25 April 2013

Coming Attractions: Doing The Work Of "Second-Rate Minds" (i.e. "The Book")

It is a melancholy experience for a professional mathematician to find himself writing about mathematics. The function of a mathematician is to do something, to prove new theorems, to add to mathematics, and not to talk about what he or other mathematicians have done. Statesmen despise publicists, painters despise art-critics, and physiologists, physicists, or mathematicians have usually similar feelings: there is no scorn more profound, or on the whole more justifiable, than that of the men who make for the men who explain. Exposition, criticism, appreciation, is work for second-rate minds.
G.H.Hardy, A Mathematicians' Apology (1940), available here (via Quantum Diaries Survivor).

I am in the early stages of writing (with a collaborator who will be a co-author) a short, trade non-fiction book meant for an audience of educated non-specialists.  So, I anticipate that I will be devoting significant efforts to it over the next twelve months or so.

"The book" will be less technical and academic than academic journal articles or a magnus opus like "Albion's Seed" or Gibbon's "Rise and Fall."  But, won't be a textbook or comprehensive primer either.  Instead, it will be more along the lines of popularizations of the current state of knowledge about the topics it discusses with significant original analysis and introspection exemplified, for example, in books by people like Malcomb Gladwell and Jared Diamond (or less famously, bloggers like Peter WoitMarkos Moulitsas Zúniga  and Tyler Cohen).  I am also drawing to some extent on the trend towards recognizing a class of unaffiliated academic investigators and public intellectuals that the Internet has made possible.  Relative to journalist efforts, this will be the stuff of feature articles and op-ed page essays, rather than straight news reporting.

The mission statement of the book is basically to find a more prominent place in the never ending "national discussion" for some important but under appreciated facts, developing trends, and analytical perspectives that too often are ignored in favor of conventional wisdom.  We think we provide a perspective that isn't reflected in any of the "conventional wisdom" accounts of the topics we will discuss.  This matters.  Perhaps the greatest threat to modern industrialized societies today are those that arise from "group think."  It is important to enough end participants in the discussion, but it is even more important to maximize the number of alternative perspectives expressed in those discussions which the collective audience to this national discussion can weigh and when complimentary, synthesize into an overall approach.

Of course, as a side benefit, we are also buying a ticket for us in the fame and fortune lottery of trade non-fiction writing, and if it is successful there could be successor books along the same lines.

"The book" will not primarily consisting of original research, which I leave for people who have salaried professorships, research assistants, and university resources.

Instead, "the book" will seek primarily to explain the works of others, popularizing concepts and facts that are now familiar only to those at the cutting edge of professional expertise and academic research. Of course, we will go far further in terms of synthesis, connecting of the dots, and analysis than what would be appropriate in some other forums in which I publish or write like Wikipedia article contributions, continuing education courses, bar journal articles for practicing attorneys, and legal briefs. It will be more like the occassional academic conference papers that I write every few years, but with a broader scope and intended for a more general audience.

I come to this from the perspective of someone active in politics all of his life, who actively practices law, and who has intermittently been a journalist (in addition, of course, to being a blogger before the terms was even well established).  My collaborator is a novelist and free lance writer with a solid practical experience and academic background in addressing public policy issues.

Our motives are at least as rooted in the political tactics of movement politics and "saving the world" as they are in raw economics.  While books are "old school," they are still a very effective platform for influencing the national discussion and sowing the seeds of ideas in the heads of bright people who will find their own ways to apply.  At any rate, they are effective relative to posts at a couple of blogs that are currently well into the long tail, or the discipline or industry specific academic or trade publications that similarly have only a small audience, even if that audience is an elite and influential one. 

From my perspective, good ideas mean nothing unless enough of the right people are aware of them, consider them in their professional and political lives, and apply them.  The book will help bridge the gap between what somebody knows and what lots of people know about these topics.

For example, many of the currently influential mathematics of fractal dimensions and chaotic dynamics that emerged in the late 1800s was virtually overlooked by all but a few specialist graduate students in obscure academic journals (some available only in Russian) that failed to illustrate how these ideas could be applied or incorporated into other works, until Benoît Mandelbrot took the lonely road of reinvigorating the field starting in the 1960s that only really took off when his ideas started to be popularized in the trade press in the 1980s and early 1990s.  Once people knew that these concepts were out there, however, professionals and academics in disciplines from physics to engineering to economics to mathematics to information technology and beyond started to incorporate these ideas into the crowded math and statistics canon of concepts taught to undergraduates and first year graduate students in math and science disciplines (most of which was well established before the United States adopted the Bill of Rights).

At this point, "the book" has a working title and overall theme, a lot of research and very rough draft writing for many of the chapters (although without a final determination on which chapters will stay and which will go, or on how they will be organized), an overall sense of where the book will fit on a range from very journalist to very academic, a sense of what some of the core subtopics will be, a general sense of what steps will be taken in the writing and marketing process, an agreement in principle on how tasks will be allocated between the co-authors, and an understanding about how the economics and division of credit will be addressed.  But, the devil is in the details and a great deal of the work still needs to be done.

In the interest of building up dramatic tension and allowing the ideas to gel and to be modified in the course of the writing process, I won't be providing much detail on the specific substance of what will be in the book until much, much later.  But, I will note that posts at this blog and its companion blog, Dispatches from Turtle Island, are and will continue to be one important source for the initial core of supporting facts, academic research, government reports, and analytical constructs that will be systematized, expanded upon and updated in the book.

At any rate, if you notice a reduced volume of posting over the next many months, part of this may be because my available creative capacity is being diverted to "the book." 

Stay tuned.

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