Feynman’s Breakthrough, Disregard Others!

October 17, 2017

Feynman (just off centre) at Wangerooge in 1987

I started my career as a theoretical physicist, and in the late-80s I co-organised a specialist workshop on a small island, Wangerooge, off the coast of Germany (see above). I tried my luck and invited Richard Feynman (I had heard he was working in this specific area) and to my surprise and delight he accepted. You can read more about him and his outstanding achievements via WikiWand. There are also a number of posts on this blog that centre on him.

Even though he was an incredibly talented and imaginative physicist, with an outstanding popular touch, it’s interesting to note that even he had occasional bouts of self-doubt.

David and Judith Goldstein write (from here, extracted):

“In the immediate aftermath of his Nobel Prize in 1965, Feynman suffered a brief period of dejection, during which he doubted his ability to continue to make useful, original contributions at the forefront of theoretical physics. It was during this time that I joined the Caltech faculty. […]

At Chicago, Feynman and I shared a suite in the Quadrangle Club, the university’s faculty club. On the evening after his talk, we had dinner at the home of friends, Val and Lia Telegdi. The next morning, I wandered down to the faculty club dining room for breakfast a bit late. Feynman was already there, eating with someone I didn’t know. I joined them, introductions were mumbled but not heard, and I sleepily drank my morning coffee.

As I listened to the conversation, it dawned on me that this person was James Watson, discoverer with Francis Crick of the double-helical structure of DNA. He had with him a typed manuscript entitled Honest Jim (the title would later be changed by the publisher to The Double Helix), which he wanted Feynman to read, in the hope that Feynman might contribute something to the dust jacket. Feynman agreed to look at the manuscript.

That evening there was a cocktail party and dinner in Feynman’s honor at the Quadrangle Club. At the cocktail party the worried host asked me why Feynman wasn’t there. I went up to the suite and found him immersed in Watson’s manuscript. I insisted that since he was the honoree, he had to come down to the party.

Reluctantly, he did, but he fled after dinner at the earliest moment permitted by civility. When the party broke up, I went back up to the suite. Feynman was waiting for me in the living room. “You’ve gotta read this book,” he said. “Sure,” I said, “I’ll look forward to it.” “No,” he shot back, “I mean right now.”

And so, sitting in the living room of our suite, from one to five in the morning, with Feynman waiting impatiently for me to finish, I read the manuscript that would become The Double Helix.

At a certain point, I looked up and said, “Dick, this guy must be either very smart or very lucky. He constantly claims he knew less about what was going on than anyone else in the field, but he still made the crucial discovery.” Feynman virtually dove across the room to show me the notepad on which he’d been anxiously doodling while I read. There he had written one word, which he had proceeded to illuminate with drawings, as if he were working on some elaborate medieval manuscript.

The word was “Disregard! ”

“That’s what I’d forgotten!” he shouted (in the middle of the night). “You have to worry about your own work and ignore what everyone else is doing.” At first light, he called his wife, Gweneth, and said, “I think I’ve figured it out. Now I’ll be able to work again!” […]

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The Importance Of A Plan B

September 8, 2017

I’m a bit of a sucker for reading business books. At least in my experience, they rarely say anything startlingly new, more often point out one aspect that may be overlooked or perhaps misunderstood and then give lots of examples for context. Nevertheless saying the same things over and again is still useful as quite often factors are forgotten or else accidentally given low priority. It’s always tempting to focus on those bits you like doing the most!

One such book I was reading recently mentioned the need, when you’re doing something new, to have a Plan B. This may seem so obvious as to be not worth mentioning. However, as an experiment, I asked a few friends (who are building startups) what their Plan B was and a clear answer wasn’t really forthcoming. I guess they were hoping it wouldn’t really be needed.

The book gave as a simple example pitching an idea for a new training course in a company. You could cold-pitch at the bottom rung of the company and stimulate interest and use this as a base to excite senior management. Alternatively you could aim for a referral to get to a decision maker straight away. The ‘If then, else’ approach to planning would be to try one and, if unsuccessful, then the other. They are quite different ways forward although with the same end result.

The point is that the options are clarified before starting an endeavour not at the end or during a project or initiative. This requires a bit of imagination and might be best carried out through conversations, brainstorming or a myriad other techniques.

An aspect of this occurs in standard business plan proposals (of which I have years of experience). The question is often asked ‘If the funding was reduced by (say) 25% what would be impact be, would it still be a viable and worthwhile project?’. This begs the question of course, as one side will be trying to reduce the funding whilst the other to increase it. It might be better to simply ask for some imaginative Plan Bs!


The Design Museum, London

August 8, 2017

The Design Museum and some surrounding buildings, that are also very impressive, which all adds to the overall vista

“The world’s leading museum devoted to contemporary design in every form from architecture and fashion to graphics, product and industrial design.”

The striking entrance to the museum

I’ve been meaning to visit the Design Museum for years. It used to be near Tower Bridge so was a little out of the way for most of my visits to London. However in November last year it was moved to a very impressive and much larger new building in High Street Kensington.

As you can see the bulk of the building is empty space with rooms at all levels around the sides. There are a variety of exhibitions, events and workshops running.

The impressive Designer motif (that changes to Maker and User through flipping screens)

The free permanent exhibition, Designer Maker User (the only one I had time to view, see above), presents it’s themes clearly and interestingly. It was however quite a bit smaller than what I would have imagined considering the remit of the museum (perhaps there are various practical constraints). Other (and rather mixed) views on visiting the museum can be found on TripAdvisor.

Some example text from the permanent exhibition

The famous Anglepoise type lamps

The Design Museum is certainly worth a visit, for families as well as schools, and the very attractive Holland Park is also nearby.

Approaching the museum from Holland Park

Some interesting additional background on the museum (extracted from from Wikipedia):

The museum was founded in 1989 by Sir Terence Conran and was originally housed in a former 1940s banana warehouse on the south bank of the River Thames in the Shad Thames area in SE1 London.

In June 2011, Sir Terence Conran donated £17.5 million to enable the Museum to move in 2016 from the warehouse to a larger site which formerly housed the Commonwealth Institute in west London.

The move brought the museum into Kensington’s cultural quarter, joining the Royal College of Art, V&A, Science Museum, Natural History Museum and Serpentine Gallery.

The top-floor space under the spectacular museum roof houses a permanent display, Designer Maker User, with key objects from the museum’s collection. It is the only one in the UK devoted exclusively to contemporary design and architecture.


Nonlinear Thinking

June 19, 2017

Examples of some nonlinear relationships (from HBR article below)

From an article in the Harvard Business Review:

“In recent years a number of professions, including ecologists, physiologists, and physicians, have begun to routinely factor nonlinear relationships into their decision making. But nonlinearity is just as prevalent in the business world as anywhere else. It’s time that management professionals joined these other disciplines in developing greater awareness of the pitfalls of linear thinking in a nonlinear world. This will increase their ability to choose wisely—and to help the people around them make good decisions too.”

The article discusses some simple examples that might crop up in a marketing scenario.

Whilst knowing the relationship between quantities, even qualitatively, may be difficult to determine in practice, simply being aware that nonlinearity may be important could be enlightening and suggest alternative ways forward.


The Secret To Success Is Talking

May 24, 2017

From the Sunday Times (subscription required, so here’s an extract, published 7 May):

Becoming a billionaire could be really quite simple: make sure you receive no more than six work-related emails a day.

That, according to Sir James Dyson, whose family fortune has reached £7.8bn this year, is the secret to his success…

For Dyson it began 30 years ago, when he founded his vacuum cleaner company and banned staff from writing memos. He told them to talk to each other instead.

Even today he gives recruits old-fashioned exercise books and urges staff to use them in meetings instead of laptops.

He has built dozens of cafes at his work places “so people can have face-to-face communication. We’re creating things, working out how to sell them. You can’t do that on your own. You have to talk.”…

Perhaps it is a lesson for us all. If you log on and are faced with a screen of 300 emails, just remember: that is why you’re not a billionaire.

I knew someone in middle management who had a reputation for not replying to any email unless it was from someone of ‘significance’ (= on the Board of Directors and similar). Her view was that if it was really important someone would make contact with her, face-to-face or by phone, and they would sort things out that way. Oddly, she got away with this as everyone assumed she wouldn’t answer emails and so was only contacted when she was really needed and the matter was important! A natural filtering system. The rest of us had 300 emails a day to plough through. It would be interesting to know how many of these were actually of any real consequence (my guess is very few).

For another way to cull emails, see here.


Clarify Your Uncertainty and Talk

May 9, 2017

Sage advice from the writer Tim Kreider:

The more time you spend immersed in the shitstream of TV/internet/social media the stupider and more boring and just like everyone else you will be. Hang out in real life having good conversations with brilliant and hilarious people, so you can steal their ideas and all the clever things they say. Spend a lot of time alone so you can think up some original thoughts of your own.

Spotted here.

I’ve noticed, in connection with an idea I’ve been developing, that chatting to friends about it for 30 mins (attempting to explain it in a couple of clear sentences, handling the immediate objections, taking on board some incredibly useful suggestions) far outweighs researching it on Google (and getting endlessly distracted) for 2-3 hours! It’s amazing how helpful people can be (if you let them).

This is well-visualised below (you’re tapping into what and who they know, see here):


Inspiring Questions

April 7, 2017

I started my career as a research physicist and later moved into the commercial R&D sector. However I still keep in touch with various friends who stayed in academia. Now and again I’m tempted to take a look at research papers from people I knew just to get a feel for things (there is an excellent preprint service available: https://arxiv.org/ ).

Most research papers start with some motivation for the problem, the approach taken (with lots of details) and the results obtained plus a (usually brief) discussion of remaining issues. However looking at one paper I was surprised to find that a whole page was devoted to the open questions that the work lead to plus initial ideas on how to progress each one (and sometimes why an obvious approach had failed).

So the investigative work lead to results plus a string of further interesting questions (that anyone could pick up on if they were interested) and this was an aspect that was emphasised. I won’t give the reference as the work is very technical, the main point is the notion that progressing one question leads to concrete progress (‘answers’) plus a set of further incisive questions.

This may seem rather logical and obvious except that, at least in my experience, this is rarely the way things are presented (either written or through a talk). It seems to me that this observation is not restricted to technical areas but more or less anything that involves some investigative research and thinking.

Often the impression is given that a major issue has been ‘solved’ by a certain approach whereas the truth is more likely that a certain degree of clarification has been made and a number of really interesting follow-on questions tumble out (which should be exciting/inspiring!).

To take advantage of this, it would be natural to invoke an interactive conversation. So, instead of slides plus a general and typically short Q&A session, there would be an overview of the approach (with a few clarifying questions) plus a highly interactive and dynamic conversation with the aim of pushing things on or at least deepening the collective understanding. Although this may not be suitable for all topics it should work for some.

It’s obvious why this doesn’t happen as it shows vulnerability, there are loose ends and truly interactive group conversations are still relatively rare and unfamiliar. However, at the same time the issue of ‘death by Powerpoint’ is still prevalent and acknowledged to be seriously lacking.

Maybe the germ of something new here, or perhaps some sort of hybrid as a less-threatening compromise approach?

On the general issue of thinking about and running good conversational events, take a look at David Gurteen’s very interesting site here (work in progress).