When I tell people who know me as a geophysicist that I’m working on a novel, I often get this response: “Well, that must require a different part of your brain.”
Not really,” I say. “It’s pretty much the same process.” Hardly anyone seems to believe me when I say this—you probably don’t believe me either—but it’s true. To write my novel, The Mathematician’s Shiva, I relied on the same sources of creativity and many of the same skills that I would use to write a good geophysics paper.
Let’s assume I want to write a paper for an academic journal. What do I have to do? First off, I ask myself a question that I think is interesting—so interesting, in fact, that I am convinced that I can work on it passionately, even obsessively, for a year and a half, maybe longer. Here’s one that consumed me for years: why are geysers so rare and what drives their variation in behavior?
To begin to answer this question, I needed to be a good autodidact. What did I know about geysers at that point? The answer was, not much. All I could say was that I’d seen a few. I knew I needed to hit the library hard before I could even begin to unravel the mystery of geysers. Once I’d gained a better general understanding of my subject, I would need data. This involved running around Yellowstone National Park in winter and monitoring several geysers.
Next, I needed to make sense of the data, which meant developing a computer-based mathematical model of geyser behavior. Inevitably, there were bugs in my model that caused me no end of grief. I’d obsess about them day after day and even dream about them at night as I tried to invent fixes.
To succeed, I needed what’s known in Yiddish and German as sitzfleisch (literal translation: “seated flesh”). The answers to my questions about geysers wouldn’t come easily or quickly. I was only going to be able to answer these questions to my satisfaction if I was willing to sit on my butt day after day and work at answering them one step at a time.
Similarly, to write a novel, I needed to ask myself a question that would keep me passionately interested for a couple of years, maybe more. The question that consumed me during the writing of The Mathematician’s Shiva was, why do the sons and daughters of formidable, accomplished people—in the case of my novel, the main character’s mother is the greatest mathematician of her generation—tend to have such a difficult time growing up?
To answer this question, I needed to employ the same set of tools that I had used in my geophysics study. I knew even less about being the child of a great mathematician than I did about geysers, so I hit the library to learn about math, beyond what I already knew as a geophysicist, and about the lives of mathematicians.
Next, I needed data. If you think about it, characters are to a novel what numbers are to a geophysics study. Maybe the idea of data sounds boring to you, but, for me, it’s exciting. Ultimately, it’s either the numbers or the characters that tell the story.
I started my novel by creating a flow chart to set my characters in motion. Not surprisingly, as with my geyser model, there were bugs in the system that became apparent as characters came to life on the page. I agonized over their problems, first trying one revision and then another, until I felt I had gotten it right.
And finally, there was the all-important sitzfleisch. To write my novel, I couldn’t just wait for inspiration—I couldn’t just wait for the muse to appear. I had to sit at my desk every day and work. Bit by bit, I answered my questions and solved my problems, but it took a couple of years.
For me, the creation of science and art are essentially identical. Both require creativity, talent, and devotion. Both require many years of study and many years of sitting. Both have forced me to think tirelessly until, as if by magic, solutions come. There is, however, one true difference between a paper on geophysics and a novel: in a geophysics paper, making people laugh is never a goal. But I hope The Mathematician’s Shiva, in which crazy mathematicians crash a family sitting shiva and wreak havoc, will have people laughing out loud.