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How “You’re Out of Your Mind!” Won a Nobel Prize  

By Shlomo Maital

 

      Cultivate wild ideas!   This is a proven path for changing the world, and, perhaps, for winning a Nobel Prize in Physics.

       Profs. Weiss, Barish and Thorne have won the 2017 Nobel for Physics. They won it for empirically demonstrating the existence of “gravity waves”, predicted by Albert Einstein a century ago. According to The New York Times:

    These waves would stretch and compress space in orthogonal directions as they went by, the same way that sound waves compress air. They had never been directly seen when Dr. Weiss and, independently, Ron Drever, then at the University of Glasgow, following work by others, suggested detecting the waves by using lasers to monitor the distance between a pair of mirrors.

In 1975, Dr. Weiss and Dr. Thorne, then a well-known gravitational theorist, stayed up all night in a hotel room brainstorming gravitational wave experiments during a meeting in Washington. Dr. Thorne went home and hired Dr. Drever to help develop and build a laser-based gravitational-wave detector at Caltech. Meanwhile, Dr. Weiss was doing the same thing at M.I.T.   The technological odds were against both of them. The researchers calculated that a typical gravitational wave from out in space would change the distance between the mirrors by an almost imperceptible amount: one part in a billion trillion, less than the diameter of a proton. Dr. Weiss recalled that when he explained the experiment to his potential funders at the National Science Foundation, “everybody thought we were out of our minds.”

   The breakthrough research combined a wild idea (empirically measuring gravity waves) with a feet-on-the-ground project to measure them.  The most advanced version of LIGO Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory had just started up in September 2015 when the vibrations from a pair of colliding black holes slammed the detectors in Louisiana and Washington with a rising tone, or “chirp,” for a fifth of a second.

   Barish knew how to manage Big Science projects, like LIGO; Weiss and Thorne had the wild idea of measuring tiny tiny waves, an “out of your mind” idea.  And the National Science Foundation provided the needed resources. Presto – Nobel.

   Weiss and Thorne are MIT professors; Barish is from Caltech.

 

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How to Help Creative People: Be (Or Support) Claude Shannon’s

 By Shlomo Maital

Claude Shannon

   Claude Elwood Shannon (1916- 2001) was an American mathematician, electrical engineer, and cryptographer. He invented what we today call known as “information theory” – the foundation of software, computers and cell phone technology.

   According to Wikipedia: “Shannon is noted for having founded information theory with a landmark paper, A Mathematical Theory of Communication, that he published in 1948. He is, perhaps, equally well known for founding digital circuit design theory in 1937, when—as a 21-year-old master’s degree student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)—he wrote his thesis demonstrating that electrical applications of Boolean algebra could construct any logical, numerical relationship.” In other words, you can do anything with 0,1.  

   NATURE magazine (July 13 2017, p. 159) has a review of a new book about Shannon, A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon invented the Information Age. The review is written by Vint Cerf, who designed the architecture of the Internet.

     At the close of his review, Cerf notes:   “What emerges is a portrait of an exceptional free-spirited mind, nurtured by colleagues at MIT and Bell Labs….he was protected from some of the more mundane aspects of work, such as reporting progress, by colleagues and managers. They recognized his unique ability to wrestle insight from complexity, by peeling away details that obscured the kernel of problems and inviting creative solutions”.

     What I learn from this is:   Be like Shannon. Strip away the humdrum things you do, and focus on big problems, on the core of the problem. Peter Drucker taught “Innovation and Abandonment” and he began with ‘abandonment’. That is, what can you get rid of in your life that takes away time and energy from your creative powers? How can you be like Shannon?

     And, next best, if you cannot be like Shannon, can you identify and support other people around you who are like Shannon?   Supporting other creative people may be as important as being creative yourself.

Mildred Dresselhaus, 1930-2017

By Shlomo Maital

dresselhaus

Mildred Dresselhaus

   On Feb. 20, MIT Professor of physics and electrical engineering, Mildred Dresselhaus, passed away at her home in Cambridge, MA. She was 86. Born Mildred Spiewak, she was the very first female Institute Professor at MIT (an Institute Professor is a super-distinguished professor).

   Dresselhaus was known as the Queen of Carbon, in scientific circles. She used magnetic fields and lasers to map out the electric structure of carbon and found that by stitching in alkali materials, carbon can become a superconductor. She pioneered in researching “buckyballs” (fullerenes), soccer-ball shaped cages of carbon atoms, widely used for drug delivery, lubricants and catalysts. She also had the idea of rolling a single layer of carbon atoms into a hollow tube, the nanotube, making a structure with the strength of steel but just 1/10,000th the width of a human hair.

     Dresselhaus published over 1,700 scientific papers.   Her life was one of struggle and perseverance. She was the daughter of poor Jewish immigrants from Poland, and grew up in the Bronx.   She went through university on scholarship.  

     She once recounted, according to the New York Times, “my early years were spent in a dangerous multiracial low-income neighborhood. My early elementary school memories up through ninth grade are of teachers struggling to maintain class discipline with occasional coverage of academics”.   From age 6, she travelled long distances on the subway. She got in to Hunter High School, in Manhattan, and then Hunter College. Her lifelong mentor was Nobel Laureate Rosalyn Yalow, from whom she took an elementary physics course.

     Why did she choose to study carbon? Because it was unpopular and considered uninteresting, she observed. She and her husband were hired by MIT in 1960, because MIT was one of the few places that would hire a husband and wife team. At Lincoln Labs, she was one of only two women, out of a scientific staff of 1,000.

         She is survived by her husband Gene, and four children, Marianne, Carl, Paul and Eliot, and five grandchildren.   She will be remembered as the first woman to secure a full professorship at MIT, in 1968, and she worked “very vigorously to ensure she would not be the last”, observed Natalie Angier, in the New York Times.

 Alone with our Phones:  the Downside of Cellular

By Shlomo Maital

 phones

     Will dependence on devices mean we no longer know how to engage, befriend and converse with live humans? Will IoT kill empathy?

       In her latest book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, MIT Professor Sherry Turkle, a sociologist and clinical psychologist, decries the decline of simple human contact.

     “We’re talking all the time,” she writes.   “We text, post and chat. …Among family and friends, we turn to our phones instead of each other.”

     The result? “Our young people would rather send an electronic message than commit to a face-to-face meeting or even a telephone call.”   The resulting “flight from conversation” damages what is most human about us – our ability to form relationships, empathize, sympathize, understand, collaborate.  

     In the world of IoT, will ‘things’ communicate in place of people? And will we as a result lose much of our essential humanity?

   The 2013 movie “Her” follows Theodore Twombly, played by Joaquin Phoenix, as he falls in love with Samantha, a computer operating system, whose silky voice is that of Scarlett Johansson. Are we already falling in love with our ‘things’? I am told that depriving teenagers of their cell phones, as a punishment, is regarded by them as life-threatening.  

     Every new technology has its downside.   Cellular technology enables us to communicate with everyone, everywhere, any time, all the time. This is a great boon. But it is also destroying our ability to relate to other human beings.

   How can we reap the benefits of ubiquitous smart phones (according to TIME magazine, a year ago, most people now surf the Web with their phones, not tablets or PC’s),   without the downside that Turkle depicts?

 

Raise the U.S. Minimum Wage – Now!

By Shlomo   Maital

fastfood strike

    Have you wondered, why low-paid American workers, who lost well-paying jobs in manufacturing to Asia and instead got low-paying jobs in services, like fast foods,    have been so passive under exploitation and poverty?

    No longer.    A spontaneous group of fast food workers has  organized, using social networks, and have mounted demonstrations in major cities.  Many earn minimum wage, which in some places is $7.50 an hour.  That means you get $30 a week for a 40 hour work week, or $120 a month — $14,400 a year.   Nobody can survive on that. 

    Is that what they are worth?  Is that commensurate, as economists say, with the value of the marginal product of their labor?    I doubt it, given Macdonald’s fat profits. 

    But wait!   If you raise the minimum wage, you will cause more unemployment and hardship, because the higher the price of something, the less is the demand.  Right?

     Here is what Zeynep Ton writes in Fortune (he’s an adjunct associate professor of operations management at the MIT Sloan School of Management and the author of The Good Jobs Strategy: How the Smartest Companies Invest in Employees to Lower Costs and Boost Profits).

   I studied four retail chains that manage (to pay workers more than minimum wages);   Costco, Trader Joe’s, QuikTrip (a U.S. chain of convenience stores with gas stations), and Mercadona (Spain’s largest supermarket chain). They offer their employees much better jobs than their competitors, all the while keeping their prices low and performing well in all the ways that matter to any business. They have high productivity, great customer service, healthy growth, and excellent returns to their investors. They compete head-on with companies that spend far less on their employees, and they win.

  Zeynet Ton notes:    “Nearly one fifth of American workers work in retail and fast food, and they have bad jobs. They earn poverty-level wages, have unpredictable schedules that make it hard to hold on to a second job, and have few opportunities for success and growth. These are not just people who are uneducated or unskilled. In 2010 more than a third of all working adults with jobs that did not pay a living wage had at least some college education or a degree.”

    It’s simple.  To boost a flagging economy, put more income into the hands of those who need it; they spend it, creating demand, more jobs, and by Keynes’ multiplier effect, economic growth.

    Does this sound more logical than the European no-brain austerity program?  And, if nothing else, more fair?

The Three Intersecting Circles of Innovation

By Shlomo  Maital    

convergence

  My attention was recently drawn to a three-year-old report, done by MIT scholars, for the health science research community.  The report is  The Thid Revolution:  The Convergence of the Life Sciences, Physical Sciences and Engineering.   The authors, which include stellar figures like Profs. Phillip Sharp and Robert Langer,  argue that “convergence will be the emerging paradigm for how medical research will be conducted in the future.”

  In order for this convergence to happen, they say, we will not “not simply collaboration between disciplines but true disciplinary integration.”

    Today, the structure of nearly all the universities in the world is obsolete, ancient, creaky and counterproductive.  It is based on faculties, which are silos that work in direct opposition to convergence.   The exceptions are research institutes that are cross-disciplinary, specifically nanotechnology. My university has a Nanotechnology Center that draws scholars from many disciplines, and the resulting integration has been tremendously productive.   A small example:  Prof. Hossam Haick, whose discipline is chemical engineering, but who has harnessed nanotechnology, electronics, chemistry, physics and engineering to produce an ‘electronic nose’, which can sniff cancer molecules, for instance.   He recently delivered the first course in Arabic, on Coursera, on nanotechnology.   

      Structure is not strategy, it is sometimes said.  But, sometimes it is.  Let’s change the structure of universities.  Let’s find a way to restructure them, so that each faculty member has a very clear area of expertise, a clearly-defined discipline, but also has broad knowledge of other fields and above all,  works as part of a convergence interdisciplinary team.  And for this to work, their offices have to be adjacent…. Despite IT and networking, nothing beats face-to-face conversations over coffee.  

      Convergence poses a big challenge to those who would innovate.  You need to achieve two conflicting goals, both of which are highly challenging.

    First, as Nobel Laureate Dan Shechtman repeatedly urges, you must become expert, truly expert, at SOMEthing….  his expertise was in electron microscopy, and it enabled him to overcome fierce opposition to his discoveries, and ultimately win the big prize.   You need deep knowledge in at least one field or sub-field.

   Second, you need to become curious and learn a great many things about a great many fields, not in depth but sufficient to understand them.  You need wide knowledge, surface knowledge, in just about everything.   Even if you have team members who have deep knowledge, it still helps a lot to innovate if you have basic understanding of other, distant disciplines. 

    In future, all the major breakthroughs will occur at the point of convergence among several disciplines.  In order for you, innovator, to be there,  you need to acquire depth, and breadth. 

    Good luck!

  

The Second Machine Age: What It Means for You and Me and Our Kids

By Shlomo   Maital   

    smart machine

  Tom Friedman’s Global New York Times column, Jan. 13, is titled “If I Had a Hammer”.  It’s not about the folk singers Peter, Paul & Mary.  It’s about the Second Machine Age, and about the chess grandmaster Donner who was asked how to prepare for a chess match against a machine, like IBM’s Deep Blue computer. “I would bring a hammer,” he said. 

   Friedman reviews a new book by MIT Professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee,  The Second Machine Age.  According to them,  in the First Machine Age, 1700-1950,  each new invention made human control and human labor more important.  In the Second Machine Age, we are automating cognitive tasks.   Result:  humans, and software-driven machines, may be substitutes (i.e. enemies), not complements.  Machines are becoming exponentially smarter.  “Our generation will have more power to improve (or destroy) the world than any before, relying on fewer people and more technology”, Friedman concludes.

    What does this mean?  For one,  “we need to reinvent education so more people can ‘race with machines’, not race against them”. 

    This implies, I believe, that we must totally rethink how we teach kids.  The only advantage humans have over smart machines is in their imaginations. So teaching and fostering creativity will be a crucial component of how we educate our children in future.  It’s the only competitive advantage we have over machines.  The only think smart machines lack, and will always lack, is the human brain’s ability to imagine things that do not exist.   No machine yet has a ‘visual cortex’.    

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital
November 2017
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