The Role Of Accuracy

December 30, 2013

“Accuracy is only important if you are aiming at the right target.”

I came across this phrase (and accompanying discussion) in a photography blog I follow, Visual Science Lab.

It’s a good point and obviously applies very generally.


Seeing Is Believing

December 29, 2013

In case you’ve not seen this before, be patient and wait until the end, just 2 mins, and you’ll be very surprised! It shows just how easily you can get (cleverly) fooled.

More on optical illusions here.

Feynman On QM

December 20, 2013

Following on from here, I’ve just noticed that Volume Three of the Feynman Lectures (Quantum Mechanics) is now available online.

Once again, a really fantastic version and all free too!

Hopefully this helps ignite the imagination of the next Feynman…

The Fascination Of Failure

December 19, 2013

Yesterday, whilst browsing through a copy of the National Geographic in a waiting room, I came across an article on the role of failure in exploration (registration required).

This included (my emphasis in bold):

For most explorers, only one failure really matters: not coming back alive. For the rest of us, such tragic ends can capture the imagination more than success. Robert Falcon Scott, who died with his team after reaching the South Pole in 1912, is hailed as a hero in Britain. Australians are moved by a disastrous 19th-century south-to-north expedition that ended in death for its team leaders. These tales stick with us for the same reason our own failures do: “We remember our failures because we’re still analyzing them,” Ballard says. Success, on the other hand, “is quickly passed.” And too much success can lead to overconfidence—which in turn can lead to failure…

The business world, especially the high-tech realm with its rapid-fire start-ups and burnouts, already understands the value of negative results, if they are low-cost and noncatastrophic. To encourage entrepreneurship, the Netherlands-based ABN AMRO Bank started an Institute of Brilliant Failures. Eli Lilly and Company, the pharmaceutical giant, began throwing “R&D-focused outcome celebrations”—failure parties—two decades ago to honor data gleaned from trials for drugs that didn’t work. (Some 90 percent of all such trials fail.) Some foundations have even begun requiring grantees to report failures as well as successes.

It’s an interesting observation that failures tend to linger in the memory whilst successes can quickly disappear from view or get taken for granted, which is quite strange really and can easily lead to misbalanced assessments.

Thinking, Talking And Doing

December 13, 2013

“Of the three main activities involved in scientific research, thinking, talking and doing, I much prefer the last and am probably best at it. I am all right at the thinking, but not much good at the talking.” – Fred Sanger (Nobel prize winning chemist)

This is an incredibly humble assessment of his own capabilities.

From The Conversation:

This week Fred Sanger died at the age of 95. His name is probably unfamiliar to most, but he is considered one of the greatest chemists of our age. He is the only person to have won two Nobel prizes for chemistry (only three others have won two Nobel prizes – Marie Curie, Linus Pauling and John Bardeen).

Interestingly, he went through a self-styled ‘lean period’ which provides a vivid example of how judging results from a purely short-term perspective can be very misleading. From his autobiographical note:

After completion of the insulin sequence around 1955, there followed a number of “lean years” when there were no major successes. I think these periods occur in most people’s research careers and can be depressing and sometimes lead to disillusion. I have found that the best antidote is to keep looking ahead. When an experiment is a complete failure it is best not to spend too much time worrying about it but rather to get on with planning and becoming involved in the next one. This is always exciting and you soon forget your troubles. One disadvantage of this attitude, though, is that it makes the writing of an article of this sort difficult, because if you are always thinking about the future you tend to forget the past.

Quite good advice to anyone in a similar career situation, either in science or business, especially if you regard business and projects as a series of experiments:

“Requirements are actually hypotheses and your projects are really just experiments. Realizing this should be liberating.” – David Bland

What Are You Best At?

December 10, 2013

“The best work is not what is most difficult for you; it is what you do best.” – Jean Paul Sartre

So figuring out what you do best, which is probably something you take for granted and don’t fully appreciate, is pretty important. In comparison, understanding what you find difficult is fairly easy!

Another interesting quote from Sartre is: “To be free isn’t doing what you want but wanting to to do what you can.”

I’ve sometimes come across people, in both business and research, that got themselves into trouble because what they ‘wanted to do’ was unfortunately not well aligned to their intrinsic skills. Ignoring this, they never refocused on to what they were naturally (often extremely) good at and, in the course of this, let potential opportunities in nearby areas completely pass them by.

A good way to help figure out your intrinsic skills is to ask friends and colleagues – if you phrase the question openly and creatively, you may be surprised at how helpful and perceptive some of the replies can be.

Whisper, Don’t Shout

December 4, 2013

Previously in my career, when I had a research position at IBM, I worked on chaos theory, more specifically, visualising the transition to chaos. It wasn’t straightforward as the system considered was multidimensional so you could only get glimpses of it’s behaviour by using 3D projections.

The approach I adopted, using texture mappings, was fairly original and lead to some useful additional insights (a summary of the joint project got published in the New Scientist Guide to Chaos).

After my research phase, I moved on to technical and finally business management (with other companies). However I’ve always been interested in how ideas taken from one (science) area can be used in another (e.g. business) and have previously written about this eg here.

One major example is the subject of ‘complexity’ where lots of people have tried using it’s ideas in many fascinating ways. A few years ago I thought I’d brush up on this and bought the book ‘Complexity: A Guided Tour’ by Melanie Mitchell as it had a good review in a technical journal.

It wasn’t quite what I was expecting and before starting I thought I’d read a few reviews on Amazon. Some of these were quite negative so in the end I decided to put it on hold. This was in 2009!

Recently, spurred on by some interesting tweets about complexity from colleagues, I decided to take another look. I managed to find the book in the ‘chaos’ that is my library/study and wondered a bit more about what had put me off originally. I went back to Amazon and there are now over 60 comments (far fewer on the UK site).

I browsed around and here’s an extract from a rather thoughtful one (my emphasis in bold):

As Dr. Mitchell points out in one of the chapters, there is little agreement on what “complexity” actually entails. In such a field of emergence, it is very helpful to have a broad, rather than narrow, view. Yes, this is not a textbook to be used in a graduate class on complexity, yet that is not its purpose. However, it is my guess that even the most accomplished practitioner of one particular aspect of complexity will learn something from reading this. We are all reductionists at heart, even those who profess to be an “expert” in complexity. We would be well-served to take the recommendations of Warren Weaver who suggested that if we descend from the tower of our own experience into a common basement, we can impart information by whispering and not shouting.

I quite like the last sentence – I’ll bear all this in mind when I next look at reviews!

NB There’s a free online course linked to the book if you’re interested: Complexity Explorer.