Who doesn’t like a pretty idea? Physicists certainly do. In the foundations of physics, it has become accepted practice to prefer hypotheses that are aesthetically pleasing. Physicists believe that their motivations don’t matter because hypotheses, after all, must be tested. But most of their beautiful ideas are hard or impossible to test. And whenever an experiment comes back empty-handed, physicists can amend their theories to accommodate the null results.
This has been going on for about 40 years. In these 40 years, aesthetic arguments have flourished into research programmes – such as supersymmetry, the multiverse and grand unification – that now occupy thousands of scientists. In these 40 years, society spent billions of dollars on experiments that found no evidence to support the beautiful ideas. And in these 40 years, there has not been a major breakthrough in the foundations of physics.
Today, nearly all scientists say that coincidences are just that: coincidences – void of greater meaning. Yet, they’re something we all experience, and with a frequency that is uniform across age, sex, country, job, even education level. Those who believe that they’ve had a ‘meaningful coincidence’ in their lives experience a collision of events so remarkable and unlikely that they chose to ascribe a form of grander meaning to the occurrence, via fate or divinity or existential importance. One of the most commonly experienced ‘meaningful coincidences’ is to think of your friend for the first time in a long while only to have her telephone you that instant. Any self-respecting statistician would say that if you tracked the number of times you thought of any friend, and the number of times you had that friend immediately ring you, you’d find the link to be statistically insignificant. But it is not necessarily irrational to attribute grander significance to this occurrence. To those who believe in meaningful coincidences, statistical insignificance does not undermine an event’s causality or importance. To them, just because something could happen doesn’t mean it wasn’t also fated to happen.
But however serious Vonnegut was being, the idea that semicolons should be avoided has been fully absorbed into popular writing culture. It is an idea pervasive enough that I have had students in my writing classes ask about it: How do I feel about semicolons? They’d heard somewhere (as an aside, the paradoxical mark of any maxim’s influence and reach is anonymity, the loss of the original source) that they shouldn’t use them. To paraphrase the band War, semicolons—and rules about semicolons—what are they good for?
“The Boatbuilder” offers a decidedly gentle, sometimes quietly rewarding window onto the attempted recovery of an American opioid addict. It’s a fictional companion piece of sorts to nonfiction books about self-reliance like Matthew Crawford’s “Shop Class as Soulcraft” or Alexander Langlands’s “Craeft,” which argue for the emotional benefits of unplugging and working with your hands. Capturing those interior benefits in fiction is a delicate act, and Gumbiner, the managing editor of The Believer magazine, pins a sense of well-being to the page while other times approaching his themes too explicitly.