Six impossible things

White Rabbit, dressed as herald, blowing trumpet. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland original vintage engraving.

Six impossible things

By Ingrid Gnerlich

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In the Wonderland of her mind, Alice laughed. “One can’t believe impossible things,” she said to the White Queen. The Queen observed that Alice simply lacked discipline and practice, boasting that she sometimes believed “as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

These days, as I gaze out of my upstairs home office window, it’s not difficult to imagine myself living in a Wonderland of sorts, overlooking a domain in which the impossible happens over and over again. I’m not talking about the world at large, as you might assume—though that often does fill me with disbelief. I’m talking about the wonderful world of science book publishing. In that world, people (rather like Alice) are sometimes fond of telling me—in not so many words and at least once a year—that my job is impossible. Scientists don’t write books. People don’t read books. Publishers aren’t really necessary.

Yet strangely enough, every day, I collaborate with scientists who are bursting with book ideas, who are diligently working through the details of finishing and polishing their manuscripts in response to early readers’ earnestly offered comments, who are publishing marvelous books that are read by hundreds, thousands, even hundreds of thousands of real people. I watch with delight as book ideas travel through the air and through the wires to inspire, enrich, and evolve the minds of others around the globe. As an editor, I sometimes feel like publishing a book is like carefully arranging a domino-line of little miracles and then watching them fall all over each other in a beautifully orchestrated event. And yet, it’s all real. As the Queen might sagely say, the impossible only seems impossible to the uninitiated. Scientists write books, people read them, and publishers help make that happen. Sometimes, it just takes discipline and practice to create what seems like magic.

The wisdom of the Queen’s somewhat peculiar perspective made me think about what impossible things I believe, given that I perform a supposedly impossible job. In teasing out these impossible things—I tried to come up with six, per the royal recommendation—I thought I might articulate something fundamental about my own inherent perspective and approach to science publishing, including finding new authors to write new books. These new books are, after all, the expressions of the voices of contemporary science. By going on to reveal my little list of “six impossible things” below, I hope to share the deeper principles that underpin how I go about my work as a commissioning editor and how I strive to encourage scientific voices to be heard.

If you are a reader who feels like the world of publishing is something of a rabbit hole, I hope this exploration sheds some light in the darkness. If you are an author, or are open to the idea of becoming one, you might find it helpful to share my belief in these impossible things—or even to create your own list, which will be unique to you and potentially also uniquely revealing. What follows may seem to lead you on a bit of a meandering path (all adventures do), but I do promise that we’ll get to six by the end (and before too long). I will begin some years ago.

Impossible Thing 1. When I was younger—older than Alice, younger than the Queen—I walked down the hallway of a certain scientific department in an institution of research and higher learning, heading to a meeting with a scientist there. The tapping sound of the “sensible” heels I was wearing that day bounced off the hard floor, walls, ceiling, and into some of the office doorways. I found the office of the scientist I was scheduled to meet – to talk about books, of course—and introduced myself. He said, “I knew it was you from the sound of your steps coming down the hall.” A little unsure of what he meant at first, it suddenly dawned on me that there were no other women in the department. The only person who could sound like me (or my shoes) in that hallway at that time would be me. “Hm!,” I said, not having the words in that moment to express exactly what I was feeling. I also realized in that moment that, even if there happened to be another commissioning editor in physics visiting that department from another university press on that morning, my shoes would still have made a unique sound—because my colleagues were not women either. Then, I smiled. However unlikely or unusual or seemingly impossible my presence was, there I was anyway. I had a reason to be there, and even if I was something new and different than the norm, I could still belong. And after all, physicists were surely used to the idea of having to revise their models in the face of new observations. My differences could be my strengths. All I had to do was believe (that is, believe in the data point of myself), and people would revise models accordingly.

Impossible Thing 2. What was another seemingly impossible thing that I believed on that particular morning? I had come there to seek books from scientists who claimed they didn’t write them, which meant that I believed that many scientists had books inside them that they didn’t know or want to admit were there. Scientists could write books, and they do write books. I just had to reveal that, as the rather obvious fact that it was. If a scientist is ready to admit the fact that scientists do write books (even if they sometimes perpetuate the myth that they don’t), I can help. The first step is to have a conversation about it. A conversation to which I do not come unprepared—schooled as I am in the discipline and practice of believing that impossible things can and do happen.

The conversation that I had with that scientist that morning was just one of hundreds (perhaps even thousands at this point) that I have had since I first began my adventures in scientific publishing about twenty years ago. This conversation varies from person to person, of course, but typically has a certain trajectory. I first talk about what I do—that is, I look for new opportunities to publish interesting and useful new books, from trade science books to textbooks to monographs to major reference works. I then ask what books the person would love to see written and ideally by whom. I think of this as populating the ideal bookshelf. And lastly, I ask whether the person would ever consider writing a book themselves—and about what and for whom. I also come with a few ideas of my own in my back pocket that the person might want to think about for themselves, if they feel a bit stumped or a little reticent. This conversation, which aims to break down the barrier between what is supposedly normal (possible) and abnormal (impossible) in a disciplinary culture, and in the mind of the person with whom I’m talking, is another domino in the line of little miracles that leads to a published book.

Impossible Thing 3. Over the course of myriad conversations with scientists, I have found that the best tend to be with scientists who keep their minds’ doors open and listen for unusual sounds—whether those signals come in the form of an inexplicable data point, a dissenting voice, or something as seemingly mundane as the sound of someone’s heels on polished linoleum. They are open to viewpoints that may be different than their own, evidence they haven’t encountered or considered before. They know that science succeeds via a collective effort to look at the world honestly and critically from as many different angles as possible. This means that the inclusion of a diversity of voices and perspectives can only improve the enterprise and practice of science. (Naomi Oreskes discusses this point and much more in her book, Why Trust Science?)

I found that scientists who were open to having a conversation with me did, by and large, believe that writing books has value. If they believed that, they were usually willing to lend me their suggestions of the books they wished would be published. And, if they could imagine books that they wished someone else would write in their discipline, it was not too much of a stretch for them to entertain the idea of writing a book someday themselves. This is the third impossible thing on the list—and one that is quite a marvelous one. It happens much like this… The scientist with whom I spoke woke up one morning to find that he believed what I believed of him when I walked into his office: “I can write a book, too.”

Impossible Thing 4. Some people have more trouble than others believing that they can write a book. And, the reality is: belief is crucial, but regrettably, it does not guarantee success. Not everyone will succeed. Sometimes the idea is flawed. Sometimes the execution is flawed. Sometimes the idea and execution are good, but someone else scooped you. Sometimes you get lost in the trees and can’t see your way out of the forest. Sometimes you get confused as to who you’re really writing for and who is realistically interested in what you’re writing about. Sometimes you learn something while researching and writing that makes you doubt your original plan for the book. Sometimes life gets in the way, and you have trouble focusing and finishing. Sometimes you come to believe that possible things are actually impossible for you, and you just give up.

Here is when it is helpful to believe yet another thing people sometimes say isn’t true: publishers matter. There are many winds that buffet the little line of miraculous dominos that lead to a successfully published book. But, publishers are practiced and actually fairly good meteorologists. That’s not to say that we can predict everything that will come down the pike with perfect confidence, but scientists should understand that that’s really impossible—mixed metaphors aside. If you are an author, and if/when you start to waver for whatever reason, have a conversation with your publisher. Editors know that vanishingly few authors never need help. A publisher can help put things in context, think through the challenge besetting you, and suggest some ideas for moving things forward—one or another of which might even work.

Impossible Thing 5. There is another way in which publishers matter, and this relates to Impossible Things 1 and 3. But, it is in fact a unique Impossible Thing—a separate thought that is important to believe. You should write a book.

Science thrives on a diversity of views and voices. Yet, the people who practice science in the highest echelons, who have the authority and time to give voice to their ideas, do not yet comprise a very heterogeneous population. It is important to the future of science to ensure that—even if the upper echelons are not currently as diverse as they could or should be—the voices of a diverse range of scientists are nonetheless heard. Books can make that possible. They are a means of sharing the different perspectives of scientists more broadly, from within the scholarly world of academia to far beyond its borders. And, they can provide a platform for scientists who feel “different” from the majority to express their particular qualities and strengths—and to inspire others, including those in the next generation of scientists, to feel less alone in their uniqueness. These young scientists may then do the same for others in turn. By helping scientists of varying backgrounds and perspectives to express their authentic voices, publishers can encourage the growth of this positive dynamic—for the good of science and for us all.

So, why should you write a book? Because there is no one else but you who can write it like you would.

Impossible Thing 6. I promised myself when I started talking about Alice and the Queen at the beginning of this piece that I would come up with six impossible things that I believe before breakfast (and, I dare say, so should you). So, here is the last one. This one I owe to my son’s Year Two teacher, who won my heart completely when she said this at our first parent-teacher meeting last year. She said, “There is no problem that a book can’t solve.” “Yes!,” I exclaimed, clasping my hands in delight. If you have a problem, read a book about it. If your problem involves the need for intellectual or creative evolution, a book will be your savior. You will think new thoughts! Or, consider writing about the problem. You will also learn something—even if you are the world-leading expert on the subject already. Books have power, expressing the voices and ideas they carry in their pages of paper or light, and changing our minds and our world for the better.

So, in conclusion, in case you missed it, and just because I’m fond of lists, here are the Six Impossible Things I believe before breakfast:

  1. You are different, and you belong.
  2. Scientists write books.
  3. You can write a book.
  4. Publishers matter.
  5. You should write a book.
  6. There is no problem that a book cannot solve.

Does the world fill you with disbelief? It certainly does to me. But, do I have faith in the impossible? You had better believe it. After all, as the Queen surely knows, some things only seem impossible until you look more closely, with practice and discipline, at the evidence.

Ingrid Gnerlich is Publisher for the Sciences at Princeton University Press.