Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Reading Recommendations for Idea-Hunters

The onset of August always brings with it a bittersweet reminder that summer's end is not that far away, but it also means that there is still one month of summer remaining, and that that time can be well-spent reading. What better to read about, this year, than lessons from accomplished idea-hunters? There are a number of suggestions in this vein that I'd like to offer (in no apparent order):
The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Provence, by Martin Gayford. It's 1888, and not yet the superstars that they would eventually become, and the young Van Gogh and Gauguin were each in search of new ideas to reboot their flagging careers. Nine weeks spent together in the South of France, explicitly to learn from each other, is a wonderful insight into the lengths that some will go to seed their idea-capital. I am particularly fascinated by the thought that since they had never previously met, they sent each other self-portraits so that they could be recognized when Gauguin made it to Arles. The lessons they shared there ranged from perspectives and styles to the media with which to paint, and the book is a wonderful reminder of much of what we know about the need for agility to be able to move, both physically and mentally, to places where the probabilities of catching new new ideas will be higher.
The Man Who Loved China by Simon Winchester. This biography of Joseph Needham, one of the 20th century's great China scholars, is a virtual "master-class" on one very successful idea-hunter's practices. Needham, who essentially established our knowledge of China's historical science and technology, went about his craft in a highly disciplined fashion and it is no coincidence that his work has had such a profound and lasting impact on those of us who study China's scientific and technical trajectories.
A Brilliant Darkness: The Extraordinary Life and Mysterious Disappearance of Ettore Majorana, the Troubled Genius of the Nuclear Age, by Joao Magueljo. For me, reading this book reminded me of reading Kerouac's On the Road. As thrilling for its story as its cadence, the book spills across the tumultuous history of mid-century European physics with all of its complications and romance. Throw-in Enrico Fermi's Via Panisperna boys, and you even have a "Virtuoso Teams" story as well!
Charles Darwin "Voyaging" by Janet Browne (volume 1 of two volumes on Darwin). Darwin changed our world, but not by himself. This book is a treatise on the powers of networking and the power of including more and more different minds in idea-hunting. It is also a primer on how personal modesty and professional success do not have to be mutually exclusive, if the capacity to learn is nurtured.
Faust in Copenhagen, by Gino Segre. Also a great book on networking, this wonderful story of the "family" of scientists who in the 1930s stood at the inflection point between classical physics and quantum mechanics is a very useful exploration about how new ideas move from idea-hunter to idea-hunter and how distortions such as geographic space, political ideology and institutional pride can affect the flow of a new idea.
The Murrow Boys: Pioneers on the Front Lines of Broadcast Journalism, by Lynne Olson and Stanley W. Cloud. Perhaps, best known today for his courage in standing up against Senator Joe McCarthy, and the anti-communist witch-hunts of the 1950s, Edward R. Murrow also deserves our respect for his work in "inventing" the modern field of broadcast journalism. This book describes Murrow's role in creating the way that today's news reaches us, and thevirtuoso team he assembled to cover the second World War.

No comments: