Of heaps of stones, facts, or words — a guest post by Nitay Arbel

Of heaps of stones, facts, or words — Nitay Arbel

Thus spake our Beautiful but Evil Space Mistress’s sensei in “The Notebooks of Lazarus Long”:

What are the facts? Again and again and again — what are the facts? Shun wishful thinking, ignore divine revelation, forget what “the stars foretell,” avoid opinion, care not what the neighbors think, never mind the unguessable “verdict of history” — what are the facts, and to how many decimal places? You pilot always into an unknown future; facts are your single clue. Get the facts!

Amen. It is impossible to do science (or engineering) without facts, just as it is impossible to write a book without words. But are facts all that is needed? Or for that matter, are words all that is needed to write a book?

Robert Heinlein always liked Renaissance (wo)men, and had he ever met the French polymath Henri Poincaré (1854-1912) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henri_Poincaré he would have found much to admire. Poincaré’s work in pure and applied math alone would have ensured his place in history.  So would that in theoretical physics: aside from his work on the three-body problem in celestial mechanics (which opened a door into what we now call chaos theory), Poincaré and Hendrik Lorentz https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hendrik_Lorentz  arguably stood at the cradle of special relativity together with Einstein — in fact, the very word ‘relativity’ was coined by Poincaré. (Einstein himself paid tribute to both men, especially to Lorentz.)

Yet in his day he was also known as a public intellectual and as a popularizer of science. But unlike the type of facile vulgarization one can see from some TV personalities with the same last name as a boxer and a brand of poultry (cough, cough), Poincaré’s book “Science and Hypothesis” is now regarded as a pioneering work in the philosophy of science. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Science_and_Hypothesis  (A somewhat dated English translation is available for free on Gutenberg. ) In Chapter 9, we find this gem of a quotable quote:

The Scientist must put things in order. Science is built of facts, as a house is built of  stones. But a collection of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house.

(My translation of: “Le savant doit ordonner ; on fait la science avec des faits comme une maison avec des pierres ; mais une accumulation de faits n’est pas plus une science qu’un tas de pierres n’est une maison.”)

(As an aside, Poincaré clearly did not grow up with US wood-frame housing ;)) And yes, I have had the dubious pleasure of editing scientific manuscripts that amounted to lots of data, accompanied by prose that amounted to stream-of-consciousness at best and to word salad at worst. (For greater “enjoyment”, such a dish is best served in very crummy English — sometimes written by supposed native speakers.) This brings to mind the Talmudic admonition: “Do not state something unintelligible in the hope that people will eventually figure out what it means” (Pirkei Avot 2:5, my translation)

Now Poincaré’s analogy is not limited to science. Music is built out of notes, but a bunch of notes without any structure (melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, compositional framework) is just noodling at best and noise at worst. To be sure, sometimes a composer or improviser may deliberately flaunt structural conventions for effect — but this works precisely because it is a calculated departure from the rule. Take Stravinsky’s repeating a single complex chord with ever-shifting rhythmic accents in “The Rite of Spring”, or the eerie harmonies of Ligeti’s “Lux Aeterna” (known to sci-fi fans from the star gate sequence in “2001: A Space Odyssey”), or the “atonal wail” guitar leads sandwiched between the lyrical horror tales in classic Slayer songs like “Angel Of Death” — these have their effect not because “the rules don’t matter”, but precisely because the rules do matter. Darkness has no meaning without light, nor light without darkness.

Similarly, Poincaré’s dictum applies to creative writing. Stringing together 10,000 words doesn’t necessarily create a story, nor 100,000 words a book. Sure, I remember when some “literary” writers in my youth experimented with books that deliberately had no plot, used no punctuation, or were written in one book-long run-on sentence, etc. But for the most part, these were sterile exercises meant to impress soi-disant literati, not to entertain any reader. Without a compelling plot, solid word-building, engaging and realistic characters, solid fact-checking, and all the other elements of a good work of fiction — “nullius in verba” (there’s nothing in [mere] words), as the motto of the Royal Society goes.

And of course, one may deliberately use sloppy prose (or simulated dialect) for a character that would speak in such a fashion; one may purposely write inelegant sentences or use highly unorthodox punctuation to convey a certain mood (what would Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s writing have been without the relentless ellipses?); but like the musical examples above, these are all madnesses with a method behind them.

Allow me to riff a bit more on this real estate analogy. True, it is the big picture structural things that will determine how soundly built the house is — in a book, that would be the story arc/the plot, the major subplots, the world building… At the same time, any good realtor will tell you that the “curb appeal” of a house may be greatly affected by small details that either reveal a high level of craftsmanship, or that appeal specifically to a certain kind of buyer. In a book, the more general equivalents would be the cleanliness and general quality of the prose, the care lavished on fact-checking, the authenticity of the dialogue, and the like. Some people are in general fussier about this than others, who will forgive a lot if they got their main “fix”. The more particular would be those of us spotting that the author, or fact-checker, didn’t do their homework on our particular area of expertise or hobby:  professional scientists cringing about bad physics, history buffs thrown out of a historical fiction or period romance by anachronistic situations or settings (not to mention the backporting of 21st-century ideological obsessions to characters  who wouldn’t understand the first thing about them),… Sometimes this is highly individual: being an amateur linguist, I can get thrown completely out of a story by linguistically absurd character names — such as a Chechnyan terrorist named Kovacs (the Hungarian equivalent of Smith), which is an actual example from a very popular and acclaimed thriller TV series.

Finally, real estate agents will always talk about “Location, location, location” as the three main factors determining sale price. What is the equivalent in a book? Its genre placement and pitch, perhaps. This subject has been covered repeatedly and at length, both by our BbESP and on Mad Genius Club. Allow me just to add that not all readers are alike: there is a small segment of eclectic readers (such as yours truly) who may deliberately seek out genre crossover works that might not work well in the marketplace because they are difficult to pigeonhole.

Perhaps “the poison is in the dose”. Within the overall context of a marvelous space opera/military science fiction saga, the great Lois McMaster Bujold got away with slipping in romantic and psychological elements to the point that “Komarr” and especially “A Civil Campaign” are sci-fi/romance crossovers in all but name. Still, I wonder if her work would even have seen the light of day with a hidebound ‘gatekeeper’ at the Big Five, rather than somebody like the late lamented Jim Baen…



  1. > a collection of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house.

    Close to one of mine: “Data is not knowledge.”

  2. hese have their effect not because “the rules don’t matter”, but precisely because the rules do matter.

    I’ve gotten into it a time or two (no? really?) with someone who’s breaking rules–grammatical, artistic, musical, scientific–who will cite some of these great rule breakers as why it’s okay. I generally point out that the people they are citing were actually very good at using and working with the “rules” and that when they departed from that it was for a specific reason, not simply because they couldn’t be bothered. Picasso didn’t do cubism because he couldn’t do accurate “representational” artwork–he could. He did it to create the specific effect he wanted.

    One of the things I liked about The Lego Movie was that you had all these “Master Builders” that broke the rules and made things without following directions, when what they needed was a guy intimately familiar with the actual directions and rules.

    People talk a lot about “thinking outside the box” but that’s really only a good thing once the inside of the box is well known. More often than not your answer is found in the box.

    I could go on and on. Martial arts students, frustrated with the endless training saying they’ll create their own martial art as did Jigoro Kano, Bruce Lee, and others. They conveniently forget that those folk were already masters of existing arts before creating their own. There is a reason for that.

    “If you have to choose between learning and inspiration, choose learning. It works more of the time.” Leo Graf in Lois McMaster Bujold’s “Falling Free”.

    So start with the facts, with what is known. Only when what you need isn’t found there take that leap into the unknown.

        1. They do. But you have to have the keys to the site, and then go and track down that individual comment, and then do an extra couple steps, and then, and then…

          It’s my day off and I’m avoiding my physical therapy exercises and laundry, can you tell?

    1. Fixed it for you. 🙂

      If you don’t know the rules, and the reasons for those rules, and the long way to do things, then you won’t know the shortcomings of the shortcuts… in fact, you may not even realize that some things are shortcuts, not rules. And when you make shortcuts on shortcuts, well, the investigators on scene long after the explosion, when the fire is out and the bodies are buried, make horrified noises. Why, for the love of heaven, did they skip 37 steps, each one critical to safety, when restarting a distillation column in the refinery?

      1. When designing your distallation column, please be sure to include enough instruments to get an accurate reading on levels in the column. One of the contributing causes to the Texas City explosion was that levels in the column were shown as much lower than reality because they only included enough instruments to read a fraction of the level of petroleum that had actually entered the column.

      1. The famous “flying farmer” acts at airshows, when “some old guy” gets in a Cub (or similar plane) and demonstrates how not to fly a plane – and leaves pilots in the crowd in jaw-dropping wonder at how good he is.

      2. My favorite example is the Danny Kaye / Basil Rathbone sword fight in The Court Jester. Rathbone gets to play the evil swordsman, and Kaye gets to play the non-villain. Rathbone fights like a standard, but very skillful swordsman. And Kaye gets to play both against and with the conventions.

        It required incredible skill, both for Kaye handling the two aspects, and Rathbone being able to play against both of them.

        But Kaye’s performance wouldn’t have worked anywhere near as well if the conventions for a movie sword fight weren’t well known.

        (And yes — The Court Jester is another genre breaker, since it’s a comedy / musical / adventure movie. But absolutely brilliant as a comedy, and thoroughly enjoyable as an adventure or musical.)

        For those not familiar with the scene, it’s online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hSNGeazCW6I

    2. People talk a lot about “thinking outside the box” but that’s really only a good thing once the inside of the box is well known.

      Learn the rules before you break them

    3. “By all means break the rules, and break them beautifully, deliberately, and well. That is one of the ends for which they exist.” —Robert Bringhurst

  3. It was pointed out to me that my post was missing a “take-away final paragraph” or peroration. Here goes:

    “And thus, we see how crafting and marketing a compelling work of fiction has surprising parallels with building and selling a house, or conducting and disseminating experimental research. With apologies to Henri Poincaré, I would thus like to amend his quote as follows:

    Books are made of words, like houses are built of stones and science of facts. But like a heap of stones is not a house, a stream of words does not suffice to write a book, no more than a pile of raw data alone amounts to science.”

  4. “Finally, real estate agents will always talk about “Location, location, location” as the three main factors determining sale price. What is the equivalent in a book? Its genre placement and pitch, perhaps.”

    This is sage advice. For a working author, it could be the difference between great sales and no sales.

    It is also something I’ve paid no attention to at all in my writing so far. I’m involved in the story, I’m following the characters. They run the show, given the broad setup of the Good Guys vs. Bad Guys, physical universe ideas.

    Maybe when I grow up and become a Real Writer, then I’ll be able to get the sexy robots to fit in a genre. But right now they’re setting up a distinctly non-genre ambush on some fantasy demons with arrows, swords, 20mm chain guns and fricking orbital energy weapons. And that’s just their side. They finally cut out the romance long enough to go do something interesting.

    Its a crazy mashup of stuff, is what it is, and I very much doubt any business minded gatekeeper would touch it with a barge pole.

    1. The beauty of KDP is that you can get two main genres, then add tags.

      Despite my insistence that my stuff is SF and Fantasy, my highest Author Rank is in Literature and Fiction>Action and Adventure. Check, and make sure you tag in the categories you’re popular with. Even if you think it’s absurd. I mean, I don’t write Horror, but I’ve either go a decent ranking or the number of writers is small!

      1. So then:
        Literature and Fiction
        Action and Adventure
        Science Fiction
        with guns and monsters. And cars.


  5. “A collection of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house.”

    Let me trot out my geological analogy of thinking. We teach children data points—facts, figures, observations—and those are like grains of sand. If you pile up enough of them, the hope is that they will eventually become sedimentary—that is, the loose sand will compress into sandstone, or limestone, or chalk.

    But giving out facts alone is not enough to develop a really stable foundation of thinking. For that, you need extra stress, heat, or pressure, in order to make it metamorphic.

    If you’re lucky, when you apply pressure, you’ll end up with marble. Sometimes you end up with schist.

    Isn’t that gneiss?

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