. (Try it. More satisfying than popping bubble wrap.) 

Anyway, thoughtful and well-reasoned as always from Butterick—arch-nemeses tend to be mirror images of each other, after all—so well worth a read. (On a related note, you’ll notice that I’ve re-designed the site using Butterick’s Equity typeface, proving you can put lipstick on a pig.) 

On to further provocation:

Theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson—inventor of the Dyson Sphere, not the Dyson Airblade—recently published a collection of letters. (I invite the secondary Dyson to publish his own correspondence as soon as his hand dryer, like the Sphere, inspires a pretty good episode of Star Trek.)

A selection from Dyson’s book offers insight into his relationship with bongo drummer, best-selling author, and personal style icon Richard Feynman. (Feynman also did some work in physics, I believe. I guess that’s how they knew each other? No time to check Wikipedia.)

Anyway, in a 1947 letter to a friend, Dyson writes:

Feynman is a man for whom I am developing a considerable admiration; he is the brightest of the young theoreticians here and is the first example I have met of that rare species, the native American scientist…He is always sizzling with new ideas, most of which are more spectacular than helpful and hardly any of which get very far before some newer inspiration eclipses them. His most valuable contribution to physics is as a sustainer of morale; when he bursts into the room with his latest brain wave and proceeds to expound it with lavish sound effects and waving about of the arms, life at least is not dull.

This goes back to my disparagement of unchecked creativity a few essays back. (I’d ask whether are any of you are still offended about that, but being “creatives” I imagine you’re all three lily pads ahead by now.)

Dyson went on to help reconcile one of Feynman’s theories with that of another physicist, publishing an important paper in the process. He knew this career-making publication was no earth-shaking accomplishment—he was the one physicist lucky enough to spend time with the other two. Dyson felt conflicted:

The trouble with [Feynman] is that he never will publish what he does; I sometimes feel guilty for having cut in front of him with his own ideas. However, he is now at last writing up two big papers, which will display his genius to the world; and it is possible that I have helped to make him do this by making him conscious of being cut in on, which if it be true is a valuable service on my part.

Dyson’s finding the humor in it, but it’s an important point. Endlessly creative, boundlessly energetic people like Feynman are their own worst enemies, and ripe for exploitation. Think Tesla. Sometimes, however—if the stars align—these individuals find the right collaborators, at least ones less rapacious than Thomas Edison. Then we all benefit from the creative productivity that results. And of course Dyson worked and talked with Feynman endlessly. His support went far beyond “cutting in front of him.”

Just as valuable as the volcanic genius is the other genius who can get him to sit down and finish something—by hook or by crook.

My job is coaxing creative people to produce their best work, so I pay close attention when I see it done well. More than 15 years after that last note, Dyson wrote:

We are all excited because my three friends Tomonaga, Schwinger, and Feynman won the Nobel Prize. You may remember that it was just after their great work in 1947 that I started my career by carrying further what they had begun…To some extent I can take credit for this, since Schwinger originally had all the limelight and Tomonaga and Feynman were struggling in obscurity. It was my big paper “The Radiation Theories of Tomonaga, Schwinger and Feynman” that first did justice to all three of them.

With the future of the Nobel Prize in Literature in doubt, I may not be able to provide the exact same assistance to writers, but Dyson provides some useful clues in getting great work out of others. In a way, a creative genius like Feynman is a star. A good collaborator like Dyson finds a way to harness all of the valuable energy that would otherwise scatter outward in the vastness of space. Wait a second