Tag Archives: risk

This Will Make You Smarter edited by John Brockman

thiswillmakeyousmarterEach year, John Brockman and Edge.org ask a group of renowned scientists and thinkers a thought provoking question to stimulate discussion about important topics. In 2011, he asked “What scientific concept will improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?” Something like 150 people contributed short essays with their answer to the question. They range from profound to rather silly (at least, in my opinion). But they all provide new ways of thinking about the world around us.

For example, P. Z. Meyrs discusses the “mediocrity principle”. Simply put, it means that you, or me, or any of us, aren’t special. We aren’t the center of the universe. Things don’t happen to us for a reason. The universe isn’t out there to either help us or hurt us. It just is, and we are just a part of it. Sean Carroll follows up on this, by stating “Humans… like to insist that there are reasons why things happen… [that things] must be explained in terms of the workings of a hidden plan” but, in the end, there is no such plan. In a twist to this idea, Samuel Barondes points out that, while each of us is ordinary, we are also each one of a kind.

Jonah Lehrer discusses research on willpower with an example of 4-year-old kids. These kids were sat down in a tiny room and presented with treats. They could either eat one now, or if they could way for a few minutes alone in the room, they could have two treats when the time was up. Some kids waited and some did not. In the end, it wasn’t a matter of kids having more or less willpower, but the kids who could wait for the two treats were better able to distract themselves, focusing on something else rather than the treats. The most important result: the kids who could wait, who could distract themselves from the most immediate reward, scored 210 points (on average) on SAT tests in high school compared to those who didn’t last 30 seconds before grabbing a treat. As Lehrer states, “these correlations demonstrate the importance of learning to strategically allocate our attention.” If we can learn to focus on things other than the immediate reward, we can improve our overall lot in life.

Another theme that is explored by multiple authors is the human brain’s inability to really assess risk. We inordinately fear things that have an extremely low probability of happening while we don’t give a second thought to things that actually are relatively likely. Garrett Lisi summarizes this paradox nicely: “The startling implication is that the risk of being bitten and killed by a spider is less than the risk that being afraid of spiders will kill you because of the increased stress.” That is, the stress of being afraid of spiders is more deadly than the spiders themselves.

One last example is by Jason Zweig. I like it because, in an ideal world, I would try to implement this in my own life. He focuses on serendipity, and how to nurture the creative process that lead to those Eureka! moments. In particular, he says that research shows that serendipity is a consequence of abrupt shifts in the focus of our brain activity. It is when the brain completely shifts gears. To facilitate this, he personally tries to read one scientific paper each week that is not in his field and to read it in a completely different place. The idea is to break his routine, to force his brain into new circumstances, with the goal of promoting shifts in the focus of the brain. I like the idea; I just need to find some time to do it.

There are a lot of other essays that are very interesting, going into various aspects of the scientific method, or principles from economics, or the role of randomness in our lives. Like the other books in this series, I highly recommend it, if for no other reason than to provide food for thought about how both our brains and the universe they find themselves in work.




Simplexity by Jeffrey Kluger

kluger-simplexityA lot is made of complexity and complex systems. A prime example is the formation of materials from atoms. Atoms are, for the most part, relatively simple things. However, put them together, and very complex behavior emerges, from basic defects such as vacancies and dislocations to properties such as superconductivity and fast ion conduction. Another example is the complex behavior of even the simplest of ecosystems created by ants.

Understanding how complex systems arise from simple components — in essence simplifying them in a way that can be used to make predictions and design useful systems — has become a science in itself. In his book Simplexity, Jeffrey Kluger gives an overview of this new science. His approach is to describe many different examples of how complexity is hidden around us, how complexity emerges from simplicity, and how complex things can be understood via some simple rules. This connection, between complexity and simplicity, leads to the term simplexity. The framing thread is the work done at the Santa Fe Institute, founded to study exactly these kinds of issues.

The examples Kluger describes are definitely very interesting. They include the spread of disease (how such seemingly complex and random things such as the spread of disease can be traced to simple origins), the complexity of different types of jobs (driving a truck is more complex than being a middle level manager), and how hard it is for people to judge risk to themselves (illustrated by the behavior of people in the Towers on 9/11).

The examples do a good job of describing various aspects of complexity science, of showing how things we think are simple are really very complex and vice versa. And I did learn a number of things. For example, in evacuation routes in buildings, they purposely put false columns in the rooms to break the flow of people to emergency exits as that adds some “turbulance” that makes the overall flow of people smoother and less likely to jam at the doors. Also, in describing how our technology has become overly complex, so much so that most of us can’t really figure out our devices, at least not fully, he tells about research going on at the Media Lab at MIT on the “bar of soap“.  This sounds like an awesome device, something that would be awesome to see and the implications for technology in general and how we interact with it are really intriguing. And these are just a few of the things that I learned.

However, I was overall disappointed, because I don’t feel like I learned anything about the science of complexity. I learned about how things are complex, and how they can be simplified in some ways. And some of the specific examples were really interesting. But, I really didn’t learn about the science behind it, how complex systems are studied, how they are classified, or how they are characterized. What makes a complex system amenable to study? To simplification? What makes a collection of simple things complex? The book is a bit of a tour de force of examples from complexity science, but there isn’t any deeper probing behind any of it, nothing that gives any deeper insight.

Thus, as an introduction, of a teaser of the science, the book succeeds. However, as any real introduction to the science itself, it felt flat to me.