February 18, 2013

On Taking Breakthrough Intellectual Risks

I live on the shore of a bay, where the cold Atlantic meets warm land. I’m writing this to the muted soundtrack of foghorn, echoing ships and lapping waves; the noise of the white-out. In the midst of this cool clinging cloud, the visual field has dropped to a few meters. Everything  s l o w s  down.

As it turns out, even the fastest thing in the universe is prone to slowing down in cool clouds. In this case, a Bose-Einstein condensate (a gas of superslow bosons cooled to a few billions of a degree above absolute zero). Oh lord, don’t run! Yes, it is science, but it can be scintillating. And no-one tells a science story with more creative genius than Radiolab.

If you’d normally steer hastily in the other direction, to you, I lay the dare: step over your taste threshold, download the show below and listen (preferably while your body is doing something active but mundane, so your head can venture safely).

Do not be too timid and squeamish about your actions. All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make, the better. –Ralph Waldo Emerson

1. Listen

Radiolab: Speed (about an hour of mesmerising listening, brace yourself)


The whole show is superb, but it’s the last segment that you want to hang in there for. By far, one of the most fascinating conversations I have ever heard.

2. Watch

watch-iconOkay, so once you’ve listened: watch the video to get a handle on the process in Dr Hau’s lab, and those molecule-torturing lasers. Really, I mean it. Do not watch the video until you have the podcast populating your memory banks. Trust me, it will be so much richer with the context.

Lene Verstergaard Hau’s work is not just a knock-out in the realms of pure physics, but makes the practical cross-over to applied physics. It is not pootling about in the theoretical space. Among a host of handy applications, it impacts information transfer in the weird lands of quantum information processing and -cryptography – where our computing is moving, with mindbending speed (ah yes, and the steps up the odds of the singularity).

Harvard’s Provost Steven Hyman on Prof Hau: “..her work is path-breaking. Her research blurs the boundaries between basic and applied science, draws on the talent and people of two Schools and several departments, and provides a literally glowing example of how taking daring intellectual risks leads to profound rewards. 

oh and… since I’ve outted myself as a Trekkie, I can take special delight in celebrating that this work just brought the transporter a little closer to reality (warning: do not visit this link until you’ve listened to the episode. Go to lend your ears).
BTW if you haven’t seen, the tricorder is already upon us, can the holodeck be far behind?

3. Learn+

learning resources
Should you be feeling the odd compulsion to expand the edges of your curiosity; swing your brain to the 21st Century Physics – Manipulating Light unit put together by Lene Hau, (for those of us who only move at neuronal speed. Also a very handy resource for teachers).

1. have multilevel entry points for introduction, depending on your comfort:
2. …or watch the vid and get up to speed in 5 minutes (granted, it’s nerdy, but if you’ve made it this far, I’ll warrant you’re not squeamish).


3. I really recommend tracking David Deutsch‘s work if this proved intriguing. I read the Fabric of Reality back in the day, and suggest you have a peek at his new book, The Beginning of Infinity.  It’s a grand scale perspective across the evolution of culture and creativity, and the inevitable asteroid smack-down the Earth is due. Especially given the spectacular meteor close-shave in Russia, it’s worth getting an intelligent view on why creative scientific progress matters to the survival of our unusual species.

If you count Feynman and Turing among your pantheon of geek gods, you may also get a bit of a head-crush on Deutsch.

[…]in reality, scientific theories are not ‘derived’ from anything. We do not read them in nature, nor does nature write them into us. They are guesses — bold conjectures. – David Deutsch (The Beginning of Infinity)

Bold, ambitious creativity is the hallmark of pioneering scientists. Yet, we so often underestimate the surprising power of mashing up science and art/culture. Nothing refreshes creativity like spending time in a discipline other than the one you feel at home in, even if it’s awkward at first. We urgently need more intelligent people who can travel between multiple worlds with ease, and tinker across the borders for unexpected solutions. Pure logic alone is insufficient. Dear reader, have found your focus increasingly optimised to your own speciality and the known? Tear down this wall!

Break out your polymath tendencies. This is the kind of many worlds theory that might well save our collective asses.


[the personal PS]
PhaenixPhotos on Flickr CC BY

Apart from the sheer joy of the conversation on that podcast, the metaphor of light trapped in the icy cloud, and then popping out, and hurtling right back up to speed; quantifies how I’ve slowly been feeling for a few years.

My propulsion has returned! I f i n a l l y realised, I was the self-imposed force. Squishing into work, that didn’t quite work. It is possible to learn, practice, and do your 10 000 hours in a craft and meet success. Yes, get the skills to pay the bills.

But eventually, if it doesn’t fit the shape of your passions, you can only ever expect to achieve average size. Unless, like many an arranged marriage, you somehow learn to fall in love with your career along the way. If not, the dams of your joy get silted up, and output eventually slows to an uninspired trickle. And stop.

The denial of just how dorky/eccentric my interests are, and keeping them under wraps, because it doesn’t match the profile of business education, is a punkass “ought”. The kind that sucks the light out of too many bright people. 

Let it be said: I love teaching; thoroughly appreciate knowing the arcane code of business; seriously grateful for paying attention to how marketing works; but by heaven, it shall henceforth be mashed up with science, art, history, maths, all the pleasures of nerdery. There’s no sensible plan, no big “monetizing” in that mix. Cool it is not. Widely popular, it is unlikely to be. But stay bound in the slow fog, I shall not.

[Gratitudes to my brilliant, hilarious and wise brother for encouraging this mutiny, even though it may put a big ding in our business model]. 

February 18, 2013