big think

Space is Big

As the saying goes:

Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space.
— Douglas Adams - The Hitchhiker's Guide To the Galaxy

[A note for North American readers, the "chemist" is a pharmacy.]

This clip from BigThink by NASA Scientist Michelle Thaller tries to put that bigness in perspective:

These numbers are hard to imagine. VERY hard to imagine. That's one of the reasons I'm such a strong proponent of math education for everyone of all ages (beyond my own personal bias as a math major shining through.) The only way to learn to cope with these kinds of numbers is through training. Otherwise you'll be caught in the paradigm of JBS Haldane:

My own suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.
— JBS Haldane

Math becomes the key that allows you to do all that hitherto impossible supposing. Or, if you'd rather think of the world in terms of awe and wonder, it gives you access to entirely different domains in which to be astonished.

Changing minds

One of the skills we seem to have lost as a society is the ability to have conversations with people with whom we disagree and trying to change their minds. More often these days, the trend is to (literally or metaphorically) stomp off in a tantrum and stop talking to them. You see many people now demanding that those who disagree with them "unfriend" them on Facebook.

Richard Dawkins has always been a role model in terms of communication, having written some of the most influential popular science books of the twentieth century, including The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker.) Here is his advice:

As a magician, persuasion is part of the toolkit. I need to convince people that a specially prepared prop is ordinary, or that there is no way I could possibly know a piece of information I, in fact, already do. The heat and soul of it is:

Put yourself in the position of your audience. Try to see where they’re coming from.... sympathetically. And argue your case in a way that should resonate with them.

The important, and often overlooked, point is sympathetically. You can't assume (as many people seem to now) that the reason that people don't see things your way is because they are just morons. Whether you articulate it that way or just think it, it doesn't put you in a good position to begin changing their mind.  

Reasons for Pessimism

Author and theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss thinks their are reasons to be pessimistic, but that's no reason to be gloomy. Here in a short little insight on BigThink, he explains why the universe doesn't care about you... and that's a good thing

I love the part at the end where he emphasizes the importance of knowing how the world actually is. After all, I'm a magician. Some people say I spend my time trying to convince people of things which aren't true. Rather, it's better to say I spend my time trying to get people to to question and doubt what they see and realize that not everything around them is the way it appears intuitively.

Anyways... off to go create some meaning and purpose... and magic.

Understanding Motivation

It's extremely important to understand how to motivate people effectively, regardless of whether you're dealing with your work and family life. And it turns out most of our ideas about motivation are way off the mark.

In this short video, behavioural economist Dan Ariely discusses some of the results of his field:

One part that stands out to me, towards the end of the video, where Ariely discusses the value we place on our own ideas.

The experiment he recounts involves researchers working with children to create drawings. In one group, the researcher gives instructions on what to draw and the child draws it. In the other group the child comes up with the ideas and the researcher draws it. Then the researcher takes the drawing out to the child's parents and claims credit for creating the drawing. It's a test designed to figure out which outcome upsets the children more. (Possibly) counterintuitively, it's when the children are coming up with the ideas, more so than when they are doing the work.

I was instantly reminded of the magic community and the territoriality we often express when it comes to our magical creations. Magic is a strange domain where, because of various historical eccentricities, our advances are not subject to the same intellectual property protections enjoyed by most authors, composers and inventors. Simply put, it's not possible to copyright a magic trick. (There are extremely rare exceptions.)

Instead, we settle for the glory and general warm fuzzy feeling that comes by putting our creations in print. Historically this was done through trade publications, although more recently books, DVDs and video downloads have replaced most of that. Sometimes the secrets are sold for money, sometimes they come for free with the cost of a magazine subscription. Either way, we are desperate for credit. And that never made quite as much sense to me as it did after I watched this clip.

I have known for a while that magicians are trapped between two worlds, much like a professional research scientist working for a corporation. On the one hand, science benefits if the research is published and shared as widely as possible. On the other hand, the corporation benefits if the research stays behind closed doors. 

In magic, it's generally the secret which matters. While some skills require constant practice to maintain. If I go more than a few days without reviewing some of the parts of this trick, I loose the ability to do it and have to devote time to getting the required accuracy back. Other tricks, once you know the secret, you can do them again at a moment's notice, even after months and years. So the danger is that if another magician has the secret, that trick could be in their show the following night. And so the magical world is full of these elaborate balancing acts between releasing certain secrets and holding back others so that the industry can eat its cake and still have it.