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Proust was not a software engineer
Wednesday, January 02, 2008

With time, you begin to understand that software engineering is a combination of science and art. There are a few aspects of the software creation process that are mechanical; however, there are also a great deal of things that require intuition. Algorithm design can be taught; the trouble is that intuition can't. In the end, we chose how to go about doing what we do; whether it is designing software, running multinational conglomerates, or digging holes in the ground, anything can be creative. The interesting part of our being is to find the right balance between making decisions based on mechanical knowledge and making decisions using our intuition.

I tend to think about this often. And lately, I was reminded of this duality by the book Proust was a Neuroscientist, written by Jonah Lehrer. Although there are no "aha" moments, as the book is not a in-depth study of neuroscience, Lehrer is able to tie a few knots between the current scientific understanding of the mind and the body of work of past artists such as Walt Whitman, Paul Cezanne, Virginia Woolf, and, of course, Marcel Proust. There are a couple of more artists, but you have to read the book to find out who they are. You will also have to read the book to get the connections that Lehrer claims exist, and how science is rediscovering facts that these artists already "knew."

I don't fully buy his main hypothesis that these artists were set to revolutionize their genres by fully understanding the mind at the beginning of the 1900s. Sure, dedicating themselves to their art 100% of their time made them a bit more qualified than the rest of us about writing, creating music, and painting. But I think the need to create drove them to leave conventions aside and just make and do. In the process, some of them were alienated by their peers, but creating was their profession--they needed to compose or paint to eat and provide for their families. It is difficult to conclude that a revolution was in their minds.

Moreover, self-awareness helps us decipher our place in the context of history. Gouging the impact of our discoveries right at the moment when the creative process is taking over is next to impossible. For example, Einstein "knew" his new theories would change our fundamental understanding of the universe, but nothing I have read about him indicates he purposely set to epitomize the millions of hours of physics created before him. He knew what he was creating was truth: mechanically the math worked out and intuitively it felt right. I don't think the same can be said of Cezanne's post-impressionist paintings, or the rest of the artists used by Lehrer: they had gut feels and the need to create, which he is trying to connect to knowing the mind.

Even though I like how he connects the dots, I don't fully agree with his conclusions: after all, anything can be correlated to anything. This doesn't mean I don't like the book. On the contrary, I think it is a great read (a short read: 200 pages), and it is well researched. In the last part of the book, however, Lehrer states that "[he] wasn't good enough" to be a full fledged scientist, so he became a writer. I appreciate his humility, as we are all students of everything--even that which we practice every day--yet it felt self referential in the sense that art and neurosciense go hand in hand (plus, he was Rhodes Scholar: quite a few things need to be aligned to gain access to such scholarships). He is, perhaps, trying to become the fourth culture of science, as he discusses in his "coda" (tail of the book). Very clever: a full circle.

7:59 PM | 0 comment(s) |


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