You may have heard that earlier this week two Manchester based professors, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, were awarded the Nobel Prize in physics for creating “the 21st century wonder material”, graphene. Some of you may already be familiar with Geim’s work. I first became aware of him in 2000, when he received the Ig Nobel Prize – a parody of the Nobel Prize for research that “cannot and should not be reproduced” – for his groundbreaking work in the field of magnetic frog levitation (can I take a moment to refer any non-believers to the video evidence below). But like any fan whose subject achieves a certain degree of fame, I have to say, ‘I prefer his earlier work’. I think you’ll all agree that in creating a material with as vast a range of applications as graphene, Geim and Novoselov have ‘sold out’ on Geim’s initial, majestic and curiously existential vision; that of a frog tumbling endlessly and somewhat pointlessly around inside a diamagnetic field.
Still, we can dream, and at least for the meanwhile we have graphene with which to busy our minds, which I guess will have to do. The practical applications of graphene are vast, and as such, the material is set to become a £30 billion-a-year commodity. But what really interested me about this story, apart from, obviously, the levitating frog, was Geim and Novoselov’s method.
According to the Independent:
By deploying an everyday length of Scotch tape to tear off strips of the mineral (graphite), the University of Manchester’s physicists created the world’s thinnest material – the width of a single atom.”
Yep, there you have it, Scotch tape and pencil lead. Inevitably, it would have been a little more complex than it sounds, but you have to admire the two physicist’s humble approach. It’s a great example of resourceful, lateral problem solving. John Kay would surely have approved. Obliquity, his latest book, is in a sense, a discourse on exactly this sort of pragmatism.
When I was handed Obliquity to read and review, my instant reaction to the by-line on the cover – or more precisely, the fact that it featured the words ‘Goals’ and ‘Achieved’ in the same sentence – was negative. We raised this point only last week, but if you’re new in town it’s probably worth reiterating. As far as we’re concerned, the prescriptive approach often fails to create resolute solutions. Trying to wrap a formula around complex social or economic interactions is a bit like trying to squeeze a whale into a wetsuit; it’s never going to fit and it wasn’t needed in the first place. As a matter of course, I treat any book that attempts to pave my way to success using its gilded (or do I mean misguided?) logic with a certain degree of scepticism.
The good news is that the old adage, ‘don’t judge a book…’, still rings true. So I guess that’s one formula that can be allowed to slip through the net. Obliquity is a rare beast in that it sets out to discount the very sort of book that, at first glance, it seems to be. In Kay’s own words, “obliquity describes the process of achieving complex objectives indirectly.” Fairly straight forward, right? Well, yes and no. A toddler that grows too tall to bang his head on the coffee table hasn’t approached the issue ‘obliquely’, although he has resolved the issue indirectly. Kay is eager to stress early on that obliquity (as a concept) “should not be equated with unstructured, ‘intuitive’ decision making”. Obliquity is a comprehensive methodology. Kay stresses the need for “constant adaptation”, accepting the “plurality of solutions” and focussing on what he describes as ‘basic level’ actions in pursuit of ‘intermediate and high level’ achievements.
Let me illustrate this succession by falling back on the visionary research of Andre Geim and the forever falling frog. Geim, understandably, wanted to suspend a frog in mid air using a powerful magnetic coil. The research conducted to this end and the creation of the technology were his ‘basic level’ actions. The Ig Nobel prize he was awarded in 2000 can be considered his ‘intermediate level’ achievement. Which, when combined with his recent Nobel Prize, constitutes the ‘higher level’ achievement of being the first man to ever win both awards. There you have it; ‘basic level’ actions resulting in complex ‘intermediate and higher level’ solutions; “complex objectives” achieved indirectly. But why not go straight for ‘intermediate and higher level’ achievements and do away with the tiresome ‘basic level’ stuff? Well, Kay says that when we relegate ‘intermediate and higher level’ objectives to the level of ‘basic’ actions, we tend to achieve neither. That is to say; if Geim had initially gone into science with the express intention of being the first man to receive a Nobel and Ig Nobel Prize, but had never considered the diamagnetic suspension of amphibians, arguably, he wouldn’t be where he is today.
Demonstrating an impressive breadth of reading and understanding, Kay thoroughly illustrates each of his points, skipping deftly from mountaineering, to architecture, to navigation, to poetry, to Napoleon, to Churchill, to Dostoevsky, the list goes on. He might have done well to have narrowed his focus a little though; there are a couple of slip ups along the way. Branding Yeats an English poet is a pretty major gaff in certain literary circles and, as Edward King points out in his review for the Times:
But these criticisms are pretty inconsequential. To be honest, there’s not a great deal I can say about Obliquity that isn’t positive. Which is a shame, because positive book reviews often end up being really dull. So, in an effort to spare you the tedium of listening to me sing Kay’s praises any longer, I’ll fire off the rest of the ‘standard’ book review criteria in rapid succession:
Well written, check; accessible, check; humorous, check; methodical, check.
Basically, this book is really good, that’s what I’m trying to say. Kay isn’t claiming to have come up with the oblique approach; people have been approaching problems obliquely for hundreds of years. But he has managed to quantify the process and attribute to it a finite methodology, which is a considerable achievement – and one that has rightly been praised across the board.
But enough about John Kay and Obliquity, let’s get back to that frog…