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#125619 03/23/04 10:01 PM
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1. That the value of people with MFAs at NASA and the like is more important than a stack of PhDs. (This issue was raised in your original post.)


Often my messages come across as nasty when that is not my intent. This could easily happen in this case, as it is a subject that is very close to me.

One scourge of my current position is the class of person to whom I refer within the confines of my own skull as "the briefing slide genius." This is a guy who believes he understands "the big picture" sufficiently to develop an entire plan of study without any regard for what is feasible, practical, informative, necessary, or in the most irritating circumstances, physically possible. "Um ... uh ... did you talk this over with a so-and-so?" (So-and-so is a mathematician or an electrical engineer or what have you.) "No. But this is all very well understood stuff!" It wouldn't be so bad if the person were remotely interested in negative feedback.

(Not everyone is like this. I rejected a $100K/yr job offer from a PhD I had never met, but whose paper I had gutted. My current job was offered to me by a guy I had previously once threatened to hang up on. Some people can take criticism and others can't. In fact, some few people appreciate serious criticism even when it's quite severe.)

First, I believe, as I have asserted previously that scientists have always been imaginative and creative, and have even expressed their creativity at times in ways that even lay people (in which set I include myself) could appreciate. What has been lacking is not imagination, but often the salesmanship. Edison was a great inventor, but he was at least as great a self-promoter. It doesn't detract from his genius to note this. Some scientists have been remarkable at marketing their ideas and themselves - and others have not. T. H. Huxley was much better (not to mention much more eager) at marketing Darwinism that Charles Darwin was. Gould is better at marketing than Ernst Mayr (his teacher). Sagan was better than almost any of his contemporaries. In no case do I mean to undermine anyone's opinion of any of these remarkable men. It's important to note that this self-promotion is not always 100% successful. I can't help thinking a big part of Galileo's struggle with the Church occurred because because his bragging marked him as a prick (or at least a smart-ass). This could be a long, discursive diversion, but I'll keep it short - self-promotion sometimes has a price, but it does occur and it can be very useful for spreading ideas which otherwise might take decades or even centuries longer to disseminate.

Second, most of the people who go into the scientific disciplines want to discover things, or invent things, or build things. They want to understand how things work. The good ones could write novels if they wished (as some few of them have done) or they could be in bands (as one of them I know), but most of the really good ones are highly focused individuals. I can't imagine things would be much different for better scientists at NASA or JPL or anywhere else.

Aside: we had a temporary hire once who seemed to be slightly autistic. He routinely produced results within weeks that would take two advanced PhDs to do in about a year and a half. (No, this is not hyperbole.) Unfortunately noone could interpret his results and no one could understand his programs and few people could convince him to change anything once he had written it and no one could make any sense whatever of the little scraps that he wrote in lieu of documentation. I noted that it would be cost-effective to hire a PhD to babysit this fellow and was greeted with a "you can't be serious" stare. You see, people don't spend years in graduate school so they can be baby-sitters.

I suppose it's the same for writing. Most of these guys don't spend 8 to 10 years getting a PhD in physics so he can spend huge chunks of time writing watered-down science for people many of whom don't have the attention span to follow even a complicated argument. Some few do have the patience and aptitude to attempt this, however, and it's to our great benefit that this is the case.

I'm a little depressed when I go to a random bookstore and I see an entire rack for religion and an entire rack for each of the major religions and an entire rack for metaphysics and an entire rack for astrology and magic and rack upon rack of romance novels and self-helf books - and only one rack for science and one for math. I don't blame the bookstores. They're giving people what they want.

But while the volume may not be there, the thoughts are there in those racks. Who knows how many people might have come to pick up the latest Harlquin and come across some romance of a different sort in the pages of Broca's Brain or Contact?

Also, I note that there are many people outside of NASA who write about what they are doing quite ably. Some of these people are scientists themselves and some not. But I note the following: there's some stir from people who want to keep Hubble orbiting. Regardless of whether they succeed in this, the fact that there is serious discussion of this in the general public is a pretty strong evidence that scientists have been at least partially successful in persuading us to care about what they do.

Finally, I state without any hint of evidence (or sarcasm) that it is a lot easier for a person with a background in science to write congently and compellingly about his accomplishments than it is for a person with a background in writing to build a satellite or a martian rover.

k



#125620 03/23/04 11:45 PM
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it is a lot easier for a person with a background in science to write congently and compellingly about his accomplishments than it is for a person with a background in writing to build a satellite or a martian rover.

Well, you've convinced me TFF. [You are neither as fallible nor as fiendish as your sobriquet proclaims.]

Perhaps you would agree, in return, that while many were the equal of Einstein in their mastery of "the method", none, not a single one, could hold a candle to the blaze of his imagination, at least during his most productive years.

I also suggest that Einstein's exaltation of imagination in the service of science was more than a conceit. I remember reading that Eistein's visual imagination led him to many of his most profound insights, in particular, his theory of relativity.

Einsten recounts, as I distantly recall, that he imagined a man falling off a roof and the ground rising up to meet him.

This was the "Eureka!" moment which fired and fuelled "the method".

It seems to me, the argument really turns on this single question:

If Einstein had turned his initial "Eureka!" insight over to the other leading masters of "the method" who were working in his field of mathematics/physics at the time, would any of them have come up with the final product as soon as Einstein did, or at all?

If others could have taken Einstein's original insight and produced his Theory in the same time, then we would have proof that imagination is a more valuable commodity [even a far more valuable commodity] than mastery of "the method" itself, wouldn't you say, TFF?

Then again maybe it took an Einsten to find "the method" to prove his 'madness'.




#125621 03/24/04 06:25 AM
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P.S. re: salesmanship and self-promotion

I'm sure you're right about that as well.

Some say Andy Warhol's true genius wasn't art at all.

Edison is certainly a good example. His genius for producing inventions might have been eclipsed by his genius for producing a production plant for inventions, namely, Menlo Park.






#125622 03/24/04 03:55 PM
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Perhaps you would agree, in return, that while many were the equal of Einstein in their mastery of "the method", none, not a single one, could hold a candle to the blaze of his imagination, at least during his most productive years.


I don't know. Marc Kac has a great discussion of this sort of genius in his book, "Enigmas of Chance." He says there is ordinary genius and magical genius. For ordinary genius, you think to yourself, "On my best day, I could have thought of that same thing." For magical genius, you think to yourself, even after the theory is explained to you over and over, "What in the heck made him think of this in the first place?"

Magical genius is a rare thing, but I suspect it has a lot to do with an abnormal ability to concentrate. There have been several people in history who manifested this sort of magical genius - Gauss, Archimedes, Newton. The book makes special mention of a particular magical genius - Richard Feynman, who died of cancer less than two decades ago. Feynman was a generation behind Einstein, but I suspect that were he not already aware of relativity, he might well be able to reproduce it. This is pure speculation, course. It's not as if I thought that genius were easily quantifiable (by me or by anyone else). Even if he were capable of doing it, there's no reason to whatever to think that he actually would have done so. What is it that causes a person to obsess so about problem? Why one problem and not another? There is no end of interesting questions that one might ask.

I suppose there must be people in other sciences - or even in disciplines as far removed as the fine arts - whose powers of concentration and insight might mark them as magical geniuses were they applied to similar fundamental problems. This is another factor that Kac brings up: Feynman, Einstein, and Godel were all fundamentalists; they were all concerned with the foundational aspects of their studies.

So my reading of Kac (and others) suggests there are at least two criteria such a magical genius might possess:
1. Abnormal power of concentration.
2. Obsessive interest in the fundamentals of a subject.

Maybe I can also add
3. Imagination
4. Intelligence (though I don't think these last two are orthogonal).

I don't disagree that Einstein was a great genius; I just don't think I'm qualified to judge it. Moreover, I'm not sure I would accept anyone else's judgment so far. I'm reminded of a some web pages I visited some time ago in which "some people," presumably experts (at something), reviewed the famous writings of history and assigned posthumous IQs to famous people of history based not on tests, of course, but on various proxies, namely the writings they have left behind. Miraculously, these people have determined that Hypatia must have been smarter than da Vinci or Pascal! Bertrand Russell was smarter than Einstein! And the different estimators disagree - for example, some have Bill Clinton at 180+ (about one person in a million) and other say he was only in the 130s. I saw one once that said Kant was smarter than Gauss. My jaw dropped. My first thought was: this is a joke, right? Then I noticed that these estimates seem to heavily bias in favor philosophers.





#125623 03/24/04 04:40 PM
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ordinary genius and magical genius Fascinating concept, k. But isn't 'ordinary genius' an oxymoron?
I agree that magical genius likely requires a strong power of concentration and imagination. (Not that I disagree with your other 2--I just haven't studied what you have.) What about Salvador Dali and his melting clocks? Or the (apocryphal, presumably) little boy who solved the problem that adults couldn't--that of getting the truck unstuck from the overpass, by letting some air out of the truck's tires? Would you say these two were magical genuises?
Also--would you say that creative thinking might be a requirement?
Hmm--in proofreading, my attention was caught by "little boy"; is it likely that more men have been/will be magical geniuses because men have a stronger focus on getting to a solution quickly than women do?


#125624 03/24/04 04:45 PM
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... and let's not forget mad geniuses [genii for the sticklers] ...


#125625 03/24/04 06:02 PM
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ordinary genius and magical genius Fascinating concept, k. But isn't 'ordinary genius' an oxymoron?

Perhaps, but I think it's an understandable one.


I agree that magical genius likely requires a strong power of concentration and imagination. (Not that I disagree with your other 2--I just haven't studied what you have.) What about Salvador Dali and his melting clocks? Or the (apocryphal, presumably) little boy who solved the problem that adults couldn't--that of getting the truck unstuck from the overpass, by letting some air out of the truck's tires? Would you say these two were magical genuises?

No in both cases, but that's my personal judgement. But let me make clear that I consider all of this loose talk.

Also--would you say that creative thinking might be a requirement?"
I think that imagination and creative thinking are so closely related that they should not be separate entries in our enumeration. I don't object to adding it to the list - I just don't think it's necessary.


Hmm--in proofreading, my attention was caught by "little boy"; is it likely that more men have been/will be magical geniuses because men have a stronger focus on getting to a solution quickly than women do?

I don't know. I've heard these kinds of arguments before. They're interesting to me, but not compelling. As you're aware, there have been and continue to be reasons why genius of any sort might go unnoticed in women. Getting to a solution quickly seems to be the emphasis of many mensans I know, and among those who are really into the IQ thing. Also, I don't know that the magical geniuses were all quick thinkers. Of the ones I listed, the only one known as a savante was Gauss. Feynman was tested at 125 in high school. (Some postulate that he was so brilliant and so contemptuous of the test, he just decided on what score he wanted and strove for it. I discount this as pure silly. The guy had no humility - if he had done something like that, it's absurd to think he would not have bragged about it in one of his books.) Einstein is reputed to have not spoken at all until he was 5 at which time he immediately began using complete sentences. I used to find this highly doubtful, but now only mildly doubtful - at least not completely ludicrous.

Just my opinion, of course, but I think what really separates them from their compatriots is the way they obsess with a single thing and worry it to death.


k



#125626 03/24/04 06:33 PM
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re:Einstein is reputed to have not spoken at all until he was 5 at which time he immediately began using complete sentences. I used to find this highly doubtful, but now only mildly doubtful

while i am not going to make claims to being a genius, (but i do/did test (a rather complete, one on one test, with a psycologist) to a 165 iq in my teen years, my sister, (perhaps just as smart) did not speak till she was 3 (i was close to 5 at the time)

my mother worried she might be deaf when she didn't babble like normal babies, but the doctor did a crude test, (he gentle snapped his fingers behind G's head, and she turned to see what made the noise..)
when she did start to speak, she spoke in complete sentences. (her first words mortified my mother.. G repeated an oft heard phrase--"You god damn kids!" --my mother was upset because she thought her self moral, and she didn't realize how often she had taken the lords name in vain. (or course, its says something about my early childhood years, too, since i was one of damn kids she was always upset with!)

its not an uncommon pattern for children to not speak till they can speak in sentences. it is not a sign of genius, its just a normal pattern. some kids speak early, some late, some don't speak till they can speak in sentences.
(my kids babbled, and started to talk about 9 to 10 months, (pretty normal) but my son didn't toddle or teeter. he crawled forever--and then one day, age 15 months or so, he started to walk. day one, he walked over 2 miles non stop, no falls.. Not the usual pattern for children learning to walk, but not unknown either.

i don't think einstien was 5.. but he might well have been over the age of 3 or even 4 before he spoke, and he might well have spoken, right from the start, in perfect, or almost perfect sentences. (from a grammatical point of view) it's just how some kids behave.


#125627 03/25/04 06:30 AM
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What is it that causes a person to obsess so about problem? Why one problem and not another?
IMHO, the second question is more instrumental than we think in having made someone known as a genius. Marie Curie would probably not have achieved her fame if radioactivity were not such a "magical" phenomenon in itself, to this day. At the time, radium was immediately hailed as a miracle cure for all sorts of ailments.. Relativity too, is an example of a notion which surfaced exactly "at the right time", and was consequently misused in the most absurd arguments. On the other hand, the synthesis of ammonia, which was certainly of significance for a larger part of the world population (fertilizer..), is only present in the memory of specialists.



#125628 03/25/04 11:02 AM
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Going back to your point about the relationship between genius and "salesmanship", TFF.

There was a piece in the paper the other day about Salvador Dali (born 100 years ago in May).

The Guardian art critic Robert Hughes wrote:

"No artist yet unborn will achieve the same kind of relation to the 21st century that he [Dali] did to the 20th. He was the apotheosis of the dandy, a now almost-extinct breed, and he grew famous through shock-effects and scandal, whose manifestations in painting no longer stir the shock-proof, media-glutted culture of our own time."

It's hard to make a break-through as an artist nowadays.

The artists who have gone before them, beginning with Dali, have trashed every code of respectable conduct there is.

I even read of an artist who painted a canvas with human feces. I assume his own because he was making his own statement. What artist would want to make a statement using someone else's feces?

In any case, no-one gave a s..t ... but I assume they made him clean up his own canvass.

If Dali were to do his famous clock again today, time wouldn't melt. It would probably defecate.

Oh, yes, and one other thing. The 'event' would probably be covered by gnats.


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