Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

13 NOVEMBER, 2012

An Animated Open Letter to President Obama on the State of Science Education

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Reigniting the spark of physics in an education ethos stuck 150 years in the past.

Many of us living in the United States have recently taken a massive exhale at the triumphant news of four more years of sanity and progress. But it isn’t all unicorns and rainbows for President Obama, who will have to address some serious challenges. The fine folks of MinutePhysics — who have previously explained why the color pink doesn’t exist, why the past is different from the future, and why it’s dark at night — have zoomed in one of them in this animated open letter to the President, addressing an astonishing gap in physics education: Namely, the fact that most high school curricula cover none of the physics breakthroughs that have taken place in the past 150 years, including “the topic of every single Nobel Prize in physics since…always.” MinutePhysics advises the President to take a cue from Carl Sagan, Richard Feynman, and Neil deGrasse Tyson — men “committed 100% to the dissemination of the awesomeness of the universe” — and reignite the educational spark of physics.

The United States: A country with 5,000 nuclear weapons, birthplace of the world’s computing and telecommunications industry, home of the first atomic clock, and creator of the Global Positioning System. Chances are, if you just took regular American high school physics, you don’t know one iota behind the science behind those things. … That’s because high school physics students across most of America are not required to learn about pretty much any physical phenomena discovered or explained more recently than 1865. Yes, 1865. That’s the year the Civil War ended and well over a decade before Albert Einstein was even born.

Sadly, even if modern physics were required in high school, the question of how much that would actually promote an understanding of physics is a different matter — you needn’t look further than the latest data on state science standards to sigh in desperation:

Luckily, though certainly no substitute for formal education, the internet offers a worthy complement to what the classroom leaves out. To inject your daily information diet with some science-plus magic and wisdom, follow Neil deGrasse Tyson on Twitter, read Joe Hanson’s fantastic It’s Okay To Be Smart and Ed Yong’s Not Exactly Rocket Science (and consider the occasional donation — they’re that good), and peruse the Brain Pickings science archive.

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08 NOVEMBER, 2012

The Science of “Intuition”

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“There is no such thing as an intuitive person tout court. Intuition is a domain-specific ability.”

The power and fruitfulness of intuition has had innumerable and celebrated champions — from Einstein, Anne Lamott, and Steve Jobs to some of history’s greatest scientists and philosophers. But what, exactly, lies behind this amorphous phenomenon we call “intuition”? That’s precisely what CUNY philosophy professor Massimo Pigliucci explores in a chapter of Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to A More Meaningful Life (public library).

First, Pigliucci offers a primer on what intuition is and isn’t, compared and contrasted with the history of understanding consciousness:

The word intuition comes from the Latin intuir, which appropriately means ‘knowledge from within.’ Until recently, intuition, like consciousness, was the sort of thing that self-respecting scientists stayed clear of, on penalty of being accused of engaging in New Age woo-woo rather than serious science. Heck, even most philosophers — who historically had been very happy to talk about consciousness, far ahead of the rise of neurobiology — found themselves with not much to say about intuition. However, these days cognitive scientists think of intuition as a set of nonconscious cognitive and affective processes; the outcome of these processes is often difficult to articulate and is not based on deliberate thinking, but it’s real and (sometimes) effective nonetheless. It was William James, the father of modern psychology, who first proposed the idea that cognition takes place in two different modes, and his insight anticipated modern so-called dual theories of cognition. Intuition works in an associative manner: it feels effortless (even though it does use a significant amount of brain power), and it’s fast. Rational thinking, on the contrary, is analytical, requires effort, and is slow. Why, then, would we ever want to use a system that makes us work hard and doesn’t deliver rapid results? Think of it this way: intuitions, contrary to much popular lore, are not infallible. Cognitive scientists treat them as quick first assessments of a given situation, as provisional hypotheses in need of further checking.

Citing recent research, Pigliucci presents an important debunking of the grab-bag term “intuition”:

One of the first things that modern research on intuition has clearly shown is that there is no such thing as an intuitive person tout court. Intuition is a domain-specific ability, so that people can be very intuitive about one thing (say, medical practice, or chess playing) and just as clueless as the average person about pretty much everything else. Moreover, intuitions get better with practice — especially with a lot of practice — because at bottom intuition is about the brain’s ability to pick up on certain recurring patterns; the more we are exposed to a particular domain of activity the more familiar we become with the relevant patterns (medical charts, positions of chess pieces), and the more and faster our brains generate heuristic solutions to the problem we happen to be facing within that domain.

Indeed, this notion of additive progress in developing intuition is the same concept known as “deliberate practice” in the development of any skill or “talent”. Pigliucci writes:

There is another aspect to the question of intuition versus conscious thinking that affects our quality of life, and that has to do with research showing how people get better at what they do or get stuck in it.

[…]

An ‘expert’ is someone who performs at a very high level in a given field, be it medicine, law, science, chess, tennis, or soccer. As it turns out, people become experts (or simply, much much better) at what they do when they use their intuition and conscious thinking in particular ways. Research on acquiring skills shows that, roughly speaking, and pretty much independently of whether we are talking about a physical activity or an intellectual one, people tend to go through three phases while they improve their performance. During the first phase, the beginner focuses her attention simply on understanding what it is that the task requires and on not making mistakes. In phase two, such conscious attention to the basics of the task is no longer needed, and the individual performs quasi-automatically and with reasonable proficiency. Then comes the difficult part. Most people get stuck in phase two: they can do whatever it is they set out to do decently, but stop short of the level of accomplishment that provides the self-gratification that makes one’s outlook significantly more positive or purchases the external validation that results in raises and promotions. Phase three often remains elusive because while the initial improvement was aided by switching control from conscious thought to intuition—as the task became automatic and faster—further improvement requires mindful attention to the areas where mistakes are still being made and intense focus to correct them. Referred to as ‘deliberate practice,’ this phase is quite distinct from mindless or playful practice.

Given the importance of networked knowledge and “associative indexing” in making sense of information, it is unsurprising that “structured knowledge” is what sets the expert apart from the amateur:

There are a variety of reasons, but two are especially important: one needs to develop the ability to anticipate problems, and this in turn is often the result not just of knowledge of a given field but of structured knowledge. … Not only is there a difference between naive and expert knowledge, but there is more than one way to acquire expert knowledge, guided not just by the intrinsic properties of the system but also by the particular kinds of interest that different individuals have in that system.

The rest of Answers for Aristotle explores diverse yet uniformly fascinating and essential subjects we’ve previously explored and will continue to explore for the foreseeable lifetime — love, morality, what it means to be human, the meaning of life, the limits of science, and much more.

Public domain photograph by Nickolas Muray via George Eastman House / Flickr Commons

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06 NOVEMBER, 2012

The Half-Life of Facts: Dissecting the Predictable Patterns of How Knowledge Grows

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“No one learns something new and then holds it entirely independent of what they already know. We incorporate it into the little edifice of personal knowledge that we have been creating in our minds our entire lives.”

Concerns about the usefulness of knowledge and the challenges of information overload predate contemporary anxieties by decades, centuries, if not millennia. In The Half-life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date (public library) — which gave us this fantastic illustration of how the Gutenberg press embodied combinatorial creativitySamuel Arbesman explores why, in a world in constant flux with information proliferating at overwhelming rates, understanding the underlying patterns of how facts change equips us for better handling the uncertainty around us. (He defines fact as “a bit of knowledge that we know, either as individuals or as a society, as something about the state of the world.”)

Arbesman writes in the introduction:

Knowledge is like radioactivity. If you look at a single atom of uranium, whether it’s going to decay — breaking down and unleashing its energy — is highly unpredictable. It might decay in the next second, or you might have to sit and stare at it for thousands, or perhaps even millions, of years before it breaks apart.

But when you take a chunk of uranium, itself made up of trillions upon trillions of atoms, suddenly the unpredictable becomes predictable.. We know how uranium atoms work in the aggregate. As a group of atoms, uranium is highly regular. When we combine particles together, a rule of probability known as the law of large numbers takes over, and even the behavior of a tiny piece of uranium becomes understandable. If we are patient enough, half of a chunk of uranium will break down in 704 million years, like clock-work. This number — 704 million years — is a measurable amount of time, and it is known as the half-life of uranium.

It turns out that facts, when viewed as a large body of knowledge, are just as predictable. Facts, in the aggregate, have half-lives: We can measure the amount of time for half of a subject’s knowledge to be overturned. There is science that explores the rates at which new facts are created, new technologies developed, and even how facts spread. How knowledge changes can be understood scientifically.

This is a powerful idea. We don’t have to be at sea in a world of changing knowledge. Instead, we can understand how facts grow and change in the aggregate, just like radioactive materials. This book is a guide to the startling notion that our knowledge — even what each of us has in our head — changes in understandable and systematic ways.

Indeed, Arbesman’s conception depicts facts as the threads of which our networked knowledge and combinatorial creativity are woven:


Facts are how we organize and interpret our surroundings. No one learns something new and then holds it entirely independent of what they already know. We incorporate it into the little edifice of personal knowledge that we have been creating in our minds our entire lives. In fact, we even have a phrase for the state of affairs that occurs when we fail to do this: cognitive dissonance.

Facts, says Arbesman, live on a continuum from the very rapidly changing (like the stock market and the weather) to those whose pace of change is so slow it’s imperceptible to us (like the number of continents on Earth and the number of fingers on the human hand), in the mid-range of which live mesofacts — the facts that change at the meso, or middle, of the timescale. These include facts that change over a single lifetime. For instance, my grandmother, who celebrates her 76th birthday today, learned in grade school that there were a little over 2 billion people living on Earth and a hundred elements in the periodic table, but we’ve recently passed seven billion and there are now 118 known elements. But, rather than fretting about this impossibly rapid informational treadmill, Arbesman finds comfort in patterns:

Facts change in regular and mathematically understandable ways. And only by knowing the pattern of our knowledge’s evolution an we be better prepared for its change.

He offers a curious example of the exponential nature of knowledge through the history of scientific research:

If you look back in history you can get the impression that scientific discoveries used to be easy. Galileo rolled objects down slopes; Robert Hooke played with a spring to learn about elasticity; Isaac Newton poked around his own eye with a darning needle to understand color perception. It took creativity and knowledge (and perhaps lack of squeamishness or regard for one’s own well-being) to ask the right questions, but the experiments themselves could be very simple. Today, if you want to make a discovery in physics, it helps to be part of a ten-thousand-member team that runs a multibillion-dollar atom smasher. It takes even more money, more effort, and more people to find out new things.

Indeed, until very recently, no one was particularly interested in the increasing difficulty of discovery, but Arbesman and his team decided to examine the precise pace of change in just how much harder discovery is getting. He looked at the history of three specific fields of science — mammal species, asteroids, and chemical elements — and determined that size was a good proxy for ease of discovery: Smaller creatures and asteroids are harder to discover; in chemistry, he used inverse size since larger elements are harder to create and detect. He plotted the results and what emerged was a clear pattern of exponential decay in the ease of discovery:

What this means is that the ease of discovery doesn’t drop by the same amount every year — it declines by the same fraction each year, a sort of reverse compound interest. For example, the size of asteroids discovered annually gets 2.5 percent smaller each year. In the first few years, the ease of discovery drops off quickly; after early researchers pick the low-hanging fruit, it continues to ‘decay’ for a long time, becoming slightly harder without ever quite becoming impossible.

And yet:

However it happens, scientific discovery marches forward. We are in an exceptional time, when the number of scientists is growing rapidly and consists of the majority of scientists who have ever lived. We have massive collaborative projects, from the Manhattan Project to particle accelerators, that have and are unearthing secrets of our cosmos. Yet, while this era of big science has allowed for the shockingly fast accumulation of knowledge, this growth of science is not unexpected.

Arbesman highlights the practical application beyond the cerebral understanding of how knowledge becomes obsolete:

Scholars in the field of information science in the 1970s were concerned with understanding the half-life of knowledge for a specific reason: protecting libraries from being overwhelmed.

In our modern digital information age, this sounds strange. But in the 1970s librarians everywhere were coping with the very real implications of the exponential growth of knowledge: Their libraries were being inundated. They needed ways to figure out which volumes they could safely discard. If they knew the half-life of a book or article’s time to obsolescence, it would go a long way to providing a means of avoiding overloading a library’s capacity. Knowing the half-lives of a library’s volumes would give a librarian a handle on how long books should be kept before they are just taking up space on the shelves, without being useful.

So a burst of research was conducted into this area. Information scientists examined citation data, and even usage data in libraries, in order to answer such questions as, If a book isn’t taken out for decades, is it that important anymore? And should we keep it on our shelves?

These questions, of course, strike very close to home given much of what makes my own heart sing is the excavation of near-forgotten gems that are at once timeless and timely, but that rot away in the dusty corners of humanity’s intellectual library in a culture conditioned us to fetishize the newest. In fact, contrary to what Arbesman suggests, those fears of the 1970s are not at all “strange” in the “digital information age” — if anything, they are, or should be, all the more exacerbated given the self-perpetuating nature of our knowledge biases: the internet is wired to give more weight to information that a greater number of people have already seen, sending the near-forgotten into an increasingly rapid spiral to the bottom, however “timeless and timely” that information may inherently be.

Still, The Half-life of Facts offers a fascinating and necessary look at the pace of human knowledge and what its underlying patterns might reveal about the secrets of intellectual progress, both for us as individuals and collectively, as a culture and a civilization.

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