Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Ashton, How to Fly a Horse

Kevin Ashton is a creative guy, best known for his coined phrase “the Internet of Things” although, more substantively, he led pioneering work on RFID. Now he can add to his credits a wonderful book, How to Fly a Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery (Doubleday, to be released in January 2015).

The title refers to Wilbur Wright’s comparison of an object being buffeted by wind when it glides to an untrained horse, “darting hither and thither in the most erratic manner.” Wright continues: “Yet this is the style of steed that men must learn to manage before flying can become an everyday sport. The bird has learned this art of equilibrium, and learned it so thoroughly that its skill is not apparent to our sight. We only learn to appreciate it when we try to imitate it.” Or, as Ashton writes, “when we try to fly a horse.” (pp. 58-59)

Ashton introduces us to creative people from many walks of life. “Taken together, the stories reveal a pattern for how humans make new things, one that is both encouraging and challenging. The encouraging part is that there is no magic moment of creation. Creators spend almost all their time creating, persevering, despite doubt, failure, ridicule, and rejection until they succeed in making something new and useful. There are no tricks, shortcuts, or get-creative-quick schemes. The process is ordinary, even if the outcome is not. Creating is not magic but work.” (p. 15)

Ashton debunks some of the myths of creation—for instance, that creators are geniuses or that creators stand on the shoulders of giants. I was especially taken with his analysis of the latter myth. In 1676 Newton famously wrote: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Robert Merton traced the chain of custody of this phrase. Newton got it from George Herbert, who got it from Robert Hooke, who got it from Robert Burton, who got it from the Spanish theologian Diego de Estella, who probably got it from John of Salisbury, who got it from Bernard of Chartres, 1130. “We do not know from whom Bernard of Chartres got it.” In brief, Newton’s line was “close to a cliché at the time he wrote it.” (p. 120)

But, Ashton argues, “if everybody sees further because they are standing on the shoulders of giants, then there are no giants, just a tower of people, each one standing on the shoulders of another. … We do not see farther because of giants. We see farther because of generations.” (p. 121)

He uses Rosalind Franklin’s research in crystallography (and, most famously, her DNA photography and analysis) to illustrate this point—and to highlight the contributions of a chain of women to science. Since women are still underrepresented, and underpaid, in STEM research—as well as in finance, and since women’s “innate abilities” are often challenged (think of Larry Summers’ infamous hypothesis), I’ll devote a big chunk of this post to Ashton’s discussion of women in science.

“When Rosalind Franklin started analyzing DNA using X-ray crystallography, she was inheriting a technique pioneered by Dorothy Hodgkin, who was inspired by Polly Porter, who was a protégé of Florence Bascom, who broke ground for all women in science, following work by William Bragg, who was inspired by Max von Laue, who followed Wilhelm Röntgen, who followed William Crookes, who followed Heinrich Geissler, who followed Robert Boyle.” And, he continues, “Today, the whole world stands on Rosalind Franklin’s shoulders.” (p. 126)

The women who were critical in laying the groundwork for the discovery of DNA were relegated to “a relative backwater” of science—crystallography—and had to overcome demeaning obstacles to be able to study even that field. Florence Bascom, the first woman to earn a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins, “had to take her classes there sitting behind a screen so that she would ‘not distract the men.’” (p. 123)

Polly Porter’s parents forbade her to go to school because they didn’t believe women should be educated. She got jobs reorganizing a collection of ancient Roman marble, dusting the laboratory of a crystallographer, and—after the family moved to the United States—cataloguing stones at the Smithsonian and then at Bryn Mawr. It was there that “Florence Bascom discovered her and appealed to Mary Garrett, a suffragist and railroad heiress, for funds so she could study.” In 1914 Bragg won the Nobel Prize, and “crystallography moved from the margins of geology to the foundation of science.” At this point Bascom recommended Porter for a laboratory job with a mineralogist at Heidelberg. She arrived in June 1914, a month before World War I began. “Porter succeeded at her work of learning the art of crystallography despite the difficulties of the war and the depression and distraction of Goldschmidt, and three years later, she earned a science degree from Oxford. She stayed at Oxford, conducting research into, and teaching undergraduates about, the crystals that were her passion until she retired, in 1959. One of her most enduring acts was to inspire and encourage a woman who would become one of the world’s greatest crystallographers and Rosalind Franklin’s mentor: Dorothy Hodgkin.” (p. 124)

James Watson and Francis Crick did not stand on the shoulders of Rosalind Franklin; they stole her work. Franklin took pictures of DNA and analyzed them by hand using a complex mathematical equation. “While [she] was concluding this work, her King’s College colleague Maurice Wilkins showed her data and pictures to James Watson and Francis Crick, without her consent or knowledge. Watson and Crick leapt to the conclusion Franklin was diligently proving—that the structure of DNA was a double helix—published it, then shared their Nobel Prize with their secret source, Wilkins.” (p. 116)

They were not the only men to win Nobel Prizes in science for discoveries made in whole or part by women. “It was the same when Marietta Blau, an unpaid woman working at the University of Vienna, developed a technique for photographing atomic particles. Blau could not get a paid position anywhere, even though her work was a major advance in particle physics. C. F. Powell, a man who ‘adopted and improved’ her techniques, was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1950. Agnes Pockels was denied a college education because she was a woman, taught herself science from her brother’s textbooks, created a laboratory in her kitchen, and used it to make fundamental discoveries about the chemistry of liquids. Her work was ‘adopted’ by Irving Langmuis, who won a Nobel Prize for it in 1932.” (p. 117) And Lise Meitner “discovered nuclear fission only to see her collaborator Otto Hahn receive the 1944 Nobel Prize for her work.” (p. 115)

Even Marie Curie was humiliated by the male establishment. “Harvard University refused to award her an honorary degree because, in the words of Charles Eliot, then president emeritus, ‘Credit does not entirely belong to her.’ Eliot assumed that her husband, Pierre, did all her work; so did almost all her male peers. They had no such problems assuming that credit ‘entirely belonged to’ any of the men they wanted to honor.” (p. 114)

Ashton’s work is wide ranging. He writes about the connection between motivation and creation, bringing up Woody Allen’s aversion to the evaluation of others—in particular, the Academy Awards.

He reminds us that “the only thing we do before we begin is fail to begin. … In the beginning, all that matters is how much clay you throw on the wheel. Go for as many hours as you can. Repeat every day possible until you die.” (p. 165)

He warns of the destructive addiction of interruption. “Every five minutes our mind itches for interruption: to stretch, get coffee, check e-mail, pet the dog. We indulge an urge for research, and before we know it we have Googled three links away from where we started and are reminding ourselves of the name of Bill Cosby’s wife in The Cosby Show (it was Clair) or learning what sound a giraffe makes (giraffes are generally quiet, but they sometimes cough, bellow, snort, bleat, moo, and mew.)” (p. 166)

“We may not write symphonies or discover laws of science, but new is in all of us,” Ashton concludes. We just have to begin, persevere, be our own harshest critic, correct our mistakes, work some more, face adversity, work even more, be rejected, continue working…. We can find inspiration in the stories told in this book, but ‘work’ remains the operative word.


  1. Very interesting! Can't wait to get my hands on this one! January it is!
    By the way, how do you get to preview a book? Meaning, I am a bibliophile too, and would love to get hold of books before they are released! So how do I go about doing that? I am assuming you are NOT friends with every author on the planet!

  2. Since I have a track record of writing reviews, I can gain temporary access to some books pre-publication through NetGalley.