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Posts Tagged ‘science’

15 FEBRUARY, 2012

Richard Feynman Makes a Wager


Fifteen dollars of irreverence and honor, or how to avoid “occupational disease.”

Twenty-four years ago, the world lost the great Richard Feynman — champion of curiosity, graphic novel hero, no ordinary genius. Among Feynman’s most memorable and beloved qualities was his singular blend of irreverence and honor, which shines in this wonderful anecdote from Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track, a priceless collection of more than 40 years of Feynman’s letters and a fine addition to my favorite famous correspondence.

Immediately after he won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965, Feynman made a wager with MIT Professor Viktor Weisskop, who was convinced that The Great Explainer would succumb to a career in administration — or what Feynman once referred to in a letter as an “occupational disease.” A man of his word, Feynman sent Weisskop the following note a decade later:

Prof. W. Weisskopf
Physics Department
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Dear Professor:

I have found the document describing our wager and find that you gave me too much money so here’s $15 back. For your records, may I state in writing that as of this date, January 6, 1976, I am not holding, nor during the last ten years have I held, a responsible position as defined in the contract of the wager. Therefore I consider that the wager has been paid by Professor Weisskopf and that’s that!

Richard P. Feynman

The wager contract itself:

–On this the FIFTEENTH DAY of DECEMBER of the YEAR ONE THOUSAND NINE HUNDRED AND SIXTY FIVE, at a Luncheon given at the Laboratories of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), Meyrin, Geneva, the following WAGER was made between Professor Viktor F. WEISSKOPF and Professor Richard P. FEYNMAN.

The terms of the WAGER are as follows:

— Mr. FEYNMAN will pay the sum of TEN DOLLARS to Mr. WEISSKOPF if at any time during the next TEN YEARS (i.e., before the THIRTY FIRST DAY of DECEMBER of the YEAR ONE THOUSAND NINE HUNDRED AND SEVENTY FIVE), the said Mr. FEYNMAN has held a ‘responsible position.’

–Conversely, if on the THIRTY FIRST DAY of DECEMBER of the YEAR ONE THOUSAND NINE HUNDRED AND SEVENTY FIVE, the said Mr. FEYNMAN shall have held or be holding no such position, Mr. WEISSKOPF will be deemed to have forfeited his WAGER and will be in duty bound to pay the sum of TEN DOLLARS to Mr. FEYNMAN.

–For the purpose of the aforementioned WAGER, the term ‘responsible position’ shall be taken to signify a position which, by reason of its nature, compels the holder to issue instructions to other persons to carry out certain acts, notwithstanding the fact that the holder has no understanding whatsoever of that which he is instructing the aforesaid persons to accomplish.

–In case of contention or of non-fulfillment of the aforementioned conditions, the sole arbiter shall be Mr. Giuseppe COCCONI.


Richard P. Feynman
Viktor F. Weisskopf
Signed and witnessed: G. Cocconi

Here’s to a lifetime of never holding a “responsible position.”

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15 FEBRUARY, 2012

Guitar Zero: A Neuroscientist Debunks the Myth of “Music Instinct” and Learns to Play


On nature, nurture, and the neural pathways of possibility.

Are musicians born or made? What is the line between skill and talent in any domain, and can we acquire either later in life? That’s exactly what neuroscientist Gary Marcus explores in Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning — a fascinating journey into the limits of human reinvention.

In an effort to reconcile his lifelong passion for music with his self-admitted chronic musical inaptitude, Marcus set out to debunk one of science’s longest-running theories about learning — that there are “critical periods” in which complex skills can be learned, and that they slam shut after adolescence.

If critical periods aren’t quite so firm as people once believed, a world of possibility emerges for the many adults who harbor secret dreams — whether to learn a language, to become a pastry chef, or to pilot a small plane. And quests like these, no matter how quixotic they may seem, and whether they succeed in the end or not, could bring unanticipated benefits, not just for their ultimate goals but of the journey itself. Exercising our brains helps maintain them, by preserving plasticity (the capacity of the nervous system to learn new thing), warding off degeneration, and literally keeping the blood flowing. Beyond the potential benefits for our brains, there are benefits for our emotional well-being, too. There may be no better way to achieve lasting happiness — as opposed to mere fleeting pleasure — than pursuing a goal that helps us broaden our horizons.

To his astonishment, however, Marcus found a dearth of scientific literature and research on music learning in people of his age. The problem, it turned out, wasn’t lack of scientific interest but, rather, a lack of subjects — studying the outcomes of adults who put in 10,000 hours of practice proved difficult since most people of that age have life responsibilities that prevent them from putting in that time in the first place. So, Marcus decided to turn himself into the guinea pig.

For a glimmer of hope, he looked to a number of well-known musicians who arrived at their particular musical talent late in life — Patti Smith didn’t consider becoming a professional singer until she was in her mid-twenties, iconic jazz guitarist Pat Martino relearned to play after a brain aneurysm at the age of 35, and New Orleans keyboard legend Dr. John switched from guitar to piano when he was 21 after an injury, then won the first of his five Grammys at the age of 48. Having no such aspirations of grandeur, Marcus, aged 38 and with a documented lack of rhythm, still found himself desperately longing to learn to play the guitar. As he puts it, “Perhaps few people had less talent for music than I did, but few people wanted more badly to be able to play.” So he confronted the fundamental question:

Could persistence and a lifelong love of music overcome age and a lack of talent? And, for that matter, how did anyone of any age become musical?”

Curiously, one of the most influential experiments on critical periods comes from barn owls who, like bats, rely heavily on sound to navigate; but, unlike bats, they see better than bats do, and one of the first things they do after hatching is calibrating their ears with their eyes, attuning what they hear to what they see. But because this navigational mapping of auditory information depends on the exact distance between their eyes and ears, which changes as the owl grows, it can’t be hardwired at birth.

To study how the owls calibrate their visual and auditory worlds, Stanford biologist Eric Knudsen devised a clever experiment, in which he raised owls in a kind of virtual reality world where prisms shifted everything by 23 degrees, forcing the owl to adjust its internal map of the world. Knudsen found that young owls learned to compensate for the distortion easily, and older owls could not — at least not in one go. But as soon as the 23 degrees were broken down in chunks — a few weeks at 6 degrees, another few at 11, and so forth — the adult owls were able to make the adjustment.

Using this insight, Marcus turned to David Mead’s Crash Course: Acoustic Guitar, which broke guitar playing into the kind of bite-sized morsels fit for the human equivalent of adult owls. It gave Marcus the basics, and thus the first step in rewiring his own brain.

This book is about how I began to distinguish my musical derriere from my musical elbow, but it’s not just about me: it’s also about the psychology and brain science of how anybody, of any age — toddler, teenager, or adult — can learn something as complicated as a musical instrument.”

Wilder Penfield's cortical homunculus, a pictorial representation of the neural tissue in the primary motor cortex assigned to different body parts, illustrates that the exact amount of 'cortical real estate' varies between body parts, with the more sensitive ones getting more real estate. Marcus suggests a try-this-at-home test:

'You can confirm this with the aid of a pin and a trusted friend. Close your eyes as the friend gently pokes you with the pin. In areas with heavy cortical representation, you will be able to easily discriminate closely spaced pinpricks; in areas with light cortical representation, you will sometimes be unable to distinguish two pinpricks that are close together but not identical.'

Along the way, Marcus explores the basic elements of music and how it evolved culturally and biologically. He dives deep into the popular “ten thousand hours” theory of mastery, developed by cognitive psychologist Anders Ericsson, “the world’s leading expert on expertise,” and examines Ericsson’s second, lesser-known prerequisite for expertise — the notion of “deliberate practice,” which describes the constant sense of self-evaluation and a consistent focus on one’s weaknesses rather than playing on one’s strengths. In fact, the practice of targeting specific weaknesses is known as the “zone of proximal development” and offers a framework for everything from education to videogames:

[The "zone of proximal development" is] the idea that learning works best when the student tackles something that is just beyond his or her current reach, neither too hard nor too easy. In classroom situations, for example, one team of researchers estimated that its’ best to arrange things so that children succeed roughly 80 percent of the time; more than that, and kids tend to get bored; less, and they tend to get frustrated. The same is surely true of adults, too, which is why video game manufacturers have been known to invest millions in play testing to make sure that the level of challenge always lies in that sweet spot of neither too easy nor too hard.”

But what makes Guitar Zero exceptional isn’t simply that it simultaneously calls into question the myth of the music instinct and confronts the idea that talent is merely a myth — at its heart is a much bigger question about the boundaries of our capacity for transformation and, ultimately, the mechanics of fulfillment and purpose.

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14 FEBRUARY, 2012

This Will Make You Smarter: 151 Big Thinkers Each Pick a Concept to Enhance Your Cognitive Toolkit


The importance of “the umwelt,” or why failure and uncertainty are essential for science and life.

Every year for more than a decade, intellectual impresario and Edge editor John Brockman has been asking the era’s greatest thinkers a single annual question, designed to illuminate some important aspect of how we understand the world. In 2010, he asked how the Internet is changing the way we think. In 2011, with the help of psycholinguist Steven Pinker and legendary psychologist Daniel Kahneman, he posed an even grander question: “What scientific concept will improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?” The answers, featuring a wealth of influential scientists, authors, and thought-architects, are released today in This Will Make You Smarter: New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking (public library) — a formidable anthology of short essays by 151 of our time’s biggest thinkers on subjects as diverse as the power of networks, cognitive humility, the paradoxes of daydreaming, information flow, collective intelligence, and a dizzying, mind-expanding range in between. Together, they construct a powerful toolkit of meta-cognition — a new way to think about thinking itself.

Brockman prefaces the essays with an important definition that captures the dimensionality of “science”:

Here, the term ‘scientific’ is to be understood in a broad sense — as the most reliable way of gaining knowledge about anything, whether it be human behavior, corporate behavior, the fate of the planet, or the future of the universe. A ‘scientific concept’ may come from philosophy, logic, economics, jurisprudence, or any other analytic enterprises, as long as it is a rigorous tool that can be summed up succinctly but has broad application to understanding the world.”

The diverse answers come from a number of Brain Pickings favorites. Neuroscientist David Eagleman, author of the excellent Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, explores the concept of “the umwelt” coined by biologist Jakob von Uexküll in 1909 — the idea that different animals in the same ecosystem pick up on different elements of their environment and thus live in different micro-realities based on the subset of the world they’re able to detect. Eagleman stresses the importance of recognizing our own umwelt — our unawareness of the limits of our awareness:

I think it would be useful if the concept of the umwelt were embedded in the public lexicon. It neatly captures the idea of limited knowledge, of unobtainable information, and of unimagined possibilities. Consider the criticisms of policy, the assertions of dogma, the declarations of fact that you hear every day — and just imagine if all of these could be infused with the proper intellectual humility that comes from appreciating the amount unseen.”

Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, who authored one of the best psychology books of 2011, contemplates the “focusing illusion” — or tendency to misjudge the scale of impact certain circumstances, from a pay raise to the death of a loved one, will have on our actual well-being.

Marketers exploit the focusing illusion. When people are induced to believe that they “must have” a good, they greatly exaggerate the difference that the good will make to the quality of their life. The focusing illusion is greater for some goods than for others, depending on the extent to which the goods attract continued attention over time. The focusing illusion is likely to be more significant for leather car seats than for books on tape.

Politicians are almost as good as marketers in causing people to exaggerate the importance of issues on which their attention is focused. People can be made to believe that school uniforms will significantly improve educational outcomes, or that health care reform will hugely change the quality of life in the United States — either for the better or for the worse. Health care reform will make a difference, but the difference will be smaller than it appears when you focus on it.

Martin Seligman, father of positive psychology, writes about PERMA, the five pillars of well-being — Positive Emotion, Engagement, Positive Relationships, Meaning and Purpose, and Accomplishment — reminding us that reducing disabling conditions like poverty, disease, depression, aggression, and ignorance is only one half of the life satisfaction equation:

Science and public policy have traditionally been focused solely on remediating the disabling conditions, but PERMA suggests that this is insufficient. If we want global well being, we should also measure and try to build PERMA. The very same principal seems to be true in your own life: if you wish to flourish personally, getting rid of depression, anxiety, and anger and getting rich is not enough, you also need to build PERMA directly.”

Biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, who has previously examined the neurochemistry of love and desire, zooms in on the temperament as the essential building block of the self:

Personality is composed of two fundamentally different types of traits: those of ‘character;’ and those of ‘temperament.’ Your character traits stem from your experiences. Your childhood games; your family’s interests and values; how people in your community express love and hate; what relatives and friends regard as courteous or perilous; how those around you worship; what they sing; when they laugh; how they make a living and relax: innumerable cultural forces build your unique set of character traits. The balance of your personality is your temperament, all the biologically based tendencies that contribute to your consistent patterns of feeling, thinking and behaving. As Spanish philosopher, Jose Ortega y Gasset, put it, ‘I am, plus my circumstances.’ Temperament is the ‘I am,’ the foundation of who you are.”

Wrongologist Kathryn Schulz, whose recent talk on the psychology of regret you might recall, finds optimism in “the pessimistic meta-induction from the history of science” — the idea that, because we now know scientific theories of yore have often been wrong, it’s safe to assume our own present-day theories are quite possibly wrong as well.

At best, we nurture the fantasy that knowledge is always cumulative, and therefore concede that future eras will know more than we do. But we ignore or resist the fact that knowledge collapses as often as it accretes, that our own most cherished beliefs might appear patently false to posterity.

That fact is the essence of the meta-induction — and yet, despite its name, this idea is not pessimistic. Or rather, it is only pessimistic if you hate being wrong. If, by contrast, you think that uncovering your mistakes is one of the best ways to revise and improve your understanding of the world, then this is actually a highly optimistic insight.”

In fact, this seems to be one of the anthology’s bigger running themes — the idea that error, failure, and uncertainty are not only common to both the scientific method and the human condition, but also essential. Futurist and Wired founder Kevin Kelly joins the ranks of famous creators admonishing against the fear of failure:

We can learn nearly as much from an experiment that does not work as from one that does. Failure is not something to be avoided but rather something to be cultivated. That’s a lesson from science that benefits not only laboratory research, but design, sport, engineering, art, entrepreneurship, and even daily life itself. All creative avenues yield the maximum when failures are embraced.


The chief innovation that science brought to the state of defeat is a way to manage mishaps. Blunders are kept small, manageable, constant, and trackable. Flops are not quite deliberate, but they are channeled so that something is learned each time things fell. It becomes a matter of failing forward.”

And theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli reminds us uncertainty and the willingness to be proven wrong are a vital part of intellectual, and I dare add personal, growth:

The very foundation of science is to keep the door open to doubt. Precisely because we keep questioning everything, especially our own premises, we are always ready to improve our knowledge. Therefore a good scientist is never ‘certain’. Lack of certainty is precisely what makes conclusions more reliable than the conclusions of those who are certain: because the good scientist will be ready to shift to a different point of view if better elements of evidence, or novel arguments emerge. Therefore certainty is not only something of no use, but is in fact damaging, if we value reliability.”

But my favorite, for obvious reasons, comes from curator extraordinaire Hans-Ulrich Obrist:

Lately, the word “curate” seems to be used in an greater variety of contexts than ever before, in reference to everything from a exhibitions of prints by Old Masters to the contents of a concept store. The risk, of course, is that the definition may expand beyond functional usability. But I believe ‘curate’ finds ever-wider application because of a feature of modern life that is impossible to ignore: the incredible proliferation of ideas, information, images, disciplinary knowledge, and material products that we all witnessing today. Such proliferation makes the activities of filtering, enabling, synthesizing, framing, and remembering more and more important as basic navigational tools for 21st century life. These are the tasks of the curator, who is no longer understood as simply the person who fills a space with objects but as the person who brings different cultural spheres into contact, invents new display features, and makes junctions that allow unexpected encounters and results.


To curate, in this sense, is to refuse static arrangements and permanent alignments and instead to enable conversations and relations. Generating these kinds of links is an essential part of what it means to curate, as is disseminating new knowledge, new thinking, and new artworks in a way that can seed future cross-disciplinary inspirations. But there is another case for curating as a vanguard activity for the 21st century.

As the artist Tino Sehgal has pointed out, modern human societies find themselves today in an unprecedented situation: the problem of lack, or scarcity, which has been the primary factor motivating scientific and technological innovation, is now being joined and even superseded by the problem of the global effects of overproduction and resource use. Thus moving beyond the object as the locus of meaning has a further relevance. Selection, presentation, and conversation are ways for human beings to create and exchange real value, without dependence on older, unsustainable processes. Curating can take the lead in pointing us towards this crucial importance of choosing.”

As infinitely fascinating and stimulating as This Will Make You Smarter: New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking is, its true gift — Brockman’s true gift — is in acting as a potent rupture in the filter bubble of our curiosity, cross-pollinating ideas across a multitude of disciplines to broaden our intellectual comfort zones and, in the process, spark a deeper, richer, more dimensional understanding not only of science, but of life itself.

The text of the answers is also available online in its entirety.

For essential companion reading, don’t forget Culture and The Mind — the two complementary anthologies Brockman released last year, culling 15 years of cutting-edge thinking from the Edge archives.

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