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.

Tab dump

‘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

Tab dump

Research, articles, podcasts and videos in no particular order.