Diversity and the nuclear bomb

It’s amazing where you find stories about the power of range and diversity in creativity and problem solving. This is from Pandora’s Keepers, which is proving to be a riveting account of the creation of the first atomic bomb.

“Oppenheimer accepted the heavy security as a wartime necessity, but he adamantly refused to accept secrecy in one area: scientific discussion. Here, the normal security procedure of compartmentalization—limiting discussion to a “need to know” basis—was not followed, despite protests from Army Intelligence. Oppenheimer held weekly symposia on the pressing technical problems of the moment, inviting solutions not only from the groups working on the problems but from the important cross-fertilization of agile minds from other disciplines with novel approaches and solutions. Just as in fission itself, one small suggestion could set off a chain reaction of ideas at a rapid rate. This fostered a cooperative spirit that maintained high morale. It was also a major reason why the bomb was built in such a short time.”

Oppenheimer appears to have underestimated the breadth of the task, originally envisioning Los Alamos as a physics lab on steroids. But it eventually grew into a site housing thousands of civilians from many different fields. Specialisation be damned.

As always my emphasis.

‘Knowledge is a double edged sword’

I’ve been reading Range by David Epstein and damn do I have a lot of notes.

Hopefully fuel for some future blog posts. But, for now, I haven’t been able to get over this section in a chapter on non-experts solving problems that bedevilled experts.

“Shubin Dai, who lives in Changsha, China, was the top-ranked Kaggle solver in the world as of this writing, out of more than forty thousand contributors. His day job is leading a team that processes data for banks, but Kaggle competitions gave him an opportunity to dabble in machine learning. His favorite problems involve human health or nature conservation, like a competition in which he won $30,000 by wielding satellite imagery to distinguish human-caused from natural forest loss in the Amazon. Dai was asked, for a Kaggle blog post, how important domain expertise is for winning competitions. “To be frank, I don’t think we can benefit from domain expertise too much… It’s very hard to win a competition just by using [well-known] methods,” he replied. “We need more creative solutions.””

This is referring to Kaggle, a site I haven’t yet found the bravery to crack with my new coding skills 😅

Anyway, it comes amid an exploration of problem solving, and how experts can be trapped by their domain knowledge, falling back into familiar patterns that haven’t worked. Meanwhile the answer, as in the case of some of these kaggle competitions, ie often from somewhere else completely.

““The people who win a Kaggle health competition have no medical training, no biology training, and they’re also often not real machine learning experts,” Pedro Domingos, a computer science professor and machine learning researcher, told me. “Knowledge is a double-edged sword. It allows you to do some things, but it also makes you blind to other things that you could do.””

As always my emphasis

The importance of play

I’ve just started reading a mind at play, a biography of Claude Shannon. He’s the “father of information theory”, without which much of the modern world wouldn’t be.

Shannon reminds me of stories about Richard Feynman. Bursting with curiosity, yes, but also sparked with joy at tinkering with knowledge.

I sometimes feel like this is lost in a world where education is sold as preparation for employment rather than rounding someone out or living a fulfilled life.

On Shannon:

“His was a life spent in the pursuit of curious, serious play; he was that rare scientific genius who was just as content rigging up a juggling robot or a flamethrowing trumpet as he was pioneering digital circuits. He worked with levity and played with gravity; he never acknowledged a distinction between the two. His genius lay above all in the quality of the puzzles he set for himself. And the marks of his playful mind—the mind that wondered how a box of electric switches could mimic a brain, and the mind that asked why no one ever decides to say “XFOML RXKHRJFFJUJ”—are imprinted on all of his deepest insights”

And here’s a little vignette from Surely You’re Joking Mr Feynman, one of my favourite books:

“…I laid out a lot of glass microscope slides, and got the ants to walk on them, back and forth, to some sugar I put on the windowsill. Then, by replacing an old slide with a new one, or by rearranging the slides, I could demonstrate that the ants had no sense of geometry: they couldn’t figure out where something was. If they went to the sugar one way, and there was a shorter way back, they would never figure out the short way. It was also pretty clear from rearranging the glass slides that the ants left some sort of trail…”

Not only is this Feynman as a child luxuriating in experimentation and learning for its own sake, but also him repeating the story years later. Despite a dismal career as an myrmecologist, that’s how important and formative he thought experiences like this were.

Putting aside personal fulfilment, I wonder how successful Feynman and Shannon would have been had they not “wasted” time building up other adjacent stores of knowledge.

Especially considering how successful they were at bringing new perspectives and slants to established ideas.

As always my emphasis

The old is new

One reason I love reading history is how often you find reflections of current worries. This isn’t necessarily good, obviously. Some things should have been left in the dust (notably gig-economy feudalism).

But one thing it does offer is perspective

I’ve just cracked open The Invention of News, for instance, and have immediately been slapped with a couple of things that should be familiar.

The first is that information networks in the pre-information age could only be sustainably maintained by the already rich and powerful. These were run either to ensure a supply of valuable information for private consumption, or the lower quality and somewhat biased stuff to influence others.

Sound familiar?

The next is that early newspapers existed in such an information rich environment, fighting against other practices and needs, that journalism and journalists themselves were not sustainable.

At the beginning of the fourteenth century only the rich and powerful could afford the cost of maintaining a network of couriers; as a result, those in positions of power largely determined what information should be shared with other citizens…

…this was not yet the age of the professional journalist. The information they provided was hardly ever valuable enough to command the exclusive service of one particular paper. Most sold their stories to whomever would have them. It is only with the great events at the end of the eighteenth century–the struggle for press freedom in England and the French and American revolutions–that newspapers found a strong editorial voice, and at that point a career in journalism became a real possibility. But it was always hazardous. As many of the celebrity politician writers of the French Revolution found, a career could be cut short (quite literally) by a turn in political fortunes. At least these men lived and died in a blaze of publicity. For others, the drones of the trade, snuffling up rumour for scraps, penury was a more mundane danger.

As a journalist I feel both of these but am especially interested in how they relate. As the sheer volume of information has increased, and the value captured by new forms of distribution, the value has declined.

Some information, obviously, is still valuable, but it is increasingly chased behind paywalls or funded for other reasons.

And journalists, especially, are finding it tough. Jobs have disappeared and pay slowed. “Exclusivity” doesn’t really mean anything anymore, and so neither does paying.

Will be interesting to see the trends that led away from this, as the industry matured. Can they be recaptured or substituted?

As always my emphasis