From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

"The Power of Thought"

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 12 March 2018. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

I don't know how, when, or why this myth emerged that Einstein was a poor or lazy student, or that he valued the creative side of humanity over the analytical. Perhaps it's because Einstein himself often downplayed his own mathematical prowess and emphasized the power of imagination. Perhaps it's because Einstein's genius is so unattainable to us mere mortals that we have to comfort ourselves otherwise we feel eternally insignificant.

It is true that Einstein was remarkably creative. One could safely argue that some of his contemporaries were at least as smart as the man himself, but nobody else thought the same way he did. He made brilliant and unparalleled leaps of insight, discovering hidden relationships with his favorite trick: the thought experiment. By imagining some scenario (racing a beam of light, falling off a tall tower, and so on) he was able to make astounding advances in our understanding of nature.

But while thought experiments begin with creative thinking, they don't end there. Missing from the typical narrative is the exceedingly competent analytical mind that Einstein brought to the problems. He followed his thought experiments to their logical ends, and worked to express those creative insights in the language of mathematics.

It took Einstein seven years of dogged pursuit to go from simple thought experiments to General Relativity, our modern theory of gravity. Those years were full of blind alleys, wrong turns, stubborn biases that held him back, misgivings and unease about the results, and mathematics so advanced that few people could even keep up. And through it all persistence, persistence, persistence.

So I think the lesson here is that the key to success isn't just creativity. That is essential, for sure, but not the only ingredient. You also need to add to the mix some critical thinking, logic, analytics, and perseverance. Then you'll find the potent concoction that made Einstein so remarkable.

"Extraodinary Claims"

Written by Paul Sutter on Tuesday, 06 March 2018. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

You've probably encountered the phrase "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." Well, it's not just some pithy saying that relieves you of the burden of having to believe every random statement you might encounter in your life. It's actually a handy summary of a very powerful approach to statistics.

The heart here is something called Bayes' theorem, named after the Reverend Thomas Bayes, who was kicking around cool ideas in the first half of the eighteenth century. It relates some statement you're trying to test ("giant stars die as supernovas", "jelly beans cause cancer", "aliens visit Earth because their star exploded and they're going to steal our jelly beans", etc.) to the individual probabilities of each component (the number of stars you observe dying, the number of people eating jelly beans, and so on).

Of course I'm radically simplifying this, but the key takeaway is that Bayesian statistics folds in your existing knowledge of the problem directly into the math, and provides a way to create outcomes that are an updated view of the world based on any new information or experiments. Thus if you don't have a lot of info already, a quick experiment can start to point you in the right direction. But if there is already a huge amount of knowledge about a relationship, it will take a tremendous amount of good evidence to change that perspective.

Unfortunately while simple to state the application of Bayesian statistics gets really complicated really fast, and it's only recently that we've had the computational power to crunch through the intense calculations involved. Which is good. The more we move away from simple-to-apply but simple-to-abuse methods (*cough* p-values *cough*), the better.

"Radical Empathy"

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 26 February 2018. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

Recently I was invited to appear on Midnight in the Desert, a late-night radio show hosted by Heather Wade and usually featuring topics such as UFOs, time travel, energy beings, bigfoots (bigfeet?), and more. Honestly, I was torn. One on hand, I tend to distance myself from those subjects - I'm here to communicate what we know about the universe through science, after all. And those topics are...well, less than rigorous.

On the other hand - and the reason I ultimately accepted the offer - this is a new audience. I could stay in my comfort zone and talk to the same people who accept the same worldview that I espouse, or I could take a chance and speak to people who might be unaccepting of, and perhaps even hostile to, my values.

It was a risk - personally, professionally - so I took an approach of radical empathy. At the top of the interview I said I respected the host and the listeners, and I wasn't there to tell people what to believe. The folks I spoke to had deep, sincere, heartfelt, emotional experiences. Who was I to stomp all over that?

Instead I explained why I, as a scientist, must maintain a high skeptical bar for my own beliefs, and how we could use personal experiences to explore all sorts of cool physics about the world around us and test the limits of our knowledge. Swapping stories, if you will.

Now I'm not trying to hold myself up as some paragon of science communication virtue, but I took a risk and it paid off.

The host and callers were a blast to chat with, and the show was a wonderful opportunity to share some science. At the end of the broadcast, Heather told me that I was the first scientist to come on the program and not act smug, contemptuous, and condescending towards the topics and listeners. I was disappointed to hear that, but not altogether surprised. I happily accepted her invitation for another visit in the future.

Food for thought.

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