Category Archives: Grit

Emmy Noether

Source: Science News, Jun 2018

Noether divined a link between two important concepts in physics: conservation laws and symmetries. A conservation law — conservation of energy, for example — states that a particular quantity must remain constant. No matter how hard we try, energy can’t be created or destroyed. The certainty of energy conservation helps physicists solve many problems, from calculating the speed of a ball rolling down a hill to understanding the processes of nuclear fusion.

Symmetries describe changes that can be made without altering how an object looks or acts. A sphere is perfectly symmetric: Rotate it any direction and it appears the same. Likewise, symmetries pervade the laws of physics: Equations don’t change in different places in time or space.

Noether’s theorem proclaims that every such symmetry has an associated conservation law, and vice versa — for every conservation law, there’s an associated symmetry.

Conservation of energy is tied to the fact that physics is the same today as it was yesterday. Likewise, conservation of momentum, the theorem says, is associated with the fact that physics is the same here as it is anywhere else in the universe. These connections reveal a rhyme and reason behind properties of the universe that seemed arbitrary before that relationship was known.

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Taleb: Skin in the Game

Source: The Times, Feb 2018

Do not pay attention to what people say, only to what they do, and to how much of their necks they are putting on the line,” says Nassim Nicholas Taleb. This is the guiding principle of his new book, Skin in the Game.

Post-2000 Nobel Prizes by Country

Source: Slate Star Codex,  May 2017

Kowloon Walled City

Source: South China Morning Post (HK), Mar 2013

More Pictures Available Here:  http://www.scmp.com/photos/recent/all/1222837

Related Resource:
Wall Street Journal interactive documentary, date indeterminate

Scientific Papers that Met with Initial Resistance

Source: Slavov blog, Aug 2014

The weak interaction (beta decay), 1933

Fermi, E (1934). An attempt of a theory of beta radiation. Z. phys, 88(161), 10.

Nature Editors: It contained speculations too remote from reality to be of interest to the reader

Descriptive versus normative economic theory, 1980

Thaler, R. (1980). Toward a positive theory of consumer choice. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 1(1), 39-60.

Richard Thaler: Toward a Positive Theory of Consumer Choice was rejected by six or seven major journals

Quasicrystals, 1984

Shechtman, D., Blech, I., Gratias, D., & Cahn, J. W. (1984). Metallic phase with long-range orientational order and no translational symmetry. Physical Review Letters, 53(20), 1951.

Dan Shechtman: It was rejected on the grounds that it will not interest physicists

Sydney Brenner – Casino Fund

Source: SMA, Aug 2007

I have always been interested in twists of words. I think it is something that you can make life amusing with, while also saying quite important things.

Everybody would like to be an innovator, because they believe innovation is what gives them the edge. You need a lot of conditions to be satisfied for innovation. Some are personality driven, in that they depend on individuals. If you notice, the number of major discoveries in Science has remained constant since the 17th century, even though the number of scientists keeps on increasing.

to allow innovation, you cannot have this. You need people to step out and do things that have not been done before. I mean, if you know the answer, why bother to do it at all?

the subject was “The Casino Fund”. The idea was that everybody who gives money for research takes out 1% or 0.5% and puts it into the Casino Fund – and forgets about it. Who manages the Casino Fund? You give it to successful ‘gamblers’ – people like me [laughs] who can hand it out, and people who have a nose for people and projects. And this is with the full expectation that most of the money will ‘disappear’. But when you do this, all the people in the business will say: “Oh no, we can’t have that because how do we ensure payback?” So I said: “Let’s make it 0.1%.”

But even when I tell them to put 0.1% into this “Casino Fund”, they still would not. Even if they think this might lead to the most successful breakthroughs but yet they are not prepared to do it themselves, to put their money where their mouth is!

You can say to these investors – concentrate on the other 99% of the research funds and do not bother with the 1% in the Casino Fund. But then all the academics will say: “We must have peer review.”

Now, peer review is regression to the mean, and the mean is mediocre. If you have peer review alone, it means you are always going to select the conventional, middle of the road activities – you are thus not going to gamble on big ideas and big breakthroughs.

These days when people write a research grant, it has been said that half of their proposed research has already been done, so they somewhat know the answer already when they submit for a research grant application. That is how a lot of people escape the constraints of the grant funding system. But it is very hard on the younger researchers, because they do not have a reserve of data accumulated or capital which they can invest in future results, and so they would stand less chance of being successfully funded. But some of what is going on in this research grantsmanship is absolutely ridiculous.

I think the most important people now who are funding research are the charities, like the Gates Foundation. These organisations also would like to drive innovation, but because they use all the same people in the scientific community, it is more or less going to be conventional. Basically all you have to do is to separate the nutcases from the real research.

at the moment, Singapore goes too much on written records, achievements, and examination results. The big thing about doing Science is motivation. In fact, I think, one really needs to pick the right people to do Science. I feel very strongly, and I have often said so before, that I am very suspicious of people who obtain First Class Honours degrees. They would satisfy me more if they could have gotten a Second Class if they had really tried harder [laughs]!

Because I think motivation to do research is much more important than aiming to get the top grades. Everybody just wants to get top marks these days, and publishing papers in the journals are all about journal impact factors, which is another form of achieving top marks. I think this is nonsense.

When you look for a successful scientist, you go for the truly motivated individual because Science is still a very personal thing.

I think there is now a greater lack of communication between scientists. There are now so many journals and such a large body of scientific literature that we are losing communication between the various scientific fields. People working in one part of their own fields may have no idea what is going on in another’s field. So one of the problems of modern society is actually how to turn data into usable knowledge, because all we have got is plenty of data on everything.

I gave an interview here to the Singapore press and they asked me: “Is there anything else Singapore needs for success?” I said: “Yes, I don’t think the people here are cheeky enough!” And the reporter asked me how we could teach people to be cheeky, which was ridiculous! What I meant by “cheeky” was to question – question authority and question things in a productive way. And you do not get innovation if you are just doing things according to the rules.

I think the American PhD produces, for the average person, an overall much more competent scientist, whereas the British PhD allows people much more freedom to get on with the job of scientific inquiry. 

I just think that in Britain it is a different way of doing things and asking questions. People are not so, how shall I say, organised.

Building Resilience

Source: HBR, Jan 2017

people are far more resilient than they imagine. Like many of us, my students systematically underestimate their resilience in challenging situations. Their fears about being assertive, speaking in public, and networking are a completely unhelpful, inaccurate guide to what it will be like when they actually take the leap and stretch outside their comfort zones.

.. we systematically underestimate our resilience in four ways:

  1. We’re more flexible than we give ourselves credit for.Throughout your life, you’ve been trained to adapt and adjust your behavior across contexts. Think about the wide range of people in your social circle who you already interact with. Do you speak with your boss the same way you do with your colleagues? Do your interactions with your in-laws take the same form as those with your friends from university? My guess is that the answer is no. In fact, I find that simply reminding people of this fact can boost their confidence going into an unfamiliar situation. You’ve adapted and adjusted your behavior before; you can do it again.
  2. We’re braver than we think.Consider all the things you’ve already done in your life that took serious guts. For some of us, it was going off to college and living alone for the first time. For others, it was switching jobs or careers, or getting married. One of my MBA students from Israel, fearful of networking in the United States because of how awkward and superficial it felt, used his army experience as evidence of his capacity for bravery. Compared to leading a platoon of soldiers into battle under extreme conditions, he realized that networking just wasn’t that intimidating. Of course, not all of us have been in the armed forces, but we all have our own experiences that required some level of bravery, and we can draw on them when confronting the next situation outside our comfort zones.
  3. The situation we’re worried about probably isn’t as bad as we think.Fear gets in the way of clear thinking. We worry about the worst possible outcome, that we’ll humiliate ourselves onstage during a public speaking event, or that the person that we’re delivering negative feedback to will hate us forever. There’s always a slight chance that the worst will happen, but the reality is a bit more nuanced than that. People are shocked, hurt, and angry when being given bad news, but if it is delivered with compassion and sensitivity, they will forgive the messenger. You might be anxious about speaking in front of a crowd, but research suggests that some degree of anxiety is quite helpful for effective performance. Additionally, though you could embarrass yourself onstage — by saying the wrong thing, for example — it’s far more likely that you’ll do just fine if you’ve prepared, or at least reality will be far less terrifying than what you imagined.
  4. We have more resources than we think. When you face a really tough situation, you often feel vulnerable, perhaps even hopeless. But you’re not alone in the situation. You often have quite a number resources to use — mentors, colleagues, or friends to go to for guidance, or steps you can take when preparing. You can even make slight adjustments to the event itself to make it more manageable. For example, one of my MBA students who feels awkward making small talk in social settings sometimes brings a selfie stick with her as an icebreaker. What’s great about this prop is that does more than generate conversation. When a photo is taken, she can easily exchange contact information so she can send a photo later — and, if she’s interested, make a future connection with the person involved. But that’s just an example. The reality is that few situations are one-size-fits-all, and you usually have quite a few resources to bring to bear to make a situation more tolerable for you.

In situations outside our comfort zones, we can feel weak or powerless. But we can leverage the capabilities that we already have inside ourselves to march into unfamiliar situations with confidence. Don’t underestimate how flexible, brave, and capable you actually are. Give it a go, and chances are, you’ll probably end up surprising yourself.