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Quotes & Notes: An Introduction
I'm going to experiment with sharing some of my research notes with you
I’m starting a new kind of post, called Quotes & Notes, which will appear, now and again, in between my regular posts. (Not that I actually HAVE regular posts, but you know what I mean.)
Quotes & Notes will comprise quotations from a book or paper that I am reading for research purposes, plus my notes on those quotes.
So, it's not a polished post, with an argument; it's a chunk of raw research material – someone's thoughts, and my thoughts inspired by those thoughts, set down pretty much as I thought them.
Not refined metal, but raw ore.
(Don’t worry, I’ll polish up my notes enough to make them comprehensible to the general reader – I'll fix typos, expand acronyms, explain technical terms, etc – but they will still be pretty rough and uncensored.)
WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS?
Two main reasons.
One, I think it is of value to me to give you much more of the raw material of the book up front (before I have fully processed it), in order to get your feedback earlier. This should make the actual posts better (as they are based on this research material); so you ultimately benefit too, as the wisdom of many people will have helped shape my longer posts (and ultimately this should greatly improve the book).
Two, this solves a bigger problem; I am generating a huge amount of research material (I already have many hundreds of thousands of words in quotes and notes stacked up in Roam, and Scrivener, and Readwise, and Kindle, and a bunch of tattered paper notebooks, and the margins of an absurd number of physical books); but I want to keep the finished book pretty tight (so that people will actually read the damn thing to the end – most long non-fiction books are never read). That means a finished book of under a hundred thousand words. And I am constantly coming across huge chunks of fascinating material that I know I’ll never be able to jam into that petite book.
A READER WRITES: GREAT, BUT WHAT’S IN IT FOR ME?
Well, my hope is that some of you will get a kick out of being involved more fully in the developmental process of the book. Also, these raw early ideas often have a vigour that is refreshing, in the same way that the demo of a song can have its own charm (which the fully-produced version, though more polished, might lack).
Plus, this research material is fascinating (that’s why I’m reading it, and thinking about it, and taking notes on it, every free hour of every day). And so I can deliver a far greater number of interesting ideas this way, across a far broader intellectual territory – which I know some of you will value.
And of course, others of you (those understandably overwhelmed by the quantity of information the world already throws at you daily) will NOT value a higher volume of less carefully worked material, at all. That's fine; if you prefer to read only finished posts and chapters, then simply skip anything labeled Quotes & Notes. They are just an extra for the people who want them.
I guess I should end with a short example of the kind of thing I am talking about, so you can decide if you want it or not…
OK, here is a quote, below, which I highlighted on my Kindle e-book version of I Have America Surrounded, by John Higgs. (Excellent book, by the way: it’s a biography of the – extremely controversial – American psychologist, and advocate for psychedelic drugs, Timothy Leary. Sample opinions of Leary: “A hero of American consciousness” – Allen Ginsberg. “The most dangerous man in America” – Richard Nixon. All of John Higgs’ books are worth reading: this is his first, and is delightful.)
It was raised again in the twentieth century by Francis Crick, who together with his colleague James Watson had been awarded the Nobel Prize for discovering the structure of DNA. Crick argued that DNA was so complicated that it was difficult to believe that it could have evolved during the lifespan of the Earth. He suggested that Earth was ‘deliberately seeded with life by intelligent aliens’, an idea that has been described as ‘at the very fringe of scientific respectability’.
And here is my note on that quote, which I wrote at the time I highlighted it…
Use this. Even Crick thought there wasn’t enough time for DNA to evolve on earth! It was too complicated... Beautiful. But if the basic parameters of matter have been optimized, over countless universe-generations, to self-assemble elements fine-tuned in their properties so as to self-assemble a complex chemistry evolved to unfold so as to self-assemble DNA, then the problem is solved: The tremendous, almost unimaginable expanse of time required to evolve something as complex as DNA exists: it is just spread out over the lifetimes of many universes. There are earlier universes in which less impressively complex forms of DNA-like-stuff, born of less impressively complex chemistries, born of less impressively finely tuned elements, exist. DNA has ancestors, in previous universes. It didn’t have to evolve to its current extreme efficiency and complexity, recently, from nothing, in this one universe, through chance, from matter with arbitrary properties.
So, that kind of thing. Quotes and notes. Obviously that’s a short one, one quote, one note. Some would be a lot longer, with multiple quotes and notes, perhaps from multiple sources.
OK, you’ve been warned! I’ll title all such posts Notes & Quotes, so you can read them or skip them, according to taste. (Meanwhile, it would be helpful if you could tell me in the comments whether or not you want more of this kind of thing.)
In other news: I’m off to Ireland tomorrow, for a week, to visit relatives and friends (many of whom I haven’t seen since before Covid). And David Sloan Wilson’s fascinating but time-consuming masterclass also ends this week. So, upon my return, I should be able to post more regularly than has been the case recently. Look after each other, and we’ll talk again soon.
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