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  Written by
  Mary Ruth Yoe

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  Lloyd DeGrane

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Kings of Chaos
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Kings of Chaos
Call it nonlinear thinking. Call it creativity by association. Call it an aversion to throwing anything away. Whatever you call it and whatever its cause, you recognize the result: a mess.

If you occupy a messy office, you might want to print out and frame these words from The Education of Henry Adams: "Chaos often breeds life, when order breeds habit." Then again, finding a bit of unoccupied space for your newly framed quotation might be a problem.

Here's a look at six Chicago professors unswayed by feng shui. Rather than ascribing to the view that clutter blocks creative flow, they have found their route to academic creativity through what their colleagues (or their mothers) see as chaos.

All six, nominated for this story by their friends around the quads, admit to taking at least an occasional stab at office reorganization. The rest of the time the professors-a group whose honors include one Nobel Prize, two MacArthur Foundation "genius" awards, and two Quantrell awards for undergraduate teaching-negotiate workspaces filled with piles, stacks, and boxes. And, in news that should inspire messy readers everywhere, they get a lot done.


No. 1 on Michael Turner's to-do list, despite the spring-cleaning schedule optimistically chalked on his blackboard a few years back, is "to figure out what's causing the universe to speed up. So far," says Turner, the Bruce V. & Diana Rauner distinguished service professor in astronomy & astrophysics, physics, the Enrico Fermi Institute, and the College, "all we've done is give it a name. We call it dark energy."

Turner himself is credited with coining that phrase to describe the unknown force that causes the accelerating expansion of the universe. "Stars, us, earth, trees-we're made of star stuff," the theoretical astrophysicist says, "but we're not made of the stuff of the cosmos": dark matter. "I'm hoping to find dark matter on my desk," he continues, only half joking.

PICTURE:  Michael S. Turner

He's well aware that the masses of star stuff in his office can have almost magical properties. "One of the things that we all try to do is avoid thinking linearly. Having a messy desk helps do that," he theorizes. "It provides the odd connection. It's constructive chaos. Two folders spill on top of one another," and a "goofy" connection is born. Serendipity also enters the equation. "I'll have this idea on the back burner," he explains, "so I'll keep the folder on my desk. A student or a post-doc comes in and says, 'I was thinking about this,' and I say, 'So am I! Let's see what we've got.'"

Many items in Turner's office have, at first glance, nothing to do with his research or his duties as department chair, but he makes the connections. There's a wizard hat, Mickey's ears still attached. "I like to think of myself as a wizard. A wizard's hat helps me get good ideas." There are "all my room keys from my last year of travels-that remind me why I'm weary. I've got a little action-hero figure here, so I can be tough. And I have a glass paperweight that my grandmother gave me."

Also on the desk is a "little harmless looking device," his laptop computer. He laughs and confesses, "That's where the real piles are."

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Asked what's on top of his desk midway through spring quarter, Cass R. Sunstein, the Karl N. Llewellyn distinguished service professor in the Law School, political science, and the College, provides a quick if daunting list: "Materials for my course on environmental law; materials for a book I'm co-authoring on jury decisions about punitive damages; materials for a book I'm doing on regulating risks; materials for a book that I may be co-editing on the legal rights of animals."

PICTURE:  Cass R. SunsteinSunstein's most paper-intensive project is the book on regulating risks, a topic he's been working on for the past 15 years. "I have tons of materials on, for example, global warming, motor- vehicle safety, hazards at work, genetic engineering, acid rain, arsenic, and much more. A lot of the mess involves these materials."

Despite the "mess" and the lack of a system, Sunstein says, "I do tend to know where things are." He qualifies: "I know where everything important is, and I don't usually lose things. But I have lost checks, made out to me, and I also find coffee cups and Coke cans in surprising places." He does reorganize on occasion: "When it gets completely disgraceful, I improve it a bit. Usually I clean up a bit in the summer. Right now it's gotten completely disgraceful, I guess."

Very few items-ties and KitKat wrappers notwithstanding-in Sunstein's office on the fourth floor of the Laird Bell Quadrangle are unrelated to his work. The "most unusual" set of items in the room, he says, "may be my CD collection, which features Inter Alia, Bob Dylan, Sheryl Crow, Liz Phair, Bruce Springsteen, and Shawn Colvin. Eminem can also be found here."

And while his office may be disgraceful, his home, Sunstein declares, "is actually very neat. No mess at all. I keep it that way, partly for my 11-year-old daughter."

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James Hopson, PhD'65, professor in organismal biology & anatomy, would like to be more organized: "I'd like to be able to go to the right file or put my hand right on what I need without having to search through a lot of stuff to find it." But the vertebrate paleontologist admits that lots of stuff goes with the territory.

PICTURE:  James HopsonHopson studies the evolutionary transition from reptiles to mammals, in particular he studies synapsids, or mammal-like reptiles, of the Mesozoic age. In describing and classifying a new fossil, he explains, the literature of the past cannot be ignored. "I have a huge number of reprints and photocopies of the literature in my field. In an historical science like paleontology, one must refer to earlier papers describing relevant fossil specimens. Good descriptions, and especially illustrations, don't go out of date and can provide useful comparisons when studying new fossil specimens."

He does have an organizational system, he says. "In general, I have piles of papers and books on a given project in progress on a particular counter-top or file-cabinet top or in particular file boxes." And he confesses that his preferred method may in fact be a revolt against his early upbringing: "Messy surfaces were, and still are, anathema to my mother."

When the surfaces get "so bad I can't find anything," he reimposes order, "and for a while I can find reprints or books on a given topic, or my desk is clean enough that there is only one layer of papers covering it instead of three or four."

Along with the reprints and the other papers-a grad student's dissertation, manuscripts to review for professional journals, and several manuscripts in progress-his surfaces host a number of synapsid crania brought back from field studies in South Africa. There's also a bronze sculpture of a Thrinaxodon liorhinus. His wife, Susan, commissioned the South African cynodont from a scientist-artist friend. "It's a fossil animal on whose bones and teeth I have worked," Hopson says, "so I am very fond of it."

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When Stephen Berry, the James Franck distinguished service professor in chemistry, looks past the 18-inch mounds of papers heaped on his desk, he sees works by well-known Chicago artists Cosmo Campoli, Leon Golub, AB'42, and Richard Hunt, X'56.

Steve Berry also sees the remnants of his own private "Berlin Wall," 20 or so cardboard boxes left over from the office cleaning done by his secretary, Mary Giacomoni, while he spent a year in Berlin in 1994. "They had a pool to see what was the oldest handwritten note she'd find," Berry says, "I think it dated to 1972 or '73."

PICTURE:  R. Stephen Berry

These days he spends half of his time as home secretary of the National Academy of Sciences. In that role, he chairs the National Research Council's Report Review Committee, going over the hundred or so policy studies the council produces each year. Most of those reports arrive electronically: "I only download the ones that require special scrutiny."

So what's on his desk? "This is a paper I'm about to send out. These are papers I've just gone through. This is a set of papers-whoops, this is a paper I forgot to take home," he says, taking the envelope and placing it in an already full briefcase. Berry-whose research interests include atomic collisions, thermodynamics, and the behavior of subnanoscale particles and their relation to proteins, and, yes, chaos-doesn't know what's at the bottom of every pile but he "definitely" has a system: "I believe in pursuing a nonrigid, fluid approach, so that different subjects have no sharp boundaries separating them, and each new subject gets addressed with no preconceived organization."

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Composer and music professor John Eaton will pack up the contents of his Goodspeed Hall office this June. After ten years on Chicago's faculty, he's retiring and moving to New York-taking with him two pianos, a keyboard "which was about a 30-year project between Robert Moog and myself," and lots of computer stuff. Plus the contents of his bookcase ("papers, scores, lots of things I haven't done") and a water dish and old rug that belong to his frequent office mate, a 7-year-old Great Dane named Cassandra.

PICTURE:  John Eaton

The packing should take about a week: "There is a lot of stuff that I'll throw away, but there's a lot of stuff that's invaluable-like scores, parts of pieces, unfinished compositions-stuff that's absolutely irreplaceable. It has to be not only packed, but very carefully filed before I go."

In general, Eaton says, "I keep things kind of in the right place," with separate places for materials related to his composing, to his teaching, and to the Pocket Opera Company of Chicago, a group he founded in 1992 to bring new music and operas to people throughout the city.

"Every time I start to clean up," to replace the files that have somehow gotten out of place, "I get an idea for a new piece. All things being equal, I'd rather not work in a pigsty, but I never have the time to just clean up."

Why two pianos? "The reason for that is that I write music using microtones, intervals besides the white and black keys." The pianos, tuned a quarter of a note apart, "get used constantly for coaching other performers in the singing of my music."

One thing you won't find in this office or in his new one, Eaton says, are copies of most of his own recordings. "I don't like to keep them around. I don't like to have to keep listening to them, looking back."

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Robert Fogel had too many projects for one desk. So the Charles R. Walgreen distinguished service professor of American institutions in the Graduate School of Business did what any good Chicago economist would do and matched supply to demand. "I have a desk behind me and a desk in front of me," he says. "The desk behind me vies with the desk in front of me for the highest piles."

PICTURE:  Robert R. FogelOn his desktops are manuscripts for a series of three lectures, "The Slavery Debates, 1952-1990: A Memoir." Fogel (whose Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery pioneered statistical methods to analyze how the slave system in America operated, upsetting conventional wisdom) has just given the lectures at Louisiana State University and is preparing them for publication by the LSU Press.

On an adjacent pile are "the latest printouts on measurements that I'm making together with one of my graduate research assistants on what has happened to the age of onset of chronic diseases during the course of the 20th century." Do people turning 65 today experience more years free of disease- or chronic conditions than did their turn-of-the-19th-century counterparts? What's the duration of chronic conditions, and how severe are they? The answers, Fogel says, offer "important implications for forecasting what's going to happen in health-care costs during the next half century."

Other stacks of literature and printouts concern issues of productive efficiency. "In 1800 it took five people working on the farm to provide food for one person off the farm-80 percent of the labor force was in agriculture. Today only 2 percent of the labor force feed 100 people off the farm-half of our agriculture output gets exported. Will that continue?"

Consumed by such questions, Fogel admits that he reorganizes his office "only when I move," which he last did in 1981. And although he has a "very good" idea of where his research is, he says that when it comes to other papers, "My secretary is instructed to never give me the original of anything. I'm a great disposer of documents."

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  JUNE 2001

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