Listen: Neuroscientist Stuart Firestein's Sigma Xi Lecture
Earlier this semester, neuroscientist Stuart Firestein delivered the annual Sigma Xi Lecture. In this talk, he traces the pursuit of science and how it progresses through conscious ignorance. He cites Marie Curie, Thomas Edison, and WD40, as scientific failures that were reworked using the scientific process until they were a success. He believes one cannot have science without failure.
“So I would say, instead of a scientific method, we could think of something that I like to call, the scientific process. And that includes, first of all ignorance. I don't know something, it's a mystery, so I'd like to figure out what it is. You might have some intuition about what that it, you make some observations, or experiments. They usually fail, of course. So you have a new question now about why they fail, what was going on here. So you have, maybe if you're lucky, some inspiration and a new idea that probably fails too. So then you revise. And then you have an interim explanation of some sort and that probably fails. And then you come up in the end though with a better question than you had when you started up here, which is actually quite a victory I would say.”
Stuart Firestein is the former chair of the Department of Biological Sciences at Columbia University, where his laboratory is researching the vertebrate olfactory receptor neuron.
Amy: Welcome to the talk by Stuart Firestein that I've been trying to make happen for seven years. Finally, finally, and we're happy to say this [inaudible 00:00:13] talk is co-sponsored by the summer scholars program.
Amy: So in 2012 I went to a conference about the science of science communication. So studying how best to communicate science to people who deserve to know, but we'll have to unpack all the jargon and all the processing we all have.
Amy: This [inaudible 00:00:36] sponsor, I call it the National Academy of Sciences, and I often go to meetings like [inaudible 00:00:40]. And you know how it is, you go to the meeting, you take a break for lunch, you come out of the cafeteria line, and you go into the dining room and there's a bunch of tables. There's a whole bunch of people sitting together, like they came to the conference together. So you say, "Well, do I want to sit with and kind of feel like an outsider?" There's a group of people sitting here quite quietly, all eating their food, but [inaudible 00:01:02] look interesting.
Amy: And then there was a table over here and there was one person sitting at the table, it was [inaudible 00:01:06]. And I just thought to myself-
Stuart: He was terrible body order.
Amy: He looks interesting. I think I'll sit next to him. And so we struck up, you know, a conversation. Where you're from, what do you do, those kind of things. And so I learned that Stuart was a neuroscientist. I looked him up later and realized how famous a neuroscientist [crosstalk 00:01:28] he is at [Columbia 00:01:29].
Amy: Two weeks later, I got this book in the mail with a little hand written note from Stuart saying, "Here Amy. Hope you like it, give me some feedback. Stuart." And so I read it and I thought, "Oh my gosh, every student should read this book." Because it's called, Ignorance, How It Drives Science.
Amy: And so when I taught in the summer scholars program for the first time, it was one of the books that I put on the reading list. This last summer, I became aware that the second book came out, Failure, Why Science Is So Successful. And happily, I just asked Stuart to sign my copy.
Amy: So Stuart is a Philadelphia native, and because of that, he pronounces his last name Firestein. I bet if he was a New York native, it'd be Firesteen.
Amy: So, I'm in school in the guidance. After going to school here in Philly, he really didn't want to pursue higher ed and he chased his dream and went to the West Coast to be engaged in theater. You know how it is in theater, you work all night and there's sometimes, not very much to do in the day. So he thought maybe he take some day classes, San Francisco State.
Amy: [inaudible 00:02:44] was interested in adult communication, so he landed in the class of how [inaudible 00:02:49] works and found in him an incredible role model and mentor. [Dr. Markowitz 00:02:56] convinced him, "Maybe you should take animal behavior?" And then pretty soon he was a biology major and he graduated with his BA about a decade plus after most people in this room are gonna graduate with their bachelor's degree.
Amy: And he came back to the east coast, he went to Yale for graduate school. He completed his PhD around the age of 40. The path is not linear, some of you are in a big hurry to get it all done, but I would say that a lot of what Stuart does and whom he is, was informed by going kind of path, if you will. Taking a non-linear path.
Amy: As a late bloomer, he's got this Ted Talk that's had about two million views. It's really fantastic. And now what I know about his theater history, it explains why his presentation is just so captivating.
Amy: Stuart is the former Chair, I love being a former Chair-
Stuart: The most important work you can put him on a Chair is former.
Amy: People introducing [inaudible 00:03:59] on the former [crosstalk 00:04:00] and never had to be a Chair. Biology at Columbia and his laboratory studies the vertebrate olfactory receptor mouth.
Amy: He has also spent, in addition to his numerous scientific papers, he's published in the Wire, in Wire Magazine, the Huffington Post, and Scientific American. The late bloomer that he is, he's been a fellow of the Sloan Foundation and helping them promote accessibility of science to the public.
Amy: In addition to being a Sloan fellow, he's been a Guggenheim fellow, he was given the [Led Fest 00:04:38] distinguished Columbia faculty award for excellence in scholarship and teaching. In 2011, he was elected fellow of the AAAS, the people who publish Science Magazine.
Amy: So he has always worked to advance better understanding about science and that's where our affinities came together at the lunch table, those many years ago. And of course, these two books have been read by numerous individuals, both in the academy, as well as in the public, for whom it was designed.
Amy: Stuart tells us there's a third one in the works and so I will turn the floor over to him. I am so glad we finally made this happen, Stuart.
Stuart: Me too, [crosstalk 00:05:22] thank you.
Amy: Welcome to [inaudible 00:05:31].
Stuart: So I don't have to tell you what a great a pleasure it is to be here, she just told you that, so you already know, but it is. I've never been to Swarthmore, somehow or another, even though having been a Philadelphia resident, so I was quite pleased to be here. And I had a nice walk around the campus, earlier, it's quite a beautiful place.
Stuart: Alright, so I want to preface what I'm gonna talk about today by saying, first of all I don't think I'm gonna say anything that you don't already know. So those of you who have something better to do should take a moment and get out of here.
Stuart: I think that we all know essentially that science is about what we don't know, that things fail a lot, and all the rest, that sort of thing. But I think we know those things in a kind of implicit way, and what I found is that making these things explicit and putting them out there for examination is often quite enlightening.
Stuart: You find things out, you think about things about them, and you recognize how important they really are. And that they deserve to be more than just implicitly part of what we do. Among those things, as you can see up here, ignorance, doubt, uncertainty, and failure, which sounds pretty depressing. But I hope to, beginning with the magic of PowerPoint, turn these into what I consider to be more positive ideas. And to relieve you of the more pejorative notions that are often associated with these particular words.
Stuart: And I do think that, I hope to show you as well or convince you or reconvince you that these are absolutely critical components of science. And they are precisely what makes science so successful and enterprise.
Stuart: So the first thing we might ask is, how successful, really. I don't think I have to convince to much of this, but I'll mention a couple of things. This is a picture of something called the [Acheulean 00:07:26] handaxe, it's the first known tool fashioned by human beings. So the earliest sort of tool making or something like that.
Stuart: This is a technology that lasted for about 1.2 million years. That's a while, right? But we could be a little more realistic and go to say, the Bronze Age. Many historians of science in particular, consider the Bronze Age to be sort of the beginning of technology, because Bronze is not a material you can take out of the Earth. You have to smelt it, it's tin and copper, I guess. So it requires some technology.
Stuart: And the Bronze Age lasted for about a little over 2,000 years, so that's 50 generations. So for 50 generations, people with the same brain that you and I have, were born, grew up, and died in virtually the same technology. You know today, if you go away for a couple of weeks on vacation, you're like lost, right, when you get back. You're least an operating system or so behind.
Stuart: There's a remarkable acceleration in the progress and the movement of things. And this can seen in 50 generations since I would say, what we typically call the Scientific Revolution. There's some controversy about whether there was a scientific revolution, where it was, when it was, what happened before. But basically, I'd sort of agree that it started with people like [Copernicus 00:08:51], [Gallileo 00:08:52], [Kepler 00:08:52], and those guys. And [Newton 00:08:54] and so forth. Around the early 17th, actually the early 1600s, the 17th century.
Stuart: So we're talking about 400 or so years, a mere 10 generations. And in that period of time, we've developed these, well, many, but these particular equations I like, because they're not only iconic equations, but they're also equations that for the first time showed that things that were true here on Earth, were true here in our lives, were true throughout the entire universe.
Stuart: These are laws that govern the entire universe, so we weren't just in some funny little bubble here on this planet. But really were a part of a cosmological sort of thing.
Stuart: So those ideas were I think important, but then of course, there's all the obvious advances in transportation, communication, aviation, my own personal favorite is pharmacology. Not because I'm a big drug taker, maybe that too, but because I was trained as pharmacologist.
Stuart: So in pharmacology, there have been advances. Here's a couple of examples. I don't know how well you can read this in the back, so I'll read it to you. This is one night cough syrup, it has in it alcohol, cannabis, chloroform, and morphine. The best to name One Night, I believe. Quite good stuff, wouldn't you say?
Stuart: Then there's Dr. Body's asthma cigarettes, these were cigarettes that were put in treating various bronchial diseases. The big advance, here is, there's at least a warning label here. They're not recommended for children under six. So, I think you can see that things move along.
Stuart: Alright, so what is it about this science? What is it about this particular brand of science that more or less started in the early 1600s? Somewhere more or less Western Europe and has now spread kind of globally that has worked so well. So, let's think about this a little bit.
Stuart: This is a phrase that I picked up somewhere or another, it's apocryphal. I don't know who first said it, but it is very difficult to find a black cat in a dark room, especially when there is no cat. I find this to be the perfect description of science, in my opinion. My experience of science, this is what we do. We look for black cats in pretty much dark rooms. We fumble around, we bump into things. We may find a cat, there was a report of a cat in the area. Maybe reliable, maybe not. Who knows? You may find the cat, you may not. If you do find the cat, that's great, but then you just find a new dark that this leads to to find another cat.
Stuart: So this seems to be the way science really progresses. This is opposed to what we often hear or what we're taught, which is this idea the scientific method. I have a whole rant on the scientific method, which I'm going to try not to get into, but just a little of it will suffice, because of, sorry, it doesn't even like me.
Stuart: The scientific method, I think, is kind of a short hand that we use to teach students about science. But I think it distorts what science really is and how it happens. I would say this what really happens in science and it really happens under this way in the bargain.
Stuart: So what is the scientific method? I'll come back to that in minute, I'm sorry. What made me think about this dichotomy between the way we teach science and the way science actually occurs, was the fact that I have this dual role at Columbia, where I work. Both as a teacher, I teach a course cellular, molecular neuroscience and I also run a laboratory. And the laboratory is full of graduate students, post-Docs, some undergraduates, and it's a great time we have in there. We sit around, we talk about experiments, we try and puzzle things out. We do experiments, we try and figure out what the data is. It's challenging, it's interesting, it's engaging, and it's exhilarating, actually. I'm thrilled to be able to have such a job.
Stuart: I also teach this course, cellular, molecular and neuroscience one, and it's also an interesting challenge. It's a lot of work, it's very satisfying in someways. It's not really exhilarating, I have to say. So the question is, what's the difference between these two things? What's the difference between the way we peruse science and the way we perceive science?
Stuart: So cellular and molecular neuroscience, for example, uses this textbook, it's relatively famous textbook, called Principle's of Neuroscience by three well-known neuroscientists at Columbia. That's why we use it, actually we don't use it anymore. It's a massive book, I mean it's 1400 and 14 pages. According to the Amazon shipping weight, it's seven in a half pounds. It weighs seven in a half pounds. Just to put that in some perspective, that's twice the weight of a normal human adult brain. The book is about the brain, it weights twice what a brain weighs.
Stuart: So I thought, this can't really be, there's two of them in there. So this can't really be right, science can't just be about a pile of facts. This is not really what goes on in science, and yet this is the perception that we often give to students and to some extent, to the public.
Stuart: I say science, and it comes from the sort of scientific method idea, so let me just go quickly though this and why I think the scientific method leaves so much out. So this is the typical scientific method. You observe something, come up with a hypothesis about it, you do some sort of test or experiment, new observation, you make up a new hypothesis, et cetera, et cetera, and you just keep on going. [inaudible 00:14:30] anymore, ad nauseum, whatever the case may be.
Stuart: The problem with this is, well the big problem with this for me is this hypothesis part here. I get all of this, but the one thing that you really need to know something about how to do it doesn't really tell any. Have a hypothesis, how do you do that? What you look up in the book of hypotheses and pick one or two of them that look good? I mean, where does a hypothesis actually come from? About this, the scientific method, has virtually no guidance to give at all.
Stuart: So I would say, instead of a scientific method, we could think of something that I like to call, the scientific process. And that includes, first of all ignorance. I don't know something, it's a mystery, so I'd like to figure out what it is. You might have some intuition about what that it, you make some observations, or experiments. They usually fail, of course. So you have a new question now about why they fail, what was going on here. So you have, maybe if you're lucky, some inspiration and a new idea that probably fails too. So then you revise. And then you have an interim explanation of some sort and that probably fails. And then you come up in the end though with a better question than you had when you started up here, which is actually quite a victory I would say.
Stuart: The nice thing about this, and I think you could even expand on it, is it includes things like intuition, inspiration, revision, it includes all these ideas that we think, that I think are too often divorced from the scientific process. As if it's just this recipe, the scientific method. That there's a recipe for doing it, you put stuff in the top, you crank it around like this and the data and the gadgets and the cures all just fall out the bottom. Fortunately it doesn't seem to really work that way.
Stuart: So I always liked this quote from Marie Curie who, this is a letter to her brother after she received her second graduate degree. So she knew a lot of stuff, but in spite of that, that's not what she cared about. Whenever notices what has been done, one can only see what remains to be done.
Stuart: And I realized that I thought that it was for the remains to be done that's so important in science and the pursuit of science. And it should be so in the teaching of it, as well, I'd like to say.
Stuart: I always say, some of you will know this, but I always have to make this comment. This is one of my favorite pictures of Professor Curie, because I am convinced that that glow behind her is actually not a photographic effect, I think that's her glowing away, to tell you the truth.
Stuart: Her papers to this day are, her notebooks to this day are stored in a basement room in the library, the [Bibliotheque Francaise 00:17:09], which is a concrete and lead-lined room. And if you're a scholar and you want to go work with the notebooks, you have to wear a radiation suit, because the notebooks are still that hot, as it were.
Stuart: I think she knew that and I think that's also another one ingredient in science that we often forget, which is courage. Takes a certain amount of courage to do it. This was an excessive amount of courage perhaps, but even regular science takes a lot of courage to do.
Stuart: So I like this model, I didn't make this up, with a number of people who have said it, but there's this notion that we have a certain amount of knowledge. And let's say it's a circle or sphere in this sort of sea of darkness, this ignorance. The thing is, as our knowledge grows, there's this circumference, which you know is some formula, here's a circumference about six the radius. But as our knowledge grows, so also then does that circumference grow.
Stuart: Whoop, sorry. Yeah. So also does that circumference grow, the part of it that's in touch with the ignorance. And so as knowledge grows, maybe counter intuitively, ignorance grows as well. What we don't know also grows.
Stuart: So I like to say knowledge is a big subject, but ignorance is actually a bigger one. We don't often think that because we have these big books that we look at. There's another quote from [James Clerk Maxwell 00:18:33], perhaps the greatest physicist between Newton and [Einstein 00:18:37], who said that, thoroughly conscious ignorance is the prelude to every real advance in science.
Stuart: Just this idea of thoroughly conscious ignorance. So of course I'm using the word ignorance to be slightly provocative, but I don't mean it in any pejorative ways. I don't mean stupidity, I don't mean inattention to fact or real ... I don't mean any of that kind of stuff. I mean this idea, rather thoroughly conscious ignorance. It's a different kind of ignorance than just being stupid. It's a not knowing, because something just isn't known, it's a mystery. It remains a mystery. And that's where we should be.
Stuart: So we often, I think, have this idea about education, that we start by not knowing something and then we go to school or we read a book or we do this or that and we get some knowledge. And that's true.
Stuart: But then the big question is what do you do with that knowledge, so I think it's sort of a double arrow, a double-sided arrow. The purpose of knowledge is to develop what I call better ignorance. 'Cause you know ignorance is one word, but really there's low quality ignorance and there's high quality ignorance. There's good stuff and there's bad stuff, in my opinion.
Stuart: And in fact, this is what scientists mostly argue about, it's the quality of the ignorance that they're interested in. I mean, sometimes these are bull sections and sometimes they're grant proposals, sometimes I guess you can't tell the difference. But none the less, that's what we argue about, is the quality of the ignorance. And so that's really the purpose of gaining knowledge, is to pose a better question. To come up with a more sophisticated version of whatever question you started with. So in the end, the purpose of knowledge is questions.
Stuart: I'd like to use this, this is [I. I. Robbie 00:20:13], a famous physicist, Nobel Laureate. Actually, it was at Columbia University, he won the Nobel Prize in 1944 for developing something called NMR, nuclear magnetic residence. A technique still extremely important today in chemistry laboratories and as a medical diagnostic device, we now know as as MRI. It's the same stuff.
Stuart: And so Robbie developed this and I never knew him actually, he passed away before I got there, but I do know colleagues of his. And he use to tell this story or so legend has it about growing up on the lower east side of New York, as a young, I think it's important to say, that he is a young immigrant child, excuse me. And he and his friends would come home from school everyday and their mothers would ask him, "What did you learn in school today?" But Mrs. Robbie would say to I.I. Robbie, would say, "So [Issy, Isadore 00:21:04], did you ask any good questions today?"
Stuart: And I think Mrs. Robbie had the right idea. It wasn't what did you learn today, it was did you ask any good questions today. Issy won a Nobel Prize, I'm sure his friends did okay too, I don't know, none of them won a Nobel Prize, tell you that. So I think Mrs. Robbie had the right idea. It's in the questions that you really come to see what's from.
Stuart: So let's say science isn't the end then in the search for better ignorance. Let me put this in yet a slightly different frame using a bit of poetry I suppose. This term, negative capability, which sounds like an odd ball term. It was actually first coined by the dreamy-eyed poet [John Keets 00:21:46]. In a letter to his brother, as well. Apparently writing letters to your brother is a good idea, I don't know.
Stuart: Anyway, he came up with this term, negative capability, which he defined as that is when a man, person we would say today, is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, or doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.
Stuart: The notion here is that being in a state of ignorance, if you will, being in a state of mystery or doubt requires patience and you should be patient with it. You should develop this negative capability. He considered this the ideal creative state for the literary mind, but I think it's true for any mind.
Stuart: In addition to the word courage, I would say patience is also a very important and often overlooked quality of doing science. This ability to remain comfortably in ignorance and uncertainty. Not this doesn't mean you don't do anything about it, but you have to learn to be comfortable with not knowing somehow or another.
Stuart: I think this is one very important idea. It was restated, I have to say, I don't think [Schrodinger 00:22:49] knew about it, but [Erwin 00:22:52] Schrodinger knew something about cats, right? Or didn't, as the case may be. So said that in an honest search for knowledge, you quite often have to abide by the ignorance for an indefinite period.
Stuart: It's this idea of being patient with ignorance, being patient with doubt, uncertainty, and the unknown. And that's where creative things actually happen in science.
Stuart: Alright, so we have the unknown, good. What about, we go a little deeper. If you think ignorance is good, what about the stuff we don't even know we don't know? The unknown, unknown. Which was unfortunately made popular recently by this character, who a few of you in the room at least will know as the secretary of defense during the misbegotten military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. And in a senate inquiry into what went wrong over there, he made the following statement there were things we didn't know, that is known, unknown. That is, things we didn't know. But what really got us were the unknown unknowns. The ones we don't know we don't know.
Stuart: So this is yet a deeper level of ignorance. Fortunately, I'm here to tell you that [Rumsfeld 00:24:11] didn't make this up. He was roundly ridiculed for the statement, but it's actually a very clever statement. And he was not the first person to say this. As far as I can tell, the first person to say it, was of all people, the poet [D.H. Lawrence 00:24:21] in an epic poem called, New Heaven and Earth. Which I personally can't recommend to you, I feel it's kind of boring. But if you like epic poems of this sort, okay.
Stuart: But in any case, it's sort of a poem about the transitioning from this life to the afterlife. And towards the end of it, in a verse very close to the end, he says, "Now here was I, new awaken with my hand stretching out and touching the unknown, the real unknown. The unknown, unknown." So this idea of a real unknown, the unknown unknown.
Stuart: Well, how do you get to this really deep level of ignorance? Not just what we don't know, but what we don't even know we don't know. How could you get to that? And my suggestion is this way, that's where failure becomes very useful. Not something to avoid, not an unfortunate occurrence, but actually a portal into the deepest level of the unknown, the unknown, unknown.
Stuart: I'll use it on a quote here, I have a lot of quotes sprinkled throughout this. It's not that I intend to give out anything more authority by this, I just think if somebody said something smart, they shouldn't be left out just because they're dead.
Stuart: Also, I suppose because I think it's important for us to recognize that this kind of conversation is actually been going on for quite a while and it will hopefully continue to go on. And it's our job to get involved in it while were here.
Stuart: So Benjamin Franklin, arguably America's first scientist said, "Perhaps the history of [inaudible 00:25:46], why we take it as failure as mankind, all things considered is more valuable and interesting than that of it discovers, discoveries. Because after all, the truth is uniform and narrow." But screwing up, endless ways you can mess up, right?
Stuart: Obvious, it's much more interesting failures. This is also sometimes called the [Anna Karenina 00:26:05] effect, 'cause [Tolstoy 00:26:07], the famous author was once asked why he always writes about unhappy families. And his answer was, "Well, happy families are all happy in the same way. But unhappy families, there's thousands of ways they're unhappy. So they're a lot more interesting to write about."
Stuart: It is the case here. Once you know something, you know. I mean the truth is the truth, that's the end of it. And that's kind of the end of the story. Whereas when something fails, a question opens up.
Stuart: So let me once again though, try to disabuse you of the common word. The common idea of failure, the way it's most commonly used. 'Cause I don't mean any of these things here.
Stuart: So this is a famous one, "Success is learning to fail again and again with no lack of enthusiasm." Regularly attributed to [Winston Churchill 00:26:51], who in fact, never said it. I don't know who did say it, but he did not.
Stuart: "Fail hard, fail fast," is a favorite of the tech industry at the moment. "I discovered 10,000 ways that don't work," this actually was said by Thomas Edison upon inventing the light bulb, which I always find funny, 'cause we think click, light bulb. You know that, oh I had an idea. But actually he claimed he found 10,000 ways it didn't work first.
Stuart: You know WD 40? You know that great stuff that you spray on everything and it makes it better? Sort of a lubricant. It's a way of getting rid of water, actually, but the reason it's called WD 40 is that there were 39 failed versions of it before they came up with 40. So that's why it's WD 40.
Stuart: "Failure is the opportunity to begin again more intelligently." This I got at a Chinese restaurant in a fortune cookie, so I took a picture of it. "Failure is opportunity in the skies," this was said by [Gloria Swanson 00:27:46], a famous actress of many years ago. "If your 40 years old and never had a failure," you've been deprived. Not sure what she had in mind there, but I find it intriguing.
Stuart: So all of these things are useful nostrums. I mean if you have a friend on the phone who's just failed in sport or love or something like that, sure, you say these things. But none of them are the kind failure that I'm talking about in the sense, the ignorance that I'm trying to talk about is not just stupidity.
Stuart: So let's think about what failure is. I have a couple of quotes for this that I think capture it better. So much like the Keats quote about negative capability, I like this one by the always enigmatic [Gertrude Stein 00:28:24]. "A real failure does not need an excuse, it is an end in itself." I think it's a very, very important idea, not an easy one, because we're so use to thinking, "oh yes, failure, that's a good thing, because it teaches you perseverance. Where you learn from your failures or all sorts of eventually good things happen from your failure."
Stuart: But not Gertrude Stein. She thought a failure can be an end in itself. I think it's an important idea to let mull around in your head. Similarly this is from [Samuel Beckett 00:28:53], no less enigmatic. "Ever tried, ever failed, no matter. Try again, fail again, fail better."
Stuart: So this is true, because at first it sounds like the old trope. Yeah, try, fail, no matter. Try again, fail again. And then fail better. Is there a way to fail better? Is there a way to learn to fail better? Not just plain old fails. This is a Samuel Beckett, a late novel of his.
Stuart: So I think the important idea here is that failure is not only valuable retrospectively, because eventually it lead to some success or unexpected discovery or finding. Sometimes called serendipity, which is yet a whole other subject we can talk about.
Stuart: I think they're all, it's all fine, but I don't think that's a requirement for a failure to be valuable. Failure is I think, integral to the process of science. You can't leave it out or avoid it. You can learn to do it better. You can learn to utilize it and improve upon it. You can make it work for you. But it's integral to science, you just cannot have science without failure, as well.
Stuart: Alright, so if you've gone with me this far, which you may not have and you can scream at me afterwards. We could ask a couple of questions about failure. One would be how much failure? Because obviously it can't be a 100%, I don't think, right?
Stuart: But I do think we often underestimate, significantly underestimate the amount of failure that's acceptable. So let me use an example here from the natural world if you will. These guys here, these are all the kings of their various niches, right? They're the top of the food chain. Their evolution is great success stories. And I suspect you mostly believe it, I did for many years, that anytime they got a little hungry or whatever, they just go out and bag a little snack, right? That's what they do, they're the king of its and the head of that.
Stuart: But point of fact there's a vast literature actually, a predator, prey literature, in which you learn that these great predators are successful of fewer than 25% of their attempts. 75% of the time they fail, they do not kill the animal and eat the animal they are after. That's why there's so many animals left on the planet that are not predators, obviously.
Stuart: They manage to be, evolution is great success story with a failure rate of 75%. That's not bad, making a living as 75%. I don't think I have it here, but I often use a, I should of, because it's baseball season. Well this is the obligatory New Yorker part too, so I don't think there's anything that makes golf more fun frankly. That's a personal view. But it certainly would not be fun with a big hole like that, right? That's just kind of dumb to do, right?
Stuart: And a great deal of what we do actually, interestingly, in athletics for example, is we purposely make things difficult, right? Here just get this ball into that really big net, you can't use your hands. What?
Stuart: But some how or another we enjoy this idea of making something difficult enough that you'll fail most of the time. And that some how or another works. It makes the process, it gives the process a certain actual kind of what's the word I'm looking for, a certain kind of reliability.
Stuart: If everything you did at, what we succeeded in, a lab, would anybody believe you? He needs to fail a bit first, then you get a run, oh, okay, now I kind of believe you.
Stuart: Alright, so another question we could ask is how big of a failure? One of the things I think science, well let go on how big a failure first. Let's take the worst kind of failure, right, the debacle. The meaning of the word debacle is, an unmitigated disaster, a total failure. So let's see, but there's an interesting thing about this word. The etymology of this word is, and it comes from a French word, not in such common use anymore. But it comes from the French word, [Foreign Word 00:32:43]. And [Foreign Word 00:32:44] had originally kind of a nautical meaning, it was involved in ice breaking. But it means to free, to unbar or to unleash. As I said, it has a nautical meaning in ice breaking.
Stuart: The idea was to break something up to make a new pathway. Well, that doesn't actually sound so bad, does it? I mean, that actually sound like a good idea, doesn't it? So, it's true that creativity, we're all involved, we're all trying to figure out what make things creative. Everybody will tell you, well it's associating new ideas that are not normally associated. But I think it's also true that it may come just as powerfully from the associating ideas that had been too long associated together.
Stuart: In fact, this is a philosopher of the early 1900s, Spanish philosopher who wrote [inaudible 00:33:33] dissociating ideas than to associate them. And this idea of a debacle is actually somehow or another related to the idea of a breakthrough, right? Which we now consider a great discovery, an important discovery.
Stuart: And so once again, I think a relatively big failure can sometimes provide a tremendous breakthrough. It opens up an area that was completely unknown or unexpected. And that of course can be very valuable.
Stuart: So one of the tricks I think that science has figured and it's a very valuable one, one we could use in many other areas, is how you can fail, fail regularly, and fail pretty big without it being pretty catastrophic. Without it ending your career or ending your life or things like that. It can be a setback, that's true, but it's usually not catastrophic in science to fail.
Stuart: Alright, there's two key ideas that I'd like to sort of leave you with here and one little coda at the end about ignorance and failure. One is this notion of negative capability as being part of ignorance. The idea of being able to remain in doubt and uncertainty with patience. The other is failure being an end of itself and that once can fail better. That's part of the process, an integral part of the process. Not one that you avoid or one that you make an excuse for. But a crucial part.
Stuart: So this leads us to the sort of, oh this is a mistake, sorry. Problem of certainty or the value of uncertainty, let's see if I have nine. Probably have slides out of order.
Stuart: So this is an issue that's important now in science, certainty and uncertainty, because you know, if you believe in ignorance and failure, then you have accept a fair amount of doubt and uncertainty. It's a part of the process, as well.
Stuart: Sometimes we like uncertainty. There's some areas in the world and you know, I really like uncertainty. I like poker, roulette, sporting events, I mean even mortality. Nobody really wants to know the exact time and date of their death, I don't think, unless it's some weirdo in the room here.
Stuart: So for the most part, we welcome these sort of uncertain situations. We have spoiler alerts and all things like that, right? But I think these uncertainties have a fundamental difference with scientific uncertainties, because in some ways, at some point, all of these uncertainties will resolve. The hand will be shown, the roulette ball will drop. Somewhere in some country record will be the date and time of your death will indeed be recorded and it will be an actual number.
Stuart: But in science I think has a much grander sort of uncertainty, let's see. Oh, this slide is out of order. This is a haiku from [Basho 00:36:16], "To much missed, can't see Fuji, makes it more interesting." So that kind of uncertainty can make things more interesting.
Stuart: So the grander uncertainty of science though to me, is that there may not be an ultimate solution. There may not be any lasting resolution, a complete answer, or in a phrase that we should all be worried about, a final solution. Nobody really wants a final solution. I think we've learned that now, right?
Stuart: Because we're not looking for an end point. There may be an ultimate answer, maybe there is an ultimate truth, but surely we're no way close to ultimate, so why proceed that way? Why proceed in such a way as if that's what we're after?
Stuart: Instead, I think we try in science and development I would call stable probabilities. That is, you don't have to get zero or one, you don't have to have what we call a posterior zero or one. Or whatever the probability is, you want a stable, you want to get as much information as you can. Come up with a kind of stable probability, if you will.
Stuart: So the question's not how we become certain, but how does we become damn successful being as uncertain as we often are? I think this is a good question to ask about science and to answer about it when people say, "Well, if you’re not certain about this." This is one of the big issues in climate change, right? Well, let me know when you're certain about it and I'll stop driving my car. Maybe, or something like that.
Stuart: But the level of uncertainty, I mean in science ... science works to being true enough, as they say. This is a quote from an engineer, [George Box 00:37:54], "All models are wrong, but some are useful." And that's the way we proceed in science. From one slightly true thing to another slightly truer thing, as it were.
Stuart: But are you looking for ultimate truth, I don't think so. So let me give you an example of this. There are many ways to be wrong, there are many levels of being wrong. So it was originally thought, of course, the Earth was at the center. That was [Ptomely 00:38:17], that the Earth was at the center of the planetary system, the center of the universe or whatever. And everything revolved around it. It's clearly not right.
Stuart: So then along comes Copernicus and Galileo, and they come up with the heliocentric view. The Sun is at the center and all the planets circle the Sun. That actually is not correct, either, because they don't make circles. And it took Kepler to come along, who realized that the prediction of where Mars should be was, I think eight minutes of [inaudible 00:38:48]. Eight minutes of arch, if you stick your thumb out, about half your thumb nail in the sky.
Stuart: And Kepler spent six years trying to figure out how things can be wrong by eight minutes of arch and came to the recognition that planetary orbits are elliptical. That may not sound like much, but everything that Newton did after that could never have happened if this idea of a elliptical orbits was not somehow already in place.
Stuart: This is kind of right, but if you think that this is just as wrong as this, then that's not right either. So this isn't right, but it's hardly as wrong as that is. And that's the important thing is, that we have these levels of being right or wrong.
Stuart: Should also recognize that this did not happen in the nice straight line that we often teach the historical, heroic narrative of these three characters or four characters, figuring this all out. There were a lot of failures in the meantime.
Stuart: Although it's a hefty read, which I can't even say I've read the whole thing of. Kepler's treatise on this, on how he came up with elliptical orbits is actually quite interesting, because he goes through every failed idea that he had. And there were a ton of them. And so it's one of the very few scientific papers that talks about all the failed crap that happened, before we got to what we're publishing here. So it's quite an interesting document for that.
Stuart: Some cartoon, but it's true you know? You just got to get close enough here, that's what's counts, right? So, oh sorry, this slide is also messed up, I tried to fix some slides up today, of course.
Stuart: Alright, scientific [inaudible 00:40:22] generates these things here, but the important thing is to recognize these are sources of new questions that unsettled science is not unsound science. The science we have is quite sound, but it may not be absolutely settled, it may just be true enough.
Stuart: And this is one of my favorite quotes from a historian of science who died just a year or two ago from Princeton, [Charles Colsen Gillespie 00:40:42] who says that, "In science, revision is a victory." And that's a very important idea, that revision is a victory. That's what we do pretty consequently.
Stuart: Alright, so where we go with this? I'm gonna end up here and then we can have a discussion. I think on the things is, we should see this as all optimistic. We should see this as a very optimistic way of making tremendous progress, tremendous progress done.
Stuart: I know progress can be a loaded term. I mean with along with the quantimechanics of relativity comes the Atom bomb and things like that. So I understand, but in general, I think we'd all take, for the most part, the progress that we've had.
Stuart: And I think one of the ways to see this, is an idea that was made popular by this philosopher [Isaiah Berlin 00:41:27] in the last century, called Value Pluralism. Now Berlin was mostly a historian and a philosopher of history and a political scientist. I actually only learned about him after he died, because I'm habitual obituary read, actually.
Stuart: I like biographies, but who has the time to read a biography, you know? If I read the obituaries, they're like the Cliff Notes of ... This is a paper cartoon, I actually, [Roz Chast 00:41:55] who's a New Yorker cartoonist and friend, this is definitely what you think when you read the obituary page, right? Two years younger than me, three years older, exactly my age. I feel like the person you see. Anyway, that's how I met, that's how I found out about Isaiah Berlin, his ideas of pluralism.
Stuart: He had written a book, he written many things, but he wrote this very thin little book, which he has become best known, called the Hedgehog and the Fox, which he identifies as two kinds of thinking, 'cause this comes from this phrase from a Greek poet. The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing, and the idea is which kind of a thinker are you.
Stuart: Now, point of fact, we all think a little bit both ways, and that's what the conclusion of this was. But the trick is to keep many ideas going at once, even when they may be incommensurable with each other. Even if they have opposing values.
Stuart: So for example, [Niels Borda 00:42:50], a famous quantum physicist once said, this is a tricky one, watch this now. He said, "The opposite of a fact is a falsehood, but the opposite of profound truth is often another profound truth." It takes you little while to wrap your head around that, but I think it's true. I think there's a important quality in that. That sometimes profound truths seem to oppose each other. We don't know why, eventually the may not, but we have to be able to keep them both running for a while, until we figure out why.
Stuart: [Charles Pierce 00:43:23], another philosopher, likened science to not like a chain, only as strong as the proverbial weakest link, but rather a cable made up many delicate strands, but the loss of any few of them wouldn't matter to the overall strength of the cable. And that's the idea of having these many different ideas going at once.
Stuart: So, I'm gonna end with a sort of a story, if you will, that I think exemplifies this. This is a story of my dog, it's actually not the story of my ... this is my dog, it's an old Newfoundland. But the story is about [Zuri 00:43:59] my dog.
Stuart: So the story of my dog goes like this. Young [Tom 00:44:02] in the seventh grade is given an assignment to write an essay. The next day he comes in with the essay called, My Dog, and he hands it in. Two days later, the teacher comes back and says, "Tom, your essay on my dog is exactly the same as your brother's. Did you copy it?" And Tom says, "No ma'am, it's the same dog." See, it's the same dog.
Stuart: Now we all recognize that's a ridiculous thing, right? We all laugh at that in a literary perspective, but yet we don't think that way scientifically. We don't think that there are multiple ways to describe the same thing that may not overlap of may not become commensurable with each other, but would still act as legitimate explanations. And this ability to be pluralistic in our thinking of science I think is crucial to being able to be ignorant, doubtful, uncertain, and fail quite regularly. So right, it's the same dog.
Stuart: So let me just end with these two quotes. This is from [Rhea Dove 00:45:03], the US Poet Laureate for a couple of years. "Failure is a favorite of the future." And the poet [E.E. Cummings 00:45:08], "Always the beautiful answer, who asks a more question." That's the key thing to do and that's all I have to say. So I hope there will be time for discussion. A little bit anyway, yes. [crosstalk 00:45:21] So thank you very much for your ... thanks for all this. [inaudible 00:45:28]