Sunday, July 08, 2007

Sir John Polkinghorne's writing day

{ Podcast this essay }By sheer luck I happened to be seated next to Sir John Polkinghorne at a recent Open Theology & Science dinner in Boston.[1]

John Polkinghorne was a lecturer in Mathematical Physics at Cambridge for many years. He published a slew of papers on theoretical elementary particle physics in learned journals, and advanced quantum theory in significant ways. He was author of a couple of well-known technical scientific books, The Analytic S-Matrix and Models of High Energy Processes .

One day he decided to resign his Professorship to train for the Anglican Priesthood, which came as quite a shock to his scientific peers. Eventually he was ordained Deacon in 1981 and served as Curate in Cambridge (St Andrew's Chesterton 1981-82) and Bristol (St. Michael and All Angels, Bedminster 1982-84) and was Vicar of Blean (near Canterbury) from 1984-86. Of course, he ended up writing many pivotal books on the interplay between religion and science, and eventually won the Templeton Prize for Science and Religion in 2002. (In that same year he became the Founding President of the International Society for Science and Religion also.[2] The guy gets around.) Even this quick summary does not do justice to the many organizations he influences and the slew of articles and books he's authored.

At any rate, so there I was sitting next to this well-cultured, genial Englishman. Rest assured, I was carefully monitoring everything I said so as not to utter any inanities (lower probability) or blatantly tactless, overly-crass southern-trash remarks (higher probability). I'm happy to report I was successful on both accounts. Clearly there was nothing available from the cafeteria of my mind that would match the spicy intellectual delicacies of his cognitive palette, so I thought I'd move the conversation in another direction. I inquired along several lines concerning the regular patterns of his writing life.

Sir John describes himself as a morning person, and finds that to have any success in writing, he needs a fairly good block of sit-down time. He also hand-writes all of his manuscripts. Given the extraordinary amount of writing he's done, my eyes involuntarily forced themselves to glance down at his hands. Surely, I thought, there would be some gnarly calluses or obvious arthritic injury to someone who would exercise so much muscular labor in achieving the sheer volume of prose that has flowed from his pen. Alas, the only reconnaissance I got was a good look at neatly trimmed nails dancing on the end of perfectly symmetrical fingers, all duly anchored to hands that would have made any chalkboard laboring academic proud. He did admit to poking-out his manuscripts on a typewriter after some intermittent section of his written draft was complete. This confession removed at least of bit of my vertigo on the whole matter.

Now I talk-out much of my own writing to a dictation machine before actually typing it, so in some ways a move to the computer is likewise second in the process of my own writing. I suggested he might find this process amenable, since one can speak much faster than one can write, and since he was seemingly a person who was naturally comfortable with verbally elucidating his ideas. (After all, he was but moments away from giving the dinner speech for the evening.) "Oh, I could never so such a thing," he laughed. "I like to see my thoughts as I write them, and review the flow of where I've been. I get the 'big picture,' as they say." I considered a rebuttal that the quick-rewind button would easily allow him to review what had been said in the previous moments; but, for such a man that has written so much of high quality prose, what possible gain would obtain that would not be obviated by the risk of befuddling the process of his unquestionable success? "None," I thought to myself.

Soon enough, he arose from his chair and tootled his way to the front and gave as interesting a speech on Open Theology and Science as I've heard. Too bad he didn't record it.


[1] For those curious about such matters, this is why my blog has received no updates for three weeks.

[2] "The International Society for Science & Religion" Official Website (Accessed 7/8/2007)


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