Recent Chinese Achievements

October 2, 2020


I wasn’t aware of the tremendous scope of recent Chinese technical achievements and it was handy that someone had trawled the web to put this presentation together. Full article is here.

I can’t find an original reference for this presentation (it came through social media). Google searches didn’t produce anything immediately but the content is certainly thought provoking at the very least. Worth a look.

Two sample slides, above and below (68 in total)


MIT Course On COVID And The Pandemic

September 4, 2020

I’ve been interested to take a (free) online course for a while now and was waiting for a subject that really engaged me. This one from MIT on a key topic of the day, COVID and the Pandemic, looks really good. The first lecture is up on the site with more to follow (the second one is advertised above). You can watch live if time zones allow (see below).

I’m interested partly due to the content but also to see how complex science material is presented these days (communication and engagement).

From the MIT course site:

“Course description: Lectures by leading experts on the fundamentals of coronavirus and host cell biology, immunology, epidemiology, clinical disease, and vaccine and therapeutic development. This is an exploratory subject, open to undergraduate and graduate students…

The class is open to all MIT students, as well as any eligible cross-registered students. The live stream will be available to the public, but only registered students may ask questions during the Q&A.To view the live stream, click on this link and type in the password: mit-covid. Miss a class? You’ll be able to view a video of the lecture on this page. Please note: It will take a few days to caption and post each lecture video after the livestream has ended.”


Giving Smart Answers Under Pressure

August 24, 2020

I recently decided to sell my vinyl collection, lovingly kept for years. The traditional hi-fi takes up too much space, changing sides of albums is a chore and (the way it’s set up) it’s primarily for just one room. I now find Sonos and Spotify (and others) a much more flexible and convenient arrangement. I’m not bothered by the slight decrease in sound quality. The latter also allows easy search for known artists and it’s fascinating to discover loads of great new musicians I never knew existed.

For selling the vinyl (that I had an obvious emotional attachment to), I had to come to a rough valuation. As I was moving house at the time and things were hectic, in the end I didn’t pay too much attention to this. I did find sites that gave estimates for individual prices (depending on their condition and the pressing) but going through the whole collection would have taken ages. Also there were comments that the prices were very subjective. So to get a quick solution I did some very rough guesswork and negotiated from that.

What I should have done (obvious in hindsight) was do some guesstimates. At the very least, put records into categories (rock, folk, jazz and classical), estimate average prices plus identify any special items of value which presumably would be few eg early pressings. This valuation is not what you may achieve but at least gives a better starting point to negotiate from. As they say, in negotiations, the one with most knowledge wins! The issue is what is the smartest thing you can do under strict time pressure. I’m not saying I got a bad price it’s just that I’d have a nicer feeling inside if I’d thought things through (I know, that’s life!).

This got me thinking about more general guesstimates, sometimes called Fermi Problems or back-of-the-envelope calculations. Fermi was a highly creative scientist and won the Nobel Prize for his ground breaking work in nuclear physics. He was one of the last ‘giants’ that could encompass and contribute to both experimental and theoretical physics (disciplines that require very different skills). He had a reputation for his seemingly uncanny ability to give good estimates to tricky problems even with little actual data.

A famous example of a Fermi Problem (that he used to tantalise students with) is: How many piano tuners are there in Chicago?

This at first site seems an impossible problem but on reflection some educated guesses can be made that give a good approximation to the answer (see here):

  1. Assume population of Chicago is roughly 3,000,000 (actually 2,693,976 in 2019)
  2. Assume average family size is 4, so number of families is about 750,000
  3. If one in five families owns a piano (seems a bit high but rounds things for easy calculation), then 150,000 pianos to be tuned in principal
  4. If the average piano tuner works 5 days a week and tunes 4 pianos a day for 50 weeks a year (2 week vacation), he/she can service 1,000 pianos.
  5. So, for these two estimates to match, there must be about 150 piano tuners in Chicago.

Obviously you can contest each assumption, see how sensitive it is to changes and so on. But the main point is that some simple and quick reasoning can give an initial ball-park figure (ie order of magnitude 100 tuners). You’re now working from a situation of some knowledge rather than no knowledge.

Recently I came across a site, Street of Walls, that goes through a number of these problems in a business setting. For instance, they might be the sort of question you get in a demanding job interview for management consultancy.

Examples they give (with typical ‘answers’) include:

  • How many flat screen televisions have been sold in Australia in the past 12 months?
  • How many iPhones are currently being used in China?
  • What is the revenue of Peugeots sold in France per year?

These questions might all sound crazily difficult but using the approach of the piano tuner example above, it might be educational to try the above questions prior to looking at the answers. Remember, you’re not looking for ‘the’ answer rather a reasonable and quick approximation to it. In some sense, this is the first step, to reframe the question into something manageable. Also, to keep your cool.

This approach to developing intelligent guesses also reminds me of something that the famous physicist Richard Feynman said (and probably many others too). When you start a problem make some bold educated guesses. If a more careful analysis gives a very different answer, figure out what you missed in the back-of-the envelope approach and try to learn from it. With a bit of luck, your intuition and guesswork will steadily improve and deepen as a result.

I’ve written about the topic of guesstimates previously, motivated by some thoughts of Seth Godin:

“When I interview people for jobs, I always ask, “How many gas stations do you think there are in the United States?” Not because I care how many gas stations there are, but because it gives me an insight into how people solve problems.

The vast majority of people who answer this question (Iʼve asked it more than 1,000 times over the years) start their answer with, “Letʼs see…there are 50 states.” They then go on to analyze their town, figure out how many gas stations there are, and multiply from there…”

He mentions this is not a good approach as it doesn’t deal with easily scalable quantities and ends up with another totally different way forward:

“Instead of starting the business that makes stuff for people just like you, do some real re-search. Go to the library. Donʼt invent something that requires you to have a handle on the purchasing habits, the psychographics, and the changing demographics of the whole country. Instead, find a thriving industry and emulate and improve on the market leader. Sheʼs already done your homework for you.”

This could be an additional point you could use in the interview. More details in my original post here.

Finally, as an aside, on the topic of extremely demanding and somewhat crazy interview questions, see here.


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.


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.


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).


Selling The Future

April 5, 2017

From Seth Godin:

When we buy a stake in the future, what we’re actually buying is how it makes us feel today.

We move up all the imagined benefits and costs of something in the future and experience them now. That’s why it’s hard to stick to a diet (because celery tastes bad today, and we can’t easily experience feeling healthy in ten years). That’s why we make such dumb financial decisions (because it’s so tempting to believe magical stories about tomorrow).

If you want people to be smarter or more active or more generous about their future, you’ll need to figure out how to make the transaction about how it feels right now.


Hard Work or Magic?

March 16, 2017

I came across this interesting quote:

“I suggest that the only books that influence us are those for which we are ready, and which have gone a little farther down our particular path than we have got ourselves. I suggest, furthermore, that when you feel that you could almost have written the book yourself—that’s the moment when it’s influencing you. You are not influenced when you say, ‘How marvelous! What a revelation! How monumental! Oh!’ You are being extended. You are being influenced when you say ‘I might have written that myself if I had not been so busy.’” – E. M. Forster, “A Book That Influenced Me,” from Two Cheers for Democracy

It reminded me of a quote from the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Hans Bethe on the famous physicist Richard Feynman:

“There are two types of genius. Ordinary geniuses do great things, but they leave you room to believe that you could do the same if only you worked hard enough. Then there are magicians, and you can have no idea how they do it. Feynman was a magician.” — Hans Bethe

I’ve written on Feynman a number of times previously, see here.