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29 MARCH, 2013

The Art of Observation and How to Master the Crucial Difference Between Observation and Intuition

By:

Why genius lies in the selection of what is worth observing.

“In the field of observation,” legendary disease prevention pioneer Louis Pasteur famously proclaimed in 1854, “chance favors only the prepared mind.” “Knowledge comes from noticing resemblances and recurrences in the events that happen around us,” neuroscience godfather Wilfred Trotter asserted. That keen observation is what transmutes information into knowledge is indisputable — look no further than Sherlock Holmes and his exquisite mindfulness for a proof — but how, exactly, does one cultivate that critical faculty?

From The Art of Scientific Investigation (public library; public domain) by Cambridge University animal pathology professor W. I. B. Beveridge — the same fantastic 1957 compendium that explored the role of the intuition and imagination in science and how serendipity and “chance opportunism” fuel discovery — comes a timeless meditation on the art of observation, which he insists “is not passively watching but is an active mental process,” and the importance of distinguishing it from what we call intuition.

Though a number of celebrated minds favored intuition over rationality, and even Beveridge himself extolled the merits of the intuitive in science, he sides with modern-day admonitions about our tendency to mislabel other cognitive processes as “intuition” and advises:

It is important to realize that observation is much more than merely seeing something; it also involves a mental process. In all observations there are two elements : (a) the sense-perceptual element (usually visual) and (b) the mental, which, as we have seen, may be partly conscious and partly unconscious. Where the sense-perceptual element is relatively unimportant, it is often difficult to distinguish between an observation and an ordinary intuition. For example, this sort of thing is usually referred to as an observation: “I have noticed that I get hay fever whenever I go near horses.” The hay fever and the horses are perfectly obvious, it is the connection between the two that may require astuteness to notice at first, and this is a mental process not distinguishable from an intuition. Sometimes it is possible to draw a line between the noticing and the intuition, e.g. Aristotle commented that on observing that the bright side of the moon is always toward the sun, it may suddenly occur to the observer that the explanation is that the moon shines by the light of the sun.

For the practical applications of observation, Beveridge turns to French physiologist Claude Bernard’s model, pointing out the connection-making necessary for creativity:

Claude Bernard distinguished two types of observation: (a) spontaneous or passive observations which are unexpected; and (b) induced or active observations which are deliberately sought, usually on account of an hypothesis. … Effective spontaneous observation involves firstly noticing some object or event. The thing noticed will only become significant if the mind of the observer either consciously or unconsciously relates it to some relevant knowledge or past experience, or if in pondering on it subsequently he arrives at some hypothesis. In the last section attention was called to the fact that the mind is particularly sensitive to changes or differences. This is of use in scientific observation, but what is more important and more difficult is to observe (in this instance mainly a mental process) resemblances or correlations between things that on the surface appeared quite unrelated.

Echoing Jean Jacques Rousseau’s timeless words that “real wisdom is not the knowledge of everything, but the knowledge of which things in life are necessary, which are less necessary, and which are completely unnecessary to know” and Noam Chomsky’s similar assertion centuries later, Beveridge cautions:

One cannot observe everything closely, therefore one must discriminate and try to select the significant. When practicing a branch of science, the ‘trained’ observer deliberately looks for specific things which his training has taught him are significant, but in research he often has to rely on his own discrimination, guided only by his general scientific knowledge, judgment and perhaps an hypothesis which he entertains.

He cites Alan Gregg, the then-director of Medical Sciences for the Rockefeller Foundation:

Most of the knowledge and much of the genius of the research worker lie behind his selection of what is worth observing. It is a crucial choice, often determining the success or failure of months of work, often differentiating the brilliant discoverer from the … plodder.

Observation, like all virtuous habits worth acquiring, can be cultivated with deliberate practice — a skill that Beveridge argues, as E. O. Wilson advised young scientists and social scientists have corroborated, is superior to mindlessly stored knowledge:

Powers of observation can be developed by cultivating the habit of watching things with an active, enquiring mind. It is no exaggeration to say that well developed habits of observation are more important in research than large accumulations of academic learning.

Ultimately, Beveridge argues that the art of observation depends on developing the capacity for pattern-recognition, which in turn relies on a broad pool of networked knowledge that allows you to spot the piece that doesn’t fit:

In carrying out any observation you look deliberately for each characteristic you know may be there, for any unusual feature, and especially for any suggestive associations or relationships among the things you see, or between them and what you know. … Most of the relationships observed are due to chance and have no significance, but occasionally one will lead to a fruitful idea.

[…]

Training in observation follows the same principles as training in any activity. At first one must do things consciously and laboriously, but with practice the activities gradually become automatic and unconscious and a habit is established. Effective scientific observation also requires a good background, for only by being familiar with the usual can we notice something as being unusual or unexplained.

It seems, then, that Steven Johnson was right in augmenting Pasteur’s famous words to “chance favors the connected mind.”

Despite its title, The Art of Scientific Investigation is a priceless treasure trove of insight on creativity in all domains — highly recommended. This article was illustrated with gender-gap-defying public domain images of women in science courtesy of the ever-wonderful Flickr Commons archive.

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29 MARCH, 2013

Missives from Muggings: Letters of Audacious Requests for Mark Twain, with His Snarky Comments

By:

“This is the worst piece of cheek of all.”

Earlier this week, a new book gave us a glimpse of the heart-warming fan mail Mark Twain received over the course of his career. But for every person who showered Twain with genuine and unconditional gratitude, there seemed to be a dozen demanding a range of outrageous things — the curse that comes with the blessing of inhabiting the public eye as a national celebrity. And while the art of asking without shame remains essential and commendable, some of the audacious requests Twain received, collected in R. Kent Rasmussen’s excellent Dear Mark Twain: Letters from His Readers (public library), merit a scowl or at least a scoff for their sheer impudence. Here is a small sampling.

Letters requesting endorsement were not uncommon, but on April 12, 1875, Twain received one of particular absurdity from a Goorgia “journeyman printer” by the name of B. W. Smith:

Mr. Clemens —
Dear Sir —
As this letterhead will tell you, I am on the ragged edge of sending a book of nonsense to the nonsense reading public. Being my first, with only a few years reputation as a humorous writer to back it, it needs all the stimulus possible. I want the people to see that I am known to the literary world, and my object in writing to you is simply to give me a few words — no matter how indefinite or irrevelent to the matter in hand — with your name (Mark Twain) attached. Thus, a few scratches of your pen will cost you nothing and will help me a great deal. For instance, you might say “It ought to sell” or something similar — You see my object –

First page of letter from B. W. Smith. Courtesy of the Mark Twain Papers, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

A number of the letters were preserved with Twain’s comments. On this one, he scribbled:

From some unknown person who probably has brains & modesty in about equal proportions.

Solicitations for feedback were equally bountiful. In a lengthy letter from November of 1875, an Alabama woman by the name of Louise Rutherford asked:

Sir:

I have written a book and can’t get it published. What, do you suppose, is the cause of my failure? It is a novel — the book I mean — and is sensationally perfect. In fact, it is so far ahead of most of the “roughing it” species of publications, that I am amazed beyond mea sure, at the refusal of the publishers to issue it. How did you manage to get your first work before the public? It is a “dark and bloody mystery” to me; and I would like you to explain. Perhaps if you let me into the secret I may succeed with mine.

[…]

I plead guilty to being romantic; but I believe I am more ambitious than romantic; and I wish you would help me with a little advice about my book. I am not able to pay beforehand, for its publication, and I don’t know whether I could do anything with it, unless I had money. Can I, do you think? Please be so obliging as to tell me. I have no friend who is informed in such matters.

Twain’s comment:

From a muggins in Alabama.

Though clearly self-aware of his audacity, this 18-year-old boy writing Twain in May of 1876 was anything but self-conscious about it:

Mr. Clemens,
Dear Sir,

I am going to make bold to ask of you a great favor. I wish to publish a small sheet, say, about 16×22 inches — divided into four pages of three columns each.

And I wish your permission to use the title (Mark Twain) as editor. I want you to furnish such matter as would in your own opinion, be suitable, for such a paper, as I wish to have this filled with your fun and sentiment. I, shall, if you oblige me, sell them at Philadelphia, this summer, and I assure you that everything shall be conducted in such a manner as you would agree to. There shall be no advertisements in the paper — but all space shall be filled with reading matter. Paragraphs can be selected from other Authors, which will lessen your labors, somewhat. The matter need not of necessity, all be fresh, but of course you will use your own judgment in that matter.

I am aware that in presuming to ask such a favor of you, since your time must be so completely occupied that I am rather audacious, and perhaps, impertinent. . . .

I will allow you what remuneration you consider just and right, either paying you a certain sum at the start or allowing you a percentage on the sales —

If you think it best and necessary I will come to Hartford and see you, about the plan. I hope and trust that you will grant me this favor, and greatly oblige,

Your Obedient Servant
Charles. S. Babcock.

Twain’s comment:

From a muggings

In November of 1879, Twain — born Samuel Clemens — received one of many frequent requests to explain his pseudonym:

My dear Sir

Will you have the goodness to send me as fully as you may be able the history of y’r pseudonym –“ Mark Twain.” How it was originated when you first used it, & in what connection on all these points I sh. be exceedingly glad to be informed.

I am preparing a handy book on pseudonyms — to include the history of the more important ones — wh. the Harpers are to publish — and it is extremely desirable th. I have the information for wh. I ask. With the hope th. I am putting you to no great inconvenience

Believe me Dear Sir
to be faithfully:
Rev. J. Dewitt Miller

Though he tended to generally ignore such inquiries, Twain was particularly annoyed by this one, due in part to its tone of especial entitlement and in part, no doubt, to its vexing abbreviations. His irritated comment:

From an ass — Not answered

In August of 1870, a moderately successful Canadian humorist asked:

Mr Clemens
Dear Sir, —
What will you charge to write me a lecture. One that will take about 1 ¼ hours to deliver it. Humorous and stirring, but not too pathetic. An early answer will very much oblige

Yours Respectfully
R. T. Lowery
Petrolea Ont Can.

Twain wrote in the margin:

Ass.

Autograph solicitations were among the most common requests, which Twain found invariably annoying — but hardly so much so as this laconic yet entitled one from an Iowa man named Clarence E. Ash:

Samuel Clemmens
Dear Sir,

The favor of your Autograph is respectfully solicited.

Twain couldn’t curtail his irritation, scribbling in outrage:

Good God!

In March of 1875, he received the following behest:

Mr. Sam Clemens
Dear Sir:

A few young people in town are about forming a literary club, and as we cannot decide upon a name, it was proposed that I should write to you and ask your advice.

The object of the club is improvement combined with pleasure.

At our meetings we have an entertainment about an hour long, consisting of declamations, readings, music &c., and then the rest of the evening is spent in social amusements.

Several names have been proposed, but we cannot find an appropriate one.

If you will help us out, provided it does not inconvenience you too much, we shall feel greatly indebted to you

Very truly yours,
S. P. Moor house
Sec.

Twain, suspecting the letter was an autograph grub masquerading as an already audacious request, jotted a comment:

This is the worst piece of cheek of all.

Such autograph ploys were, in fact, quite common. In November of 1901, Twain received the following short letter:

Dear Mr. Mark Twain: —

I am a little girl six years old. I have read your stories ever since they first came out.

I have a cat named Kitty, and a dog named Pup.
I like to guess puzzles. Did you write a story for the Herald Com-pe-ti-tion?
I hope you will answer my letter.

Yours truly,
Augusta Kortrecht.

Observing the mature handwriting, Twain commented unforgivingly:

Lame attempt of a middle-aged liar to pull an autograph.

Some of the most common requests Train received were for loans, ranging from the naive to the auspiciously audacious. In 1874, for instance, he received a letter from a woman who signed as Mrs. Mary Margaret Field. She outlined her financial problems plaguing her life of relative privilege, even noting she still owns a fair amount of valuable assets and real estate, the asked Twain for a one-hundred-dollar loan:

I write to you, because I have read sketches of yr life, and it seems to me, that, as you have raised yourself from obscurity and poverty, by your own talents and energy, you may feel some interest in the struggles of a Woman, who has supported herself, entirely, creditably, and honorably, by her pen.

[…]

I cannot tell you how earnestly I pray that your heart may be moved to assist me. — In your happy home, — wealthy, fortunate, famous and beloved, as you now are, you may have forgotten the old days of struggle. — Yet call them up once more, for a moment, to your mind, & for their sake, & because of the knowledge of suffering they gave you, have compassion on me, — for indeed, my distress is very deep, & genuine, and I know not which way to turn for relief.

Twain rarely responded to these letters, but when pushed beyond the limits of his irritation-tolerance, he did — and he did with fierce comedic bile:

Madam: Your distress would move the heart of a statue. Indeed it would move the entire statue if it were on rollers. I have seen looked upon poverty & its attendant misery in many lands, & in my own person I have suffered in this sort: but I never have heard of a case so bitter as yours. Nothing in the world between you & starvation but a lucrative literary situation, a few diamonds & things, & three thousand seven hundred dollars worth of town property. How you must suffer. I do not know that there is any relief for misery like this. Suicide has been recommended by some authors.

Letter from Ola A. Smith. Courtesy of the Mark Twain Papers, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

In April of 1880, a Massachusetts spinster named Ola A. Smith made a similar request, far more modest in both sum and word count, yet doubly entertaining in its blend of “logical” reasoning and witty audacity:

Mr. Clemens,
Gracious Sir; —

You are rich. To lose $10.00 would not make you miserable.
I am poor. To gain $10.00 would not make me miserable.

Please send me $10.00 (ten dollars).

Twain’s comment:

O my!

Dear Mark Twain is just as delightful in its entirety. To fully appreciate the era’s epistolary charisma, complement it with this vintage guide to the etiquette of letter-writing from the same period.

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28 MARCH, 2013

Afterwords: Moving Letters of Condolence on Virginia Woolf’s Death

By:

T.S. Eliot, Edith Sitwell, E.M. Foster, Elizabeth Bowen, H.G. Wells, and others grapple with the ineffable.

On March 28, 1941, shortly after the gruesome onset of WWII, Virginia Woolf filled the pockets of her overcoat with rocks, treaded into the River Ouse behind the house in East Sussex where she lived with her husband Leonard, and drowned herself. She had succumbed to a relapse of the all-consuming depression she had narrowly escaped in her youth. Once news of her death broke, an outpour of condolence letters captured the enormous collective grief, mourning at once the deeply personal emptiness left behind by a remarkable woman and a loyal friend, and the severe cultural loss of a brilliant mind and a transcendent artist. The most moving of these letters are collected in Afterwords: Letters on the Death of Virginia Woolf (public library), edited by University of Sussex researcher Sybil Oldfield — a rousing monument to Woolf’s legacy as an author, humanist, and tireless exponent of the inner light of being.

Oldfield poignantly observes:

Virginia Woolf’s fundamental gift to women was to give us the courage and happiness to think our own thoughts.

One of the letters contained P. H. Wallis’s stirring obituary for Woolf:

In her person, the character of her intellect and irradiating property of her imagination, there was revealed the spiritual antithesis of all that is connoted in the phrase ‘Hitlerism.’ More than any other writer of her generation she grew to be regarded as the apostle of culture, of a learning humanized by the breath of life [and] of a quality of living the more radiant because of its quickening by things of the spirit.

Three days after the suicide, Virginia’s one-time lover and lifelong friend Vita Sackville-West — one of the seven people to whom Leonard had broken the news before the Times and BBC announcements — captures the ineffable grief of the loss in a letter to Leonard:

The loveliest mind and spirit I ever knew, immortal both to the world and us who loved her. … This is not a hard letter to write as you will know something of what I feel and words are unnecessary. For you I feel a really overwhelming sorrow, and for myself a loss which can never diminish.

A week later, on April 7, Vita replied to a distraught letter by Dame Ethel Smyth, one of the other seven whom Leonard had alerted to the tragedy:

Darling Ethel I wish I could say something comforting. All I can feel is that it is better for her to be dead than mad, and I do thank God that she has not been found. The river is tidal so she has probably been carried out to sea. She loved the sea.

But rather than being swept out to the ocean, Woolf’s body, like her spirit had throughout her life, defied the mainstream and was found three weeks later entangled in branches under the river bank. On April 20, upon hearing the news, Vita sent the following stirring letter to artist Vanessa Bell, Woolf’s sister:

My dear Vanessa,

I am so horrified by the news that Virginia has been found that I scarcely know whether to write to you or not. I had gathered from Leonard some time ago that the search had been given up, and was so thankful, partly because it felt that there was something fitting in the idea of her being carried out to the sea, (a small comfort in the midst of all this tragedy,) and partly because it would spare you and Leonard so much. I really do not know what to say, except that I am haunted by the imagining of what you may both have had to go through. I won’t write to Leonard, such blundering words as I write to you; but if you think you can do so, perhaps you will tell him sometime that I wrote.

A number of the condolence letters came from some of the era’s literary greats. T. S. Eliot wrote Leonard on April 4, 1941:

Dear Leonard

I only learned the news yesterday afternoon when I was in London, having had no previous intimation. For myself and others it is the end of a world. I merely feel quite numb at the moment, and can’t think about this or anything else, but I want you to know that you are as constantly in my mind as in anyone’s.

Affectionately,
Tom

On April 3, E. M. Forster wrote:

Dear Leonard,

I have just seen The Times, feel a bit trembly and unable to think of anyone but myself. I will write again to you. As I daresay you know she had invited me to come and I had suggested doing so later in this month. I am just going to Cambridge; dear Leonard, it will seem empty and strange. I can’t write any more now, only send my deepest love and sadness. Leslie Humphrey came over that very day and we talked a great deal about Virginia, he will be desolated like so many of all generations.

On April 4, poet Edith Sitwell reached out to Leonard and shared in the mourning:

No words can express our feelings at this dreadful heartrending thing. We are absolutely overcome. … It cannot help you in the least to know how many people must be feeling a desperate sense of loss. I know that we do, here, — but that does not help you in the least. Nothing can.

Perhaps the day will come when we shall think, ‘At least she was spared seeing people sink lower and lower, and all the new desecrations and shames;’ but at the moment that doesn’t help at all.

When I think of that noble and high spirit and mind!

There isn’t anything one can say, and one must not intrude on your sorrow. But all my life I shall remember the feeling of light, and of happiness, that she gave one. As a person, as well as in her art. Everything seemed worth while, important, and beautiful.

On April 10, H. G. Wells wrote Leonard:

I’ve been wanting to write to you these days about this distressful break in your life and finding it difficult to say what I had to say. you see I know you and your work very well. I have an immense respect for it. … I am concerned before anything else that you should carry on. Virginia I met only twice. Then she was invariably charming and delightful. But I knew she had these moods and phases that at once deepen and enslave affection. She must leave you extraordinarily void. I understand about that sort of thing but I cannot write about that sort of thing. But I do care for you and your work and I want to tell you that.

On April 8, Elizabeth Bowen, one of the last friends to see Woolf before the depression consumed her and among the seven personally informed of the suicide, replied to a letter from Leonard:

You said not to answer your letter, and above all I don’t want to trouble you with words now. And it is no time to speak of my own feeling. As far as I am concerned, a great deal of the meaning seems to have gone out of this world. She illuminated everything, and one referred the most trivial things to her in one’s thoughts. To have been allowed to know her and love her is a great thing.

But perhaps most heartbreaking of all is a note from an anonymous refugee reader who had intended to write Woolf a letter of appreciation, but instead lamented all too late:

Artists must know that they are understood and that there are ‘Common Readers’ in the background.

Woolf’s own last words, penned in her famous diary on January 4, 1929, are at once tragic and serene, reminiscent of Henry Miller’s contention that “all is creation, all is change, all is flux, all is metamorphosis.” Woolf writes:

Now is life very solid or very shifting? I am haunted by the two contradictions. This has gone on forever; goes down to the bottom of the world — this moment I stand on. Also it is transitory, flying, diaphanous. I shall pass like a cloud on the waves. Perhaps it may be that though we change, one flying after another, so quick, so quick, yet we are somehow successive and continuous we human beings, and show the light through. But what is the light?

Complement Afterwords with Patti Smith’s moving tribute to Woolf.

Image via National Portrait Gallery

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