Why I paid $100 for a Vonnegut quote

Publisher: “Before we go to print, we just wanted to make sure you got permissions for the epigraphs in your book.”

Me: “What’s an epigraph?”

As I was traveling through the final stages of publishing my book, I learned that there are two approaches to using a quote. One is to embed the quote in the paragraph. The other is to use the quote at the beginning of a chapter, or a section within a chapter, in order to suggest its theme; this type of quote is called an epigraph. Much to my dismay, I learned that while the former doesn’t require permission from the publisher (so long as it is appropriately referenced), the latter does. This would have been fine… had I not liberally sprinkled well over one hundred epigraphs throughout my book!

So I sat down and wrote to many publishers, asking for permissions to use select quotes from their material as epigraphs. And all said “yes” with no fee, except for one. Penguin Random House. They controlled the rights to Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano, and specifically to the quote, “Out on the edge you see all the kinds of things you can’t see from the center.” They wanted $100. Once I realized that my pleading wouldn’t move them, I decided to pay. The sentiment that Vonnegut expressed was really important to me. Here’s why.

In writing my book, I learned that many discoveries and insights in thermodynamics occurred when someone with strength in one technical area moved, with curiosity, to the edge of that area to check out what was happening in a different technical area. And it was there, at the interface, where they found opportunity.

Consider the case of Sadi Carnot and his theoretical analysis of the steam engine. He was educated in the prestigious École Polytechnique but then led most of his adult years outside academia as an officer amongst his fellow engineers within the French military. And consider Galileo and his experimental and theoretical work on motion. He worked at the interface between craftsmanship and academia. For both, their respective exposures to a world apart from academia helped enable them to approach problems differently, if not uniquely.

Or consider James Joule, expert brewer, expert reader of thermometers, and amateur physicist. His work helped lay the foundation of the conservation of energy, alongside the efforts of Julius Robert von Mayer. Both Joule and Mayer were academic outsiders; neither was raised under the influence of the caloric theory of heat; neither was trapped by the academic paradigms that couldn’t grasp the concept of energy. Perhaps the value of being at the edge is just this. It’s where creative tension lies. One can bring the fresh-eyes look of an outsider, with no paradigm attachments, to catalyze a breakthrough in thinking.

As manifested in the table on the right, many of those responsible for contributing to the rise of thermodynamics achieved their respective successes by working at the interface between at least two different fields of study. Look, for example, at J. Willard Gibbs. He applied his expertise in mathematics to the study of heat, work, and equilibrium, and so helped lay the foundation of classical thermodynamics and also statistical mechanics. The success of these individuals and their approaches helped encourage others in subsequent years to explore the interface between different “silos” of science, business, art, and so on. It’s at the interface where creative opportunity exists.

The life of Bob Langer, Institute Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is a great contemporary demonstration of the power of this approach. Bob brought his ScD in Chemical Engineering at MIT into a different field, specifically the field of medicine and biotechnology, and transformed, among other things, the world of drug delivery.

Thank you for reading my post. I go into much greater detail about the power that exists at Kurt Vonnegut’s edge in Block by Block – The Historical and Theoretical Foundations of Thermodynamics.

Published by Robert T Hanlon

I earned my Sc.D. in chemical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and subsequently conducted post-doctoral research at Karlsruhe University in Germany. My professional career took me to Mobil Oil Research & Development Corporation, the Rohm and Haas Company, and then back to MIT where I am currently involved with their School of Chemical Engineering Practice.

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