Eureka Moments III

Tuesday, October 01, 1996
A copy of the universe is not what is required of art; one of the damned things is ample.

Rebecca West, from The Creators, by Daniel J. Boorstin*

I’ve always played around. It’s hard to explain it very well. When I was a kid I had a laboratory. Although I’m now in theoretical work, I originally played experimentally. It’s a bad term--I mean that I fooled about. I never did experiments in a scientific sense, to find out something. I would make radios, or try to make a photocell work. I had a spark plug from an old Ford car that I would set up and use to burn holes in paper, or see what would happen when I tried to put a spark through a vacuum tube. But I never kept a notebook of things I did every day, or made careful measurements. I wasn’t that kind of a scientist, so to speak. I was just playing, like a child playing, but with different toys.

Richard Feynman, from No Ordinary Genius: The Illustrated Richard Feynman, edited by Christopher Sykes

When Feynman faced a problem he was unusually good at going back to being like a child, ignoring what everyone else thinks, and saying, Now, what have we got here?

He was so unstuck and if something didn’t work he would look at it in another way. He had so many different good ways. He would do something in ten minutes that might take the average physicist a year, so he was just wonderfully productive. I attribute what they call genius to having a bunch of characteristics:

--Don’t respond to peer pressure.

--Keep track of what the problem really is; less wishful thinking.

--Have a lot of ways of representing things. If one way doesn’t work, switch quickly to another one.

The important thing is not to persist; I think the reason most people fail is that they are too determined to make something work only because they are attached to it. Talking to Feynman, whatever came up he would say, Well, here’s another way to look at it.

The least stuck person I have ever known.

Marvin Minsky, in No Ordinary Genius

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf, entry for May 11, 1919, from A Writer’s Diary

I had long been trying to write a story on this subject, to find a body, a vehicle, for that strong sense of man’s double being, which must at times come in upon and overwhelm the mind of every thinking creature. . . . For two days I went about racking my brains for a plot of any sort; and on the second night I dreamed the scene at the window, and a scene afterwards split in two, in which Hyde, pursued for some crime, took the powder and underwent the change in the presence of his pursuers. All the rest was made awake, and consciously.

Robert Louis Stevenson, A Chapter on Dreams, Memories and Portraits, Random Memories, Memories of Myself

Well, you know, when I look at a cell, I get down in that cell and look around. You’re not conscious of anything else. . . . You are so absorbed that even small things get big. . . . Nothing else matters. You’re noticing more and more things that most people couldn’t see because they didn’t go intently over each part, slowly but with great intensity. . . . It’s the intensity of your absorption. I’m sure painters have the same thing happen right along.

Barbara McClintock, from Nobel Prize Women in Science, by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne

I drew pictures rapidly and with few lines, because I had to write most of the pieces, too, and couldn’t monkey long with the drawings. The divine urge was no higher than that.

James Thurber, on running the Ohio State University Sundial when many of his classmates were at war

Authors and actors and artists and such

Never know nothing, and never know


Sculptors and singers and those of

their kidney

Tell their affairs from Seattle to


Playwrights and poets and such horses’


Start off from anywhere, end up at


Diarists, critics, and similar roe

Never say nothing, and never say no.

People Who Do Things exceed my


God, for a man that solicits insurance!

Dorothy Parker, Bohemia, from Sunset Gun

*For full references, please see Further Reading, page 118.
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