Sunday, October 21, 2007

What Do You Believe?

All my life, I’ve been bothered by the nature of truth. Who gets to say what’s true? And how come, anytime somebody declares something to be True, everybody else starts shouting Untrue! at the top of his or her lungs? Even as a little kid, I reasoned there had to be a way to figure out, once and for all, what was True. And then we could all stop arguing.

No wonder I took to the scientific method like a duck to water. From the very first I learned about it—in sixth grade, I think—the scientific method felt logical and right. As a way to make sense of the world, it…well, it makes sense. It’s simple and elegant and, if followed with integrity, its results are untainted with superstition, personal bias, or emotion. In a twisty world, it’s the straightest ruler we’ve got.

And yet, even the staunchest scientist has beliefs he or she can't explain with the scientific method. And that’s the premise for one of the most fascinating books I’ve read this year: What We Believe But Cannot Prove: Today’s Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty. This gem of a book was sent to me by my good friend Walter, and from the first essay, I couldn’t put it down. The essays are short—a few pages, at most—and in each one, a prominent scientist or expert describes something he or she knows to be unproveable, and yet believes to be absolutely, incontrovertibly true. That intelligent life is unique to Earth. That intelligent life is spread throughout the galaxies. That there is life after death. That there isn’t. That God exists. That He doesn’t. That there is an external reality. That nothing exists except our own consciousness.

The essays are fascinating in and of themselves, but what I love best about this book is their tone. The writers may be scientists steeped in the scientific method—logical, rational, show-me kind of folks—but they write with such passion, such optimism and hope, that the book as a whole becomes much more than a collection of random musings. It’s a shout-out of human curiosity, spirit, and endeavor. It’s a distillation of everything contradictory, wonderful, frustrating, and inspiring about the search for truth. It doesn’t exactly have a three-hanky moment—it is written by scientists, after all—but for this geek, it’s the feel-good book of the year.
What do I believe that I cannot prove? That we are not the only sentient beings on this planet. That some animal species are intelligent, feel emotions, and are conscious of themselves as individuals.

What do you believe that you cannot prove?

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Writer-Geek Heaven... two days spent bundled under an afghan in a rocking chair , with my manuscript, a sharp pencil, big pink eraser, a cup of coffee, and the Chicago Manual of Style. Outside, it rained; inside, kitties snoozed on the bed. A cozier, nerdier time could not have been had.

It was time to review copyedits.

As I mentioned in my last post, I adore copyeditors. First, I strongly suspect that they are even geekier than I am. Second, as I noted before, it’s the copyeditor’s job to keep me from making an idiot of myself in public. As I went through the manuscript, one thing became clear: me and proper comma use, not so much acquainted. What can I say? I put them where the pauses sound in my head.

So if the copyeditor is catching all the mistakes, what is the manuscript doing back on my lap, the person who made the mistakes to begin with? Because my job, at this junction, is to go through every change suggested by the copyeditor. The author may not have final say over the cover or the title, but s/he has absolute, final say over the actual writing. If I felt it was utterly essential that those commas stayed where I originally put them, then all I needed to do was indicate so on the manuscript. Take that, Strunk and White!* My word is law!

Then again, my manuscript was blessed with a wonderful copyeditor who really knows her stuff. That, and I’m not an idiot.

Reviewing copyedits isn't all coziness; it's also stressful, and not only because I'm never sure if I'm making the little squiggle at the end of a line deletion correctly. This is crunch time, the last chance an author has to make any significant changes. By this time, I have so many different versions of certain scenes in my head, it's hard to see the words fresh on the page the way a reader will. And there's not much time to ponder. One week to turn the manuscript around. But by Monday afternoon, I was done, the sun was out again, and the manuscript was winging its way back to New York--in better condition, I hope, than when it arrived.

*"Strunk and White" is the nickname for the book The Elements of Style. It was originally written by William Strunk, Jr. a zillion years ago, added onto by E.B. White only a million years ago, and is the one essential reference on written English that everyone should have. Everyone. It's only about 80 pages long and it's plain, clear, common good sense and a masterpiece. So no, I don't really defy Strunk and White. But I could. If I wanted to.