Results That Are True But Not Understandable

November 24, 2010

Some leading scientists in a variety of fields were asked to give their prognostications for key developments in 2011. As part of this, Steven Strogatz (see part 10 of 10) suggests:

“We’re going to see scientific results that are correct, that are predictive, but are without explanation. We may be able to do science without insight, and we may have to learn to live without it. Science will still progress, but computers will tell us things that are true, and we won’t understand them.”

In 2011, automated scientists are poised to make major contributions to science. Dr. Lipson and his students are looking for hidden patterns in the networks of proteins that break down food in cells, for example, and they’ve set up a Web site where people can download Eureqa free of charge and discover laws of nature for themselves.

Steven Strogatz is a Professor of Applied Mathematics at Cornell University and he’s made important contributions to the field of complex networks.

Popularly, he’s probably best known for his book ‘Sync: How Order Emerges From Chaos In the Universe, Nature, and Daily Life‘.


Thinking Inside And Outside The Box

November 19, 2010

From Psychology Today:

Whenever I hear people say that they “think outside the box” I cringe, because I have rarely heard folks who are genuinely creative so describe themselves. I also am suspicious because I hear these people saying – and here I may be unfair in some cases – that one need not know what is well-accepted.

As a teacher, I want my students to know what is inside the box. This is not because I am a defender of the academic or intellectual status quo. It is because knowing what is inside the box is the only way to get outside the box in a useful way once the basics are mastered.

Psychologists who study prodigious accomplishments, in science, music, or art, speak about the 10,000-hour rule, meaning that in order to do something notable in some field, one must devote 10,000+ hours to mastering the discipline in question. Practice, practice, and practice, weedhopper, and appreciate that much of this practice needs to be done inside the box.

There always seems to be this tension between knowing enough that you can really appreciate a potential leap or breakthrough when you see it but at the same time not knowing so much that you get mentally fixated by conventional thinking and become a mere parrot!

“Reality is an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” Albert Einstein

Picture credit here.

Skype And Lessons Learnt

November 17, 2010

As it’s Global Entrepreneurship Week, an interview with Niklas Zennstrom (creator of Skype amongst other things) on what he’s learnt so far with start-ups seems very relevant:

  • It’s hard work
  • You shouldn’t be afraid of failure
  • Often you’re the only one who believes in what you’re doing
  • Surround yourself with smart, dedicated people
  • Try to prove there are people actually interested in your product
  • Think globally
  • If you want to be an entrepreneur, it’s not a job, it’s a lifestyle
  • If you’re married, your spouse needs to be into it
  • Money, for me, was one motivation
  • None of my family were entrepreneurs
  • Don’t give up if you meet some resistance
  • Once you’re successful, people listen to you more.
  • I’m doing a lot of philanthropy
  • With success you have the ability to inspire people
  • The UK is best country in Europe when it comes to setting up companies
  • Of course there’s envy, but you have to manage it

Most of these we’ve all read before but it’s still illuminating to go over them to compare/contrast with our own experiences as well as to compare them with other’s observations eg here, here and here.

In the list above, the two that caught my eye were the comment on philanthropy and that fact that the UK is highly regarded as a location for a start-up.

Global Entrepreneurship Week: 15-21 Nov 2010

November 15, 2010

From the (UK) Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (here):

Business Secretary Vince Cable today announced a new Entrepreneurs’ Forum to provide informal and personal advice on new business and enterprise policies.

The announcement was made at the beginning of Global Entrepreneurship Week, seven days of events to boost enterprise and start-ups across the globe.

And from GEW (UK) itself (globally 88 countries, 32,000 events and 7.5 million participants):

Over half of all young people in the UK want to start a business. Yet only 1 in 20 of them actually do. We believe it’s time this should become reality for more people across the UK.

This year, we’re making Global Entrepreneurship Week the barrier free week to make this happen. Whether you’re here looking for ideas to host your own event or just looking at what will be happening during the week, you’re in the right place.

Being Excellent At Anything

November 10, 2010

From the Harvard Business Review, six ingredients for achieving excellence…

  1. Pursue what you love. Passion is an incredible motivator. It fuels focus, resilience, and perseverance.
  2. Do the hardest work first. We all move instinctively toward pleasure and away from pain. Most great performers, Ericsson and others have found, delay gratification and take on the difficult work of practice in the mornings, before they do anything else. That’s when most of us have the most energy and the fewest distractions.
  3. Practice intensely, without interruption for short periods of no longer than 90 minutes and then take a break. Ninety minutes appears to be the maximum amount of time that we can bring the highest level of focus to any given activity. The evidence is equally strong that great performers practice no more than 4 ½ hours a day.
  4. Seek expert feedback, in intermittent doses. The simpler and more precise the feedback, the more equipped you are to make adjustments. Too much feedback, too continuously, however, can create cognitive overload, increase anxiety, and interfere with learning.
  5. Take regular renewal breaks. Relaxing after intense effort not only provides an opportunity to rejuvenate, but also to metabolize and embed learning. It’s also during rest that the right hemisphere becomes more dominant, which can lead to creative breakthroughs.
  6. Ritualize practice. Will and discipline are wildly overrated. As the researcher Roy Baumeister has found, none of us have very much of it. The best way to insure you’ll take on difficult tasks is to ritualize them — build specific, inviolable times at which you do them, so that over time you do them without having to squander energy thinking about them.

It all sounds a bit of a grind and a little mechanical to me, I think ‘have fun and relish the experience as you go along’ can often be just as important!

Astronomy And Business

November 9, 2010

Overheard during an interview on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 last week and it went something like this:

Q: …so why is investing through you better than other similar approaches..

A: …we don’t fixate on a yearly approach, why should we? Think about it, a year is the time it takes for the Earth to go round the Sun, it has nothing at all to do with modern business cycles…

A year was highly relevant to business when agriculture and related markets were the main driving forces but it’s a rather arbitrary period from the point of view of many modern businesses, a simple but insightful point.

However, whatever the period, you still need to deliver significant results!

Feynman And Explaining Things

November 8, 2010

A very illuminating write-up by Danny Hillis (of Connection Machine fame) of his time working with with Feynman, the famous physicist. In particular, there’s a section discussing his extraordinary ability to communicate complicated ideas simply and effectively:

In the meantime, we were having a lot of trouble explaining to people what we were doing with cellular automata. Eyes tended to glaze over when we started talking about state transition diagrams and finite state machines. Finally Feynman told us to explain it like this,

“We have noticed in nature that the behavior of a fluid depends very little on the nature of the individual particles in that fluid. For example, the flow of sand is very similar to the flow of water or the flow of a pile of ball bearings. We have therefore taken advantage of this fact to invent a type of imaginary particle that is especially simple for us to simulate. This particle is a perfect ball bearing that can move at a single speed in one of six directions. The flow of these particles on a large enough scale is very similar to the flow of natural fluids.”

This was a typical Richard Feynman explanation. On the one hand, it infuriated the experts who had worked on the problem because it neglected to even mention all of the clever problems that they had solved. On the other hand, it delighted the listeners since they could walk away from it with a real understanding of the phenomenon and how it was connected to physical reality.

This is of course a special ability not shared by most technical experts and it’s this inability that often forms a barrier to innovation progress (see here).

Apart from the topic of explaining things, there are quite a few interesting and often surprising snippets throughout the article, like:

Every great man that I have known has had a certain time and place in their life that they use as a reference point; a time when things worked as they were supposed to and great things were accomplished. For Richard, that time was at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project. Whenever things got “cockeyed,” Richard would look back and try to understand how now was different than then.

For more information on Feynman, there are the very readable biographies by Gleick and by the Gribbins.

There’s also the interesting short book by Mlodinow that’s based on the conversations he had with him whilst a new graduate researcher at Cal Tech. I bought this when it came out but only got round to reading it last weekend. Quite a candid insight into topics that are not commonly talked about, including the fears and uncertainties of new researchers in ‘hot-house’ environments.

I have some personal memories of Feynman myself as I co-organised  a specialist workshop on a small island off the north coast of German in 1987 and he was invited and to our great surprise (and delight) he agreed to attend.

I’m in the process of writing this up, before I forget it entirely! There are some interesting mini-stories, including; why he decided to come, some of his reflections on the Challenger episode, speaking Chinese and challenging security processes at airports!

See also here.

Photo credits: top and bottom.