When working on book drafts, I like to add notes to myself in the form of quotes, poems, lyrics; anything that helps inspire in me a feeling that I aspire to inspire in my readers. While working on a chapter at a research laboratory, a quote popped into my head that I wanted to add. Somewhere in the recesses of my brain, amongst the 2004 archives, a small piece of paper with the quote on it stuck out from between two Disturbed CDs. Somebody had spilled Mountain Dew Code Red and blurred the ink, but the part that I could read said:
“researchers rarely acknowledge that they spend 90% of their time working by intuitive means.”
The quote had appeared in Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon. That’s all that I remembered. If you’ve read the book, you know that it isn’t the kind of thing that you can easily skim. The paperback copy that I own uses a font size that makes the typography those tissue-paper Bibles look like skywriting. And fuck ebooks (even though they would have helped me here and the majority of my own writing is in ebook form, fuck ebooks).
So I banged that phrase into DuckDuckGo and Google for a while, trying different percentages, manipulating the numerals, crying softly to myself.
Then I found something! A hit on an antique website, the kind built with tables and love and no, we don’t want any lemonade, just the information, ma’am. This old crone spoke truth! It had the full passage quoted from Cryptonomicon. Armed with the passage, I remembered where it appeared in the book.
The passage was attributed, in the Cryptonomicon within the Cryptonomicon, to a man named William Friedman.
William Friedman existed!
Turns out that this talented bastard wrote a few bedtime articles for the NSA, including one titled Military Cryptanalysis, Part 1: Monoalphabetic Substitution Systems.
The NSA declassified this document and it appeared on another set of searches (still: fuck ebooks. And while we’re at it, fuck pdfs. Even though the digitization of paper records really helped me out. Fuck ‘em).
Although the passage appears in Friedman’s work, he includes it as a footnote to his text! He attributes it to Joseph Needham in a work entitled The Sceptical Biologist [sic] from 1929.
That’s where I stopped my line of inquisition, although I like to think that the passage was circularly quoted in a time-janky causal anomaly.
To recap: I used a half-remembered phrase to find a reference to the passage on a website, work backwards from there to discover a real person being quoted in a fictional book within another fictional book bearing the same title, look up the real person’s declassified documents that included the passage, to find it buried in tinytext as a footnote.
The internet is fuckin’ amazing.
Oh, and this passage only exists as a note in the draft to give some flavor, it likely won’t work its way into the final draft. Priorities, man.
For the curious, here is the full passage, quoted from Friedman’s Military Cryptanalysis text quoting Needham:
The fact that the scientific investigator works 50 per cent of his time by non-rational means is, it seems, quite insufficiently recognized.
But ebooks, don’t even get me started.