Saturday, September 21, 2013

Writers and Physicists

Writers and physicists are like two brothers from the same mother.

No, I'm serious.  Both folks are generally highly intelligent and also, believe it or not, very creative.  Yes, I know physics is a science, not an art, but have you seen some of the crap problems they work?  To survive in physics, you have to be a creative sort.

The similarity runs deeper than that, though.  The two groups even have the exact same divide.  One reason I love Big Bang Theory so much is that they accurately portray the divide among physicists.  On one side you have Dr. Sheldon Cooper, a highly intelligent and quite competent theoretical physicist.  Sheldon is driven by the science itself; his chief reason for going to work every day is the discovery that the geeky little bits of math and Greek symbols bring along with the potential for both enhancement and enlightenment of the human condition.  That, and the hope that some day the Nobel committee will recognize the enhancement and enlightenment of the human condition he's brought about by awarding him a prize.

You who've watched the show have heard him mention that prize a time or two, no?

Despite a strong personal friendship, Sheldon looks down professionally on his colleague, Dr. Leonard Hofstadter, for "selling out" to the commercialism of industry.

Meanwhile, Leonard is a highly intelligent and quite competent experimental physicist.  He wouldn't mind a Nobel Prize, certainly, but he's gotten cozy long ago with the idea that his pursuit of physics is extremely unlikely to ever go there. Instead, he tests the theories put out there by eggheads like his buddy Leonard, and he's quite content with his job thanks to the salary it commands--and, along with the salary, the ability to do practical things like pay rent, own a car, and buy nice things for a very sexy girlfriend.

It wouldn't be good fiction if it didn't touch on truth, and the fiction in this case pretty much mirrors reality perfectly.  When I was in physics grad school the divide between experimentalists and theoretical physicists was clear and obvious.  It even got to the point where one highly competent experimental physicist professor told me to quit going to a highly competent theoretical physicist professor for help, because the way he showed me to work the problem was roundabout, overly involved, and eggheaded.  There was, he explained, a practical way of going about it.

Writers have the same divide going.  Granted, they don't do much theory or experiments, so they don't call it that.  Instead, writing groups are split along the terms commercial versus literary.  The literary folks are those like Franzen, and they're perfectly comfortable only writing seven words in a day so long as they're the right words.  Eventually the literary writer wants to write the perfect piece, the one that will both enhance and enlighten the human condition and, in doing so, earn the accolades of either the Pulitzer committee or the Nobel (literary) committee.  Those darn commercial writers, to a literary writer, have sold out to the industry that just wants to keep pumping out pap on pulp to readers who don't seem to care about being emotionally or intellectually moved.

Commercial writers, meanwhile, look at seven words a day as a sneeze.  The Stephen Kings, Danielle Steeles, and James Pattersons of the world indeed do care, as do the Doctor Hofstadters, about the quality of the work they turn out, but to worry about it so much that they don't produce solid salable content is unthinkable.  Eggheaded, even.

Don't believe me?  Join a writers group and watch.  I saw this divide to a certain extent in the James River Writers, though that group was big enough that it kind of self-regulated into camps.  Tonight I attended a smaller Meetup group in Memphis, and the divide was also clear, and it was also not self-regulating.  On one side you had the guy talking about wanting to help people just finish, and about the importance of getting multiple shorter works out there for sale.  Right next to him was the guy who'd been working on a book for twenty years, who had finished things (things like paragraphs, I gathered) by gosh and seemed (at first glance--remember, this is the first time I've met them) perfectly sincere about not caring how fast the book got done as long as it was well done.

The one guy insulted the other guy with a "just finish" comment.  I couldn't help but grin, watching the invisible divide at work. 

Writers and physicists.  Who knew?



  1. "But I.. have the soul of a WRITER!"
    "Not until you actually get something written, you don't!"

  2. I really enjoyed this, thank you Stephen.