You Forget What You Know (Gell-Mann Amnesia)

May 30, 2020

“Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward—reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.

In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.” – Michael Crichton (author and filmmaker, 1942-2008)

That’s a really good observation.

As an aside, Murray Gell-Mann was  an influential theoretical physicist who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1969 for his work on fundamental particles. He was based at the California Institute of Technology and later went on to co-found the famous Sante Fe Institute (for the study of complex systems).

He and the more well-known Richard Feynman were famous collaborators and later ‘rivals’. I’ve written quite a few posts on Feynman (two of the most popular are here and here).

There’s an illuminating talk by Gell-Mann on Edge (The Making of a Physicist) and a very well-wriitten biography if you’d like more details. From the former, an interesting and somewhat provocative quote:

“Dick (Feynman) and I had different talents. His great talent was for finding marvelously clever mathematical tricks for expressing theories in physics and then solving problems using those tricks, which always involved a great deal of physical insight. He was less good at finding new physical theories and getting them right, whereas I seem to have had a talent for finding out what was going on and guessing the right theory.”


Revisiting Imperial College London

June 13, 2019

The main entrance to Imperial College London

Recently I went to Imperial College to hear an Athena lecture by Margaret Heffernan on Scientific Leadership. This lecture is given annually by a prominent female scientist or entrepreneur to celebrate the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and medicine. It should be on YouTube soon and I’ll put a link up and make some comments about it then.

This year I became an Alumnus of Imperial College (having got my doctorate there many years ago). I’m keen to get involved in one way or another so attending the lecture was a good start as it allowed me to have a look around to see how the College has changed. Here’s some photos that give a flavour, showing the modernisations, two famous physicists I knew and the delightful and surprising mews area nearby.

The impressive Faculty Building

The Bessemer Building (Engineering)

I decided to go to the Physics Department where I spent 3 years of my life carrying out research for a doctorate in theoretical high energy physics. The head of the theory group at that time was Tom Kibble (who ‘almost’ got the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2013). Abdus Salam, who was co-awarded the Nobel Prize in 1979, was also there as he held positions at the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy (which he helped set up) and Imperial. It was an especially exciting time to be doing research as a lot of breakthroughs were made in understanding the fundamental particles and their interactions (quarks, the Higgs boson etc).

I’ve previously written about an interesting conversation I had with Salam that sparked my interest in giving advice and following different paths in life. The point being that when someone makes a suggestion that’s not in your current plans, it’s quite hard to really appreciate it or take advantage of it. However not doing so might be the loss of a major if unconventional opportunity (more details here).

Professor Abdus Salam (Nobel Prize for Physics 1979)

Professor Tom Kibble

Not far from the hustle and bustle of the university are a number of delightful mews. I have a memory of a small pub which we used to drink in in this area. I tried to track it down but to no avail. Perhaps it had been changed into a house or perhaps my memory was mistaken.

A delightful mews very near to imperial College

Another nearby mews

In hindsight, it was quite a privilege to be at Imperial at this time, great people and a wonderful location.


Risk versus Uncertainty

March 21, 2019

From the FT recently, on the difference between risk and uncertainty, and its implications:

“It (the distinction) was first made back in 1921 by the University of Chicago economist Frank Knight. Risk, he said, is something we can quantify, as when we say there’s a one-in-six risk of a die rolling a one. Uncertainty, however, cannot be quantified…

The biggest uncertainty is: technical change. Only one in eight of the US’s largest 500 companies in 1955 are still in the largest 500 today. And only two of the UK’s largest employers in 1907 are independent stock market-listed companies today: Prudential and WH Smith.

Herein lies a big difference between risk and uncertainty. Some risks diminish over time as losses are followed by gains…

Uncertainty, however, increases with time. We have a fairly good idea of the strengths, weaknesses, opportunuties and threats facing a particular company over the next 12 months. But if we’re honest, we haven’t a clue about them over the next 30 years.”

In this context it’s revealing how tricky it is to forecast long term change, say through research planning, see here.


Famous Physicists At Cambridge

February 26, 2019

St John’s College at Cambridge (UK)

I recently paid a visit to St John’s College at Cambridge (see above). One evening we had dinner in the impressive Great Hall. Afterwards I took at the look at the portraits on the walls of past Fellows.

Paul Dirac, Fellow of St John’s

I knew that Paul Dirac (one of the world’s greatest theoretical physicists) was a Fellow but I was quite surprised to see a portait of Abdus Salam as well who I didn’t know was a Fellow. Abdus Salam was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1979 along with Steven Weinberg and Sheldon Glashow.

Abdus Salam, Fellow of St John’s

I’ve given a story (see here) about a discussion I had with Salam (who was then a Professor at Imperial College London) that made me realise the skill and awareness needed to take unconventional career advice.

St John’s has impressively produced nine Nobel Laureates (five in Physics, two in Medicine, one in Chemistry and one in Economics, see here).


The Iceberg Illusion

September 11, 2018

Something to reflect on and always bear in mind! Sylvia Duckworth is an award-winning teacher from Canada and uses sketchnotes (as above) extensively.

 


Feynman and Climbing Mont Blanc

August 28, 2018

Poster for a current Caltech Archives special exhibition on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Richard Feynman’s birth (1918-1988)

I’ve written previously (see here) on how the famous physicist Richard Feynman figured out how to get out of a creative block that occurred after his initial revolutionary successes (for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965):

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!”

However recently I came across an article by John Preskill of Cal Tech which mentions another viewpoint attributed to Sidney Coleman (who was a Professor of Theoretical Physics at Harvard University). Preskill is the Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics at Cal Tech:

Feynman often told students to disregard what others had done, to work things out for oneself. Not everyone thought that was good advice. One who disagreed was Sidney Coleman, a Caltech grad student in the late 50s and early 60s. Coleman says: “Had Feynman not been as smart as he was, I think he would have been too original for his own good. There was always an element of showboating in his character. He was like the guy that climbs Mt. Blanc barefoot just to show it could be done. A lot of things he did were to show, you didn’t have to do it that way, you can do it this other way. And the other way, in fact, was not as good as the first way, but it showed he was different. … I’m sure Dick thought of that as a virtue, as noble. I don’t think it’s so. I think it’s kidding yourself. Those other guys are not all a collection of yo-yos. Sometimes it would be better to take the recent machinery they have built and not try to rebuild it, like reinventing the wheel. … Dick could get away with a lot because he was so goddamn smart. He really could climb Mont Blanc barefoot.” 

There are lots of nice stories and insights in the Preskill article (entitled ‘Feynman After 40’) which is well worth a read.


Grand Challenges and Anticipating the Future

August 22, 2018

I met up with a colleague recently who works in the transport area and she recommended I take a look at a couple of articles including (for general context) the UK Innovation Strategy. The document detailing this (published in Nov 2017) can be found here, including:

“As well as setting a path to improved productivity, our Industrial Strategy sets out four areas (Grand Challenges) where Britain can lead the global technological revolution.”

It’s interesting to consider these big picture themes as it’s all to easy to get locked into details in specific projects.

The Four Grand Challenges are (plus some further explanatory extracts, see here):

1. Artificial intelligence and big data

They can be seen as new industries in their own right, but they are also transforming business models across many sectors as they deploy vast datasets to identify better ways of doing complex tasks – from helping doctors diagnose medical conditions more effectively to allowing people to communicate across the globe using instantaneous speech recognition and translation software.

2. Clean growth

The move to cleaner economic growth – through low carbon technologies and the efficient use of resources – is one of the greatest industrial opportunities of our time. By one estimate, the UK’s clean economy could grow at four times the rate of GDP. Whole new industries will be created and existing industries transformed as we move towards a low carbon, more resource-efficient economy.

3. The future of mobility (people, goods, services)

The UK’s road and rail network could dramatically reduce carbon emissions and other pollutants, congestion could be reduced through higher-density use of road space enabled by automated vehicles, and mobility could be available when we want it, where we want it and how we want it.

4. Meeting the needs of an ageing society

The prospect of longer lives will require people to plan their careers and retirement differently. Ageing populations will create new demands for technologies, products and services, including new care technologies, new housing models and innovative savings products for retirement.

The first three you could see as predominantly technological challenges but the fourth is far more complex as it will need to take into account inter-generational attitudes and mindsets. A good example of a cross-disciplinary project.