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Provocative Prefaces

by J. M. Haile

The purpose of a preface seems straightforward: to explain why the book was written, who should read it, and how it can be read most profitably. Thus a preface differs from a foreword, which is written by someone other than the author and which tries to enjoin the reader to take seriously the author and the work. In a preface, the author talks directly to the reader about motivations and, perhaps, about challenges overcome during the writing.

Yet, my perception is that many readers ignore prefaces; if true, this is unfortunate. Certainly, it is true that many a preface is not worth reading, just as many a book is not worth reading. But if some facet of a book has caught a potential reader's attention, it is the preface that might help that reader judge the worth of the writing. The preface can offer a glimpse into the writer's intentions, methods, and motives, thereby illuminating the creative process. When this occurs, a preface reveals the writer in a light distinct from that of the text itself.

It is this act of revelation that motivates the list of excerpts presented below. Sometimes, of course, such acts of revelation are planned and orchestrated by the author, but other times, I must believe, they are spontaneous. Either may be instructive.

To have a particular example, consider the famous quote attributed to Sommerfeld about his understanding of thermodynamics. My source for the quote is the preface at #7 below; though undoubtedly, it must be repeated elsewhere as well. The point is that I have yet to discover that Sommerfeld really wrote the quote, or even said it. But whether he actually said it or not is largely immaterial, for even fiction can carry the essence of truth. I do not mean to imply that Professor Sommerfeld necessarily had trouble understanding thermodynamics, but rather, that in the quote, "Sommerfeld" symbolizes "Everyone." We continually seek universal truths, and a preface can offer a rich hunting ground.

In presenting the following list, my criterion has been to select excerpts that are, in some way, provocative. I will let you judge whether and how you may be provoked by any one of these. Since a little provocation goes a long way, I have limited the list to less than twenty, though I imagine that, at infrequent intervals, I will replace some of these with others. The list divides into three groups, as you will see. There is a fourth group, which I call poignant comments, but I have chosen not to include those here: all of us, even writers, deserve some measure of privacy.

Comments Ironic

1. “A good many years ago a neighbor whose sex chivalry forbids me to disclose exclaimed … 'Don't you just adore Pluto's Republic?' ”
Peter Medawar, Pluto's Republic, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1982, p. 1.

2. “ … I must acknowledge the various managements of the Institute, … . Without remarkable views such as theirs … , books like this would never have to be written.”
John L. Casti, Alternate Realities: Mathematical Models of Nature and Man, Wiley, New York, 1989, p. ix.

3. “At all events, if an apology for the book is needed, it must simply be that the 'great dust heap called history' will not be much the worse for a new kind of dust.”
J. D. North, The Measure of the Universe: A History of Modern Cosmology, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1965; reprinted by Dover Publications, New York, 1990, p. v.


In Pursuit of Understanding

4. “Every act of seeing leads to consideration, consideration to reflection, reflection to combination, and thus it may be said that in every attentive look on nature we already theorise.”
Goethe, Theory of Colours, London, 1840; reprinted by the MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 1970, p. xl.

5. “The obstacles to discovery—the illusions of knowledge—are also part of our story.”
Daniel J. Boorstin, The Discoverers, Random House, New York, 1983, p. xv.

6. “To learn … it is right that each of us try many things that do not work.”
John W. Tukey, Exploratory Data Analysis, Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA, 1977, p. viii.

7. “It has been said of Arnold Sommerfeld, the famous physicist, that he was reluctant to write a monograph or treatise on thermodynamics because he wasn't sure that he understood it. The first time he studied the subject, he thought he understood it except for a few minor points. The second time he studied it, he thought he didn't understand it except for a few minor points. The third time, he knew he didn't understand it, but by then it didn't matter (because he could use it effectively).”
D. K. Nordstrom and J. L. Munoz, Geochemical Thermodynamics, Blackwell Scientific Publications, Palo Alto, CA, 1986, p. x.

8. “… what at one time may be beyond our understanding may later become clear, not only through the acquisition of fresh knowledge, but also by the training of our minds to new ways of thought.”
William Bragg, The Universe of Light, Dover Publications, New York, 1959, p. vi.

9. “At best, a book today on statistical theory can be only an exposure of some man's ignorance.”
W. E. Deming, Some Theory of Sampling, Wiley, New York, 1950; reprinted by Dover Publications, New York, 1966, p. ix.

10. “… nothing is less scientific than to overlook the fact that present ideas have past antecedents … ”
H. S. Thayer, ed., Newton's Philosophy of Nature, Hafner Press, Macmillan, New York, 1953, p. vii.

11. “I think, however, that there isn't any solution to this problem of education other than to realize that the best teaching can be done only when there is a direct individual relationship between a student and a good teacher—a situation in which the student discusses the ideas, thinks about the things, and talks about the things.”
Richard P. Feynman, The Feynman Lectures on Physics, Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA, 1963, p. 5.

12. “Compared to the pond of knowledge, our ignorance remains atlantic.”
Ronald Duncan and Miranda Weston-Smith (eds.), The Encyclopedia of Ignorance, Pergamon Press, Oxford, 1977, p. ix.


On Writing

13. “Ideas … once loose upon a page harbor their own lives, follow their own unsuspected paths, mature in unforeseen ways, and mingle with their own logic. If useful, they have progeny.”
Stuart A. Kauffman, The Origins of Order: Self-Organization and Selection in Evolution, Oxford University Press, New York, 1993, p. viii.

14. “I have already, if only by implication, answered a question which is often asked of a writer: 'How long did it take you to write this book?' There is only one answer (which is never believed, incidentally): 'All my life.' ”
Willy Ley, Exotic Zoology, Viking Press, New York, 1959; reprinted by Bonanza Books, New York, 1987, p. viii.

15. “We are told how difficult it is to write a book, but one has to write one to believe it. I … [sit] here surrounded by unread galleys, unfinished problems, and unanswered questions, immersed in a chaos, like that planned by Dante, which I had thought reserved for the damned … ”
Leon N. Cooper, An Introduction to the Meaning and Structure of Physics, Harper and Row, New York, 1968.

16. “In writing this book I have had to scale a virgin mountain… . I have picked my own way through the labyrinth and this is the diary of my journey.”
David A. Allen, Infrared: The New Astronomy, Wiley, New York, 1975, p. 7.

17. “In short, I am full of doubts. I really don't know why I have decided to pluck up my courage and present, … the manuscript … . Let us say it is … a way of ridding myself of numerous, persistent obsessions.”
Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose, Warner Books, New York, 1980, p. xviii.

18. “As I finish my task, and take leave of an old and agreeable companion … ”
L. A. Pars, A Treatise on Analytical Dynamics, Heinemann, London, 1965; reprinted by Ox Bow Press, Woodbridge, CN, 1979, p. xi.