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: ).

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.


Everyone Gets The Future Wrong

February 13, 2017

Official trailer for Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World (Werner Herzog)

From a review of the movie on Ars Technica:

“No one ever gets the future right,” cosmologist Lawrence Krauss tells Herzog. We never got our flying cars and Moonbases—we got the World Wide Web instead. The future is daunting because it’s something we haven’t thought of yet. It’s not going to be a utopian interplanetary society of jetpacks, but it’s not going to be The Hunger Games either. Even someone who says “we’re all going to hell in a handbasket!” is trying to put the future into a tidy little box. So it says a lot that Herzog, a filmmaker who once threatened his leading man with a rifle and ate his own shoe on a bet, can’t make up his mind where we’re headed.


Theories Of Everything, Mapped

February 3, 2016

Theories of EverythingClick here

I started my career as a theoretical physicist working on the problem of quark confinement and related matters. I still try to keep my general interest up and nowadays there are a number of excellent semi-popular resources for this.

Quanta is one of them. Here’s a really impressive pictorial overview of the current ideas and theories in our fundamental understanding of the universe – a very slick web site!

The map provides concise descriptions of highly complex theories; learn more by exploring the links to dozens of articles and videos, and vote for the ideas you find most elegant or promising. Finally, the map is extensive, but hardly exhaustive; proposed additions are welcome below.

The Quotable Feynman

October 20, 2015

From the Princeton University Press:

“Some people say, ‘How can you live without knowing?’ I do not know what they mean. I always live without knowing. That is easy. How you get to know is what I want to know.”—Richard P. Feynman

Nobel Prize–winning physicist Richard P. Feynman (1918–88) was that rarest of creatures—a towering scientific genius who could make himself understood by anyone and who became as famous for the wit and wisdom of his popular lectures and writings as for his fundamental contributions to science. The Quotable Feynman is a treasure-trove of this revered and beloved scientist’s most profound, provocative, humorous, and memorable quotations on a wide range of subjects.

It sounds an interesting read, especially if you’re a Feynman fan.

I’ve written a few posts on Feynman that might be of interest, including:

I started my career as a theoretical physicist and during this period I co-organised the last physics meeting that he attended, held on the small German island of Wangerooge.

Feynman Wangerooge 1987

Feynman at the Workshop held at Wangerooge (he’s in the middle, just to the right)


The interesting and unusual island of Wangerooge (off the German coast)

Teaching To Learn

November 9, 2014


In this context it’s also invaluable to remember that:

“You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother.” – Albert Einstein

Doing the latter is actually not common or easy as people often take lots of things for granted eg jargon. This is related to the so-called ‘curse of knowledge‘.

See also a previous post on the role of collaborative conversation in education.

Topic first spotted on the blog of Nick Milton.

Picture credit here.