What’s this book thing?
BY RANDY MCINTOSH
A few weeks ago we had a data blitz for our lab meeting. Each of us, including me, would do a five-minute one-slide presentation of what we were working on and where it was going. I wanted to present something that I was working on that didn’t directly involve the lab members and would give them an idea of what I am doing when I get up at 4AM – which is, of course, my crazy book.
I’ve been pushing this thing along since Boxing Day, 2017 (i.e., Dec 26), and it’s coming along well, so I figured it’s time to share a bit about the project.
The motivation really came from another project with Viktor and Petra on structured flows on manifolds and their translation to cognition and the brain. The theory of structured flows lies firmly in the Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS) framework, so I figured I should get more familiar with it.
What bugged me as I read this literature was that the brain was often used as an example for CAS, but as someone who actually studies the brain, my impression was that only a few neuroscientists really use or understand the framework. Why? If the brain is a great example of CAS, why doesn’t every paper that gets published use the framework? In fact, it sometimes seems to be actively avoided, where if someone uses words like “manifold” they get lambasted for using jargon. Just do a search for #manifold on Twitter and you’ll get the idea.
So maybe an accessible book on CAS as it relates to the brain would be a good idea? There are a lot of academic books on this, but I don’t have credibility to write a technical book on the subject. A popular science book might do it, but there too there are several, like the ones I am currently reading [1, 2, 3]. There are ones that are related to the brain. Douglas Hofstadter’s award-winning book focuses on complexity and the mind, and does so in beautiful analogies to math, art and music. But, it’s a really heavy lift to get through.
So maybe there is room for one more.
My Boxing Day revelation presented a great opportunity to try something completely crazy: write a book for the general public that conveys the basic principle of CAS, partly but not exclusively as it pertains to the brain, and wrap it in a science fiction novel.
People like stories and tend to remember things when there is a narrative. Analogies and narratives are sometimes criticized as “dumbing down” the actual science, but if they provide an access point for someone to get an intuitive grasp of a difficult concept, that’s a good thing.
Internal voice: “Randy, you’ve never written fiction.”
Other Internal voice: “Well, some would say my grant proposals count as fiction.”
Internal voice: “But you’re gonna try to write a book on complex adaptive systems, which is bloody difficult stuff, in a science fiction novel that’s sort of based on what you, Petra, and Viktor are doing, and touches on the current affairs in politics and climate change. Dude you’re just a neuroscientist!”
Other Internal voice: “You say that as if it’s a bad thing.”
Internal voice: “Ugh, you’re impossible. By the way, the cat is coughing up a fur ball and you need to start making coffee ‘cause the sun is rising.”
So with that daily internal battle, I press on with the book.
And here it is !
hover over the graphic for a peek at the premise
Other times I have no idea what’s going to come out and just start writing. I don’t know what the characters are going to do until they do it.
I guess in some ways this is similar to music composition – you have a foundation and jam on it. Admittedly, sometimes the final product sucks and I need to start over, and other times I surprise myself with a pretty darned good piece.
I dunno, we’ll see. At the moment, the book is about 70% of the way to first full draft and currently sits around 250 pages.
I am fortunate to be getting some frank advice and help of my friends: Helena Ledmyr, who can strategically merge her Klingon and Vulcan sides to provide scathing, but logical commentary, and Jessica Palmer, who is teaching me the art of writing. Petra and Viktor are humouring me on this journey, but are also helping out a lot.
Now that I have unlocked this part of me, or maybe rediscovered it, I am finding that the same discipline that I’ve had to apply to my science is also needed here. It seems like there is more than one of these books in me, but like in science, I need to focus on making this project manageable or else it will never get done. I seem to be creating a new universe with my writing. It's probably best if that universe gets revealed one piece at a time.