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Brian Eno on conservatism and creativity

by Michael Nielsen on December 30, 2008

A great quote from Brian Eno about the conservative force that comes from previous success:

I’m afraid to say that admirers can be a tremendous force for conservatism, for consolidation. Of course it’s really wonderful to be acclaimed for things you’ve done – in fact it’s the only serious reward, because it makes you think “it worked! I’m not isolated!” or something like that, and it makes you feel gratefully connected to your own culture.

But on the other hand, there’s a tremendously strong pressure to repeat yourself, to do more of that thing we all liked so much. I can’t do that – I don’t have the enthusiasm to push through projects that seem familiar to me ( – this isn’t so much a question of artistic nobility or high ideals: I just get too bloody bored), but at the same time I do feel guilt for ‘deserting my audience’ by not doing the things they apparently wanted. I’d rather not feel this guilt, actually, so I avoid finding out about situations that could cause it.

The problem is that people nearly always prefer what I was doing a few years earlier – this has always been true. The other problem is that so, often, do I! Discovering things is clumsy and sporadic, and the results don’t at first compare well with the glossy and lauded works of the past. You have to keep reminding yourself that they went through that as well, otherwise they become frighteningly accomplished.

That’s another problem with being made to think about your own past – you forget its genesis and start to feel useless awe towards your earlier self: “How did I do it? Wherever did these ideas come from?”. Now, the workaday everyday now, always looks relatively less glamorous than the rose-tinted then (except for those magic hours when your finger is right on the pulse, and those times only happen when you’ve abandoned the lifeline of your own history).

Similar forces operate within science, although it’s not so much from admirers as peers. Institutions want their scientists to get grants; grant agencies want scientists with a “track record”, and the natural outcome is a lot of people doing stuff that’s only marginally different from what they’ve done before, with a concentration in fashionable areas.

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3 Comments
  1. This is a very enjoyable post.

    Two classic examples of conservative scientific reviewing are: (1) shotgun sequencing and (2) magnetic resonance imaging. In both cases, the early reviewers were conservative experts (in sequencing and imaging) who strongly preferred the traditional methods (of sequencing and imaging).

    As another example, in my files I have the manuscript of a 1945 proposal by Linus Pauling, addressed to Warren Weaver at the Rockefeller Foundation. Pauling proposed to organize a modern-style system biology center at CalTech, and was turned down by a conservative reviewer who scrawled “b*llsh*t!” in the margins.

    The resulting delays can extend across entire generations. Magnetic resonance imaging, for example, was demonstrated to be technically feasible in the 1950s, when Herman Carr conducted early imaging experiments, and yet it did not “catch fire” as scientific discipline until the late 1970s.

    On the other hand, I would be remiss if I did not say, that most of the time, conservative reviewers are absolutely *right* … it’s only in retrospect that these judgments seem simple and easy.

    Young researchers in particular can be heartened by these examples. Because for sure, there are plenty of good scientific ideas still “out there” that remain to be discovered and appreciated.

    That is one reason why the 21st century is very likely to be just a complicated as previous centuries. Which is good! Happy holidays to all!

  2. John,

    Here’s a few examples from quantum computing. So far as I know, Shor’s factoring algorithm, Grover’s search algorithm, quantum teleportation, quantum cryptography, the Deutsch and Feynman papers on quantum computing, the earliest papers on quantum error-correction, and the earliest papers on universal quantum gates – all were essentially unfunded (and probably unfundable), or funded from other pots of money. (If you’re reading this, and you know better, please speak up!)

    To put it another way, I’d guess that well over half of the best content in my book with Ike Chuang on quantum computing describes work that’s just about unfundable. What does that say about the way science is funded?

  3. Michael, what you say is undeniably true.

    The best response I have heard is this adaptation of Winston Churchill: “Academic peer review is like republican democracy: the worst of all systems, except all the others that have been tried.”

    A redeeming trait is that the deficiencies of too-conservative peer review can be largely mitigated by persistence and responsive adaptation, which are good things in themselves.

    And in turn, persistence and adaptation are traits that conservative reviewers look for. When all these elements are present, the results may be imperfect, but it is mighty hard to do better.

    If you were to say “Well over half of the best content in [Nielsen & Chuang] reflected persistent and adaptive efforts to meet the standards of conservative peer review” … then definitely I would agree!

    By the way, the excitement that I first felt on opening the pages of Nielsen & Chuang has not waned with the years … it is a wonderful book full of wonderful ideas.

    It may well be that the process(es) that created that wonderful book and those wonderful ideas are imperfect; if so, this only makes the end-result seem even more wonderful. And the same is true of mathematics, science, and engineering as a whole—and democracy too—the end-result is far more beautiful than the means employed would seem to justify.

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