Tag : science

Frank Partnoy (BSS #468)

Frank Partnoy is most recently the author of Wait.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Impatient for a pause.

Author: Frank Partnoy

Subjects Discussed: Perception of time, Walter Clark, pauses and authenticity, Jon Stewart’s 20 second pause in response to Sarah Palin’s “squirmish,” This American Life, Christian Marclay’s The Clock, “Kristen Schaal is a horse,” Tao Lin’s use of repetition, John Boyd’s OODA loop, whether a military strategist’s ideas are entirely applicable to dating, how delay persuades us in other context, the first date as a military tactic, lunch-oriented dating services, making bad snap decisions because of a photo, panic and fast talking, being aware of your audience when talking, the Einstellung effect, Peter McLeod’s experiments with chess players, the three move checkmate, how even chess masters get stuck in the muck, the dangers of being overconfident, unemployment, Sarkozy’s failed efforts to readjust the GDP to help long-term economic impact, readjusting human attention from the short-term solution, cognitive bias, subliminal messages, how fast food logos help to read, SAnford DeVoe’s experiments, racist treatment decisions from doctors, the unanticipated advantages of a spare second, the effects of wealth upon happiness, finding another activity while waiting, viewing time as more scarce and impatience, when scientific developments are at odds with capitalist realities, the downside of success, procrastination, subliminal messages within the film Fight Club, topless women in The Rescuers, when people are vulnerable to subliminal messages, the invention of the Post-It, the advantage of fresh eyes, Archimedes and Newton, Arthur Fry, thin slicing and the Malcolm Gladwell reductionist incarnation of this idea now welcomed by marketing people, Dr. Phil’s incorrect use of thin slicing, and why thin slicing isn’t two seconds according to the studies.


Correspondent: So let’s start off with panic, which seems a very good thing to start off with. Panic, as you say, has much to do with our perception of time. You bring up Walter Clark’s theory — he’s this acting teacher. He says that the best actors are the ones who don’t panic. So how much of our waiting has to do with panic or any other sense of emotional paralysis? How much of our anxieties come from this false comprehension of time? If there’s this correlation between good acting and not panicking, well, I have to ask, Frank, what’s the compromise between being human and being some pretender or some mimic?

Partnoy: Oh, it’s a great question. I’ve learned so much from Walter Clark, who’s one of the best acting coaches I’ve been around. My daughter takes a lot of acting classes. So I’ve learned a lot from him. And I think an acting coach, like somebody who is sophisticated watching a play or a performance, can see through a mimic. You can tell when somebody’s a fake when they’re performing. One of the things that panic does is that it leads people to speed up their performance. So that they run through what the acting coaches call beats. So it’s partly true of acting generally. But it’s especially true of comedy, I think. One of the things that I took away from watching him in action was that a lot of comedy really is about pauses and delays.

Correspondent: Yes.

Partnoy: And understanding the audience and being authentic in your understanding of the audience and figuring out how often to pause. You know, we’re talking right now. We’ve just met each other, right? And we’re sort of watching each other and having this conversation.

Correspondent: And you’re a total phony.

Partnoy: Yeah. Sorry.

Correspondent: Or are you? Maybe I’m the total phony. Who knows? Maybe we’re both being phony. I don’t know.

Partnoy: Hopefully we won’t be as we move along.

Correspondent: I think I can trust you so far.

Partnoy: Alright. Likewise. I’m enjoying it so far.

Correspondent: Okay, good.

Partnoy: I’m grabbing my wallet now. But I do think, just when we start having these conversations in our normal lives, even if we’re not acting that there’s a role of the pause and the delay. That just speeding through something 100 miles an hour is not a very effective communication technique. So one of the things I’ve been interested in for a long time is that. I teach law school classes and my students can’t comprehend me if I’m speaking 100 miles an hour. On the other hand, I can speak pretty quickly and they’ll get content down. They’ll write. So it’s this kind of balance back and forth. And when you panic, you speed up. You speed through the pause. One of the things that I’ve been playing with, as I’ve done three years of research now on the book and wrote it, is how long I can get away with pausing. [short pause] So I talk a little bit about Jon Stewart as an example and this extraordinary moment he had in one of his shows where he had captured Sarah Palin questioning some of the Obama military action in Libya and saying she didn’t know what to call this. “We’re not at war. What’s a word for it? I don’t know the word.” And then Sarah Palin uses this non-word “squirmish.” And for me as a speaker, I would have a hard time waiting, pausing more than a couple of seconds, telling a joke and then delaying. My son actually — I have an eight-year-old son — he’s a lot better at telling a joke and then delaying the punchline. So he’ll make up some joke. “A couple of cantaloupe were married. What did they name their daughter?” And then he’ll do a dramatic pause and say, “Melony.” Which is just made up. But he’ll get a laugh where I’m not sure I can do. But Jon Stewart is able to pause for twenty full seconds. I think that must be some kind of a world record for pauses. And he’s just the opposite of panic. He’s utterly fearless with the audience, feeling them out, understanding and being totally authentic, right? I mean, that’s one of the reasons why we love Jon Stewart so much, is that he’s command of timing and gets us and gets what we want and goes through this kind of time framework, which I think is actually very valuable in all the decisions that we make. Which is a two-step process. The first step is: How long can I wait before taking this action and making this decision? What’s the maximum amount of time that I can wait? And then the second step is delaying until that moment. And so in that example, he decided it was going to be twenty seconds. Probably not consciously. Because he’s a a master. And he was able to wait twenty seconds. I could never do that.

Correspondent: Well, since you brought up pauses, I think we should talk about them.


Correspondent: You observe that the best radio announcers and interviewers use them.


Correspondent: Comedians like Jon Stewart, of course.


Correspondent: You can even point to the Mike Daisey pauses in This American Life.


Correspondent: Oh. Am I sort of interfering with the question? I don’t know.

Partnoy: Beautifully done. Masterful.

Correspondent: Actually though, I do want to bring this up. I could even bring the William Shatner pause into this equation. But I’m wondering if how we react to a pause shares much in common with how we react to, say, a loop. There’s this comedy routine — I’m not sure if you’re familiar with it — “Kristen Schaal is a Horse” — where basically it just goes on and on and repeats and repeats. It’s basically this woman dancing and a man clapping and going, “Kristen Schaal is a horse! Kristen Schaal is a horse!” And it goes on and loops for like fifteen minutes. There’s a Tao Lin poem where he constantly says the line “the next night we ate whale.” And there are all sorts of repetitions throughout art and culture and so forth. Does the manner in which we ascribe authority to a pause have much in common with this loop situation?

Partnoy: Oh, that’s a fascinating question. I think so. I mean, loops come up in all sorts of contexts and they relate to time in a very fundamental way, right? There’s — I’ll forget the artist, but there’s the 24 hour loop exhibit that’s out now.

Correspondent: Oh yeah. Christian Marclay’s The Clock.

Partnoy: It’s incredible, right? The Clock, where you’ve got, from various films, depictions of 12:01 and 1:05 sort of cycling around. And there’s something really powerful about the reinforcement of the story. A lot of jokes get funnier as they’re retold. So much so that even comedians, they might not even laugh at the joke, but they’ll just think, “Wow, that was really funny.” And loops come up also in a completely different context, I found in my research. Which is in the military.

Correspondent: Mr. Boyd.

Partnoy: Mr. Boyd, right. John Boyd, probably the greatest fighter pilot in history, who created something called the OODA loop. O-O-D-A, for Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act. This approach to decision making started in a military context, but now people use it in all areas of life and business. Where you take time and initially you observe. And you orient. You figure out where the enemy is. And then finally you make the decision. And then the decision is the mental part. And the act is the implementation part. And what John Boyd talks about is running through an OODA loop. So going through that cycle of Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act over and over again, watching the jet fighter you’re trying to shoot down to see what that person’s proclivities are — Do they like to faint to the left? Or the right? How fast are they? — to understand and to confuse them too. Which is also interesting. Because I’m not sure whether the art projects or films that we talked about earlier — I’m not sure they’re really meant to confuse. But in the offensive aspects of the OODA loop, part of what John Boyd is suggesting they do is get a speed advantage to confuse the enemy. And the development of the F-16, he was the person who basically created the idea of the F-16 and pushed its development. The kind of aircraft that’s like using a switchblade in a knife fight, that you can use very quickly to confuse and disorient your opponent. So these loops show up. Expertise, if you think about it. Where does expertise come from? It comes from a kind of repeated loop, right? Chess players become experts by learning openings and repeating that over and over and over again and seeing certain patterns. What behavioralists call chunking. Being able, because they’ve been through those loops so many times, to recognize patterns consistently. So it’s a really interesting question. And I think to some extent, these really deep insights and expertise come out of repeated loops as well.

Categories: Ideas

Florence Williams (BSS #457)

Florence Williams is most recently the author of Breasts.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Contemplating a new career in unique dairy products.

Author: Florence Williams

Subjects Discussed: The history of breastfeeding, formula ushered into the industrial age, artificial selection and breasts, 19th century mothers who raised infants on oatmeal, infant mortality, contaminants within breast milk, the recent Time breastfeeding cover controversy, finding flame retardants in breast milk, why formula isn’t a particularly pure product, public breastfeeding laws, lactating moms with pitchforks, phthalates, the difficulty of studying the effects of industrial chemicals on humans, chemicals untested on humans, California’s Proposition 65, being helpless in the wake of Beltway indifference to industrial chemicals, the increase in breast cancer, the Komen for the Cure controversy earlier in the year, breast cancer awareness, increased rates of breast cancer in China, Zena Werb’s molecular research, the Burke and Hare murders, murdering the poor and selling organs to anatomists, burking, John Landis films, the Anatomy Act of 1832, studying breasts at the cellular level, studying rat mammaries to understand humans, the Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation, ideas on implementing Google Maps for milk ducts, breast apps, knowing more about the cow diary industry than human milk, red wine, the human milk demographic, thought experiments on a human cheese market, making money from human milk, prebiotics, the human breast milk black market, how to confuse vegans with breast milk, imagining a world where one can pick up a gallon of human milk in a bodega, breast enlargement, Dr. Michael Ciaravino and his Houston breast augmentation factory, breasts and patriarchal associations, pornography being ratcheted up, boosting the self-esteem of girls, the virtues of small breasts, Timmie Jean Lindsey and the first breast implant, the problems with objectification from several angles, the problems with early silicone implants, the Dow Corning class action lawsuit, women with breast implants who lose nipple sensation, the marketing of breast implants, the inevitability of living with toxic dust and radiation, and the Stockholm Protocol (and the United States’s failure to sign it).


Correspondent: I wouldn’t to actually get into the history of breastfeeding. Before the 20th century, of course, breastfeeding was the main method of feeding babies. Then we have postwar life ushering in formula and so forth. It has been pointed out, as you say in the book, by evolutionary biologists that 6,000 human genes relating to lactation are among our most stubbornly conserved ones and, if natural selection as even Darwin has pointed out is in favor of lactation, my question to you is: why is artificial selection through industry so very much against it? Just to get things started here.

Williams: Oh, that’s a big question. Well, you know, there have always been women throughout history — even in our deep evolutionary past — who didn’t want to breastfeed or who couldn’t breastfeed. Of course, many women died in child birth. There were lots of breast infections, as well as other infections related to child birth. And so sometimes women couldn’t produce enough milk. And so as I point out in the book, actually wet nursing is one of the oldest professions known to humankind. You know, humans are very flexible and picky in their feeding habits. And some populations wouldn’t wean their infants for years. Three, four years. The recent cover of Time Magazine was so shocking because it had a three-year-old on the cover. But, in fact, the human race would not be here if it weren’t for toddlers breastfeeding in our deep evolutionary past. And then there have always been populations that wean their young earlier. So when formula came along, many, many women thought this was a great liberating phenomenon and invention. And, you know, they went for it with greater and lesser success, I would say. You know, in the 19th century, women sometimes tried to raise their infants on oatmeal, basically, and cow’s milk.

Correspondent: That was sort of the formula of its time.

Williams: That was the formula of its time. It was often a total disaster.

Correspondent: I would imagine oatmeal wouldn’t be exactly quite the same constituency.

Williams: It’s not really everything you need. And so infant mortality was really high among infants who were not breastfed. Fortunately, now, formula is pretty good at approximating the nutritional needs of the infant. But as we’re learning more and more all the time, breast milk isn’t just a food. It’s a medicine.

Correspondent: It’s a way of life.

Williams: It’s a way of life. (laughs)

Correspondent: Sorry. But it is actually a way of life — in all seriousness. As you point out in this book, there’s also a good deal of adulterated breast milk that is running around right now. We’ll get into the whole phthalates and plastic chemicals in just a bit. But I’m wondering. Why aren’t we considering this? I mean, I guess your book is a starting point. Or is this, in fact, one of the serious issues that scientists are presently looking into? Or is it?

Williams: Oh yes. It is. You know, breast milk now has been known to have contaminants in it from the industrial world. I tested my breast milk while I was breastfeeding my second child and I found out that I had flame retardants and jet fuel ingredient. Trace amounts of pesticide.

Correspondent: That’s what you get for having a pilot career.

Williams: (laughs)

Correspondent: Oh, you didn’t have a pilot career! I see.

Williams: Oops! I didn’t have a pilot career.

Correspondent: Wow.

Williams: We all have these substances coursing through our bodies. Unfortunately, some of them really collect in fatty tissue in the breast. And then the breast is really masterful at converting these substances into food. So it ends up in our breast milk. But I would point out that I did continue breastfeeding. I was convinced that the benefits still outweighed the risks. And, of course, formula is not a completely pure product either. It’s also contaminated with heavy metals and pesticides and whatever else is in the water that you’re mixing it with. And then, you know, of course there are sometimes these scares that come out of China where you find melamine and other weird additives in the formula. So unfortunately, I feel that we’ve taken this miraculous evolutionary substance and we’ve degraded it to the point where you can really now almost compare to formula.

Correspondent: So we can, in fact, compare sullied breast milk of the present industrial age with the formula of yesteryear that infants relied upon. Is it safe to say that we can determine which is the greater threat these days? Or what?

Williams: I still think the benefits of breast milk are incredibly profound and amazing. You know, we’re just learning more and more all the time about how breast milk boosts the immune system. And there’s some evidence that despite all the pollutants in breast milk, it still protects the infant possibly from the effects of other chemicals. You know, it boosts the IQ and it helps teach the human immune system what’s a good pathogen, what’s a bad pathogen. So there are all kinds of great reasons to still use it. Of course, unfortunately, in the United States anyway, we don’t really support breastfeeding. As you can tell from the reaction to that Time cover, we’re still deeply uncomfortable with it.

Correspondent: There are still public laws, however, that permit women to breastfeed their children that we’ve seen more and more of in the last decade or two. I think there’s — well, we’re in New York City. So we can be a little hubristic about this.

Williams: You can do anything. (laughs)

Correspondent: You’re coming from Colorado. So I think it’s a little more challenging there.

Williams: Well, there’s always these stories in the news of women who get kicked out of the shopping mall because they need to breastfeed their infant. And sometimes that creates this big reaction. And sometimes lactating moms will come and have protests.

Correspondent: Lactating moms with pitchforks. I love it! (laughs)

Williams: Stay away from them. They’re dangerous!

Categories: Ideas

Jonah Lehrer (BSS #448)

Jonah Leher is most recently the author of Imagine: How Creativity Works.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Brown-bagging his imaginative faculties.

Author: Jonah Lehrer

Subjects Discussed: Continuum’s development of the Swiffer, Shakespeare, whether creativity that originates from theft is acceptable, Bob Dylan, conceptual blending, efforts to defend aerosol cheese spray, bacon cocktails, Dick Crew, Don Lee, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Alex Osborn and brainstorming, Pixar management techniques, Mike Daisey, when storytelling gets in the way of the facts, Milton Glaser and the beginnings of I ? NY, the creative possibilities of Benzedrine, WH Auden’s poetry, Angela Duckworth, attempting to make banal chapters, Brian Uzzi and Jarret Spiro’s work involving the Q rating, “Collaboration and Creativity: The Small World Problem,” Y combinator startups and Broadway musicals, not bringing up Stanley Milgram, comparisons between Lehrer and Malcolm Gladwell, small world theory and hit plays, Charlan Nemeeth‘s idea of dissent’s relationship to creativity, Lehrer sandwiching dissent and complacency, “Managing Innovation,” Steve Jobs tearing people apart at Pixar, Pixar’s plussing approach, the middle ground between brutal honesty and egalitarianism, Ray Oldenburg and third places, Pixar and Lehrer’s liberties with third places, the Santa Fe Institute, Geoffrey West and Luis Bettencourt building an equation based on urban variables, why Lehrer placed the Homebrew Community Club into the city-based West/Bettencourt model, Silicon Valley vs. New York, Tom Wolfe, California’s non-compete clause, the Duncker candle problem, functional fixedness, Robert Adamson, leaving the country to solve a problem, William Maddux and Adam Galinsky’s “Cultural Borders and Mental Barriers,” why Lehrer doesn’t use the exact nomenclature to describe science, the origin of Post-Its, Lehrer avoiding the term “functional fixedness,” avoiding terms to attract a larger readership, the problems with mashup methods, responding in depth to Tim Requarth and Meehan Crist at The Millions*, Eric Kandel’s The Age of Insight, the fMRI and the insula lighting up, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and being hamstrung by the popular science medium.


Correspondent: You put on the glasses. Have you always worn glasses? Because I noticed that was the new cover photo for this. Whereas before you didn’t have glasses.

Lehrer: Oh, I’ve been blind for a long, long time. Maybe — I forget. Maybe the photographer had me take them off.

Correspondent: They asked you to take them off. I was always curious.

Lehrer: No, no, no.

Correspondent: I didn’t know if it was a new mild-mannered Clark Kent look or…

Lehrer: No, no, no. I can assure you that these glasses actually work. They help me see.

Correspondent: Good. I’m more visible for you. That’s reassuring. Let’s go ahead and get right into it. Your book opens with this story of Continuum observing an elderly woman who is wetting a paper towel and wiping the remaining coffee grounds off of the linoleum as she was cleaning. This, of course, leads to the development of the Swiffer. Near the end of the book, you point out Shakespeare. He had a tendency to comb through the many books he read to find stories that he could use for plays and so forth. So it would seem to me — just to establish some terms from the beginning — that much of your notion of creativity involves the theft of ideas. That if you have financial or intellectual resources and you’re able to go ahead and pluck them from somebody else, then hey! You can be creative! So how is profiting off of another person’s idea a form of creation? Or art? Or what not?

Lehrer: I’m not sure I’d call it straight theft. I think Dylan actually has — I talk a lot about Bob Dylan in the book.

Correspondent: Yes, you do.

Lehrer: And he’s got this wonderful phrase where he describes his process as one of love and theft. That first you fall in love. Whether it’s a Woody Guthrie-style. Whether it’s a Robert Johnson riff. Whether it’s, say, old Irish lullaby from Ireland which you turn into “Blowin’ in the Wind.” So you love it and you love it. And you try and understand it and map out the intricate details and connections and then you steal it. And you make it your own. So this isn’t straight theft. This is, in theory, Shakespeare, who, as you point out, was doing pretty well for himself. He came from very humble beginnings. His father was a glover. He signed his name with a mark. But he did his dad proud and made lots of money. So he didn’t just steal Hamlet. He didn’t just steal the plot for Romeo and Juliet. And he didn’t just steal almost all his plots. Shakespeare did not like inventing his own stories, of course. He made them his own. He reinvented them. I think it’s the same thing Bob Dylan did with that Robert Johnson riff. It’s the same thing Continuum did with watching that elderly lady wipe up the coffee grinds that they actually spilled on her floor. That she didn’t invent the Swiffer. They invented the Swiffer. That triggered an insight which then led them to combine the mop, which they spent nine months studying and realizing that mopping’s a terrible idea. Because you spend more time cleaning the mop than you do the actual floor. And in that, her simple act, I mean, they had all done themselves countless times, simply triggered their breakthrough. So in a sense, I mean, I think you’re right to point out that all creativity involves a theft from somewhere. I think creativity is ultimately just a new connection between old ideas. So you are in the most literal sense thieving ideas which already exist. But the connection itself is new. At least it should be new. If it’s not new, then it actually is straight up theft. And that’s not the kind of creativity I’m interested in.

Correspondent: What is the creativity you’re interested in? Because I want to actually distinguish from an elaborate or high-class pickpocket. You know what I mean?

Lehrer: Yeah. You know, I think it’s very easy to get lost in lots of circular discussions about how to define creativity. I think creativity, as far as I’m concerned, is a bit like porn. You kind of know it when you see it.

Correspondent: Oh yeah?

Lehrer: Yeah. Or at least that’s what the Supreme Court says. You know, I think creativity is just the invention of something new. I’m not saying new in some kind of pretend sense. I’m saying something genuinely new which doesn’t exist in the patent office, doesn’t exist in the world, that other people find useful. So that’s as fancy as I get in defining creativity.

Correspondent: Well, let’s get into conceptual blending, which you get into. People exchanging ideas across different disciplines. When you take two concepts and mash them together, which seems applicable to this notion of what is creativity, I mean, it has given us some regrettable and fairly negative ideas. I think that we can both agree that aerosol cheese spray, the car alarm, telemarketing, the Pet Rock.

Lehrer: Yes. Oh come on.

Correspondent: These are things that also come from conceptual blending. So…

Lehrer: Aerosol cheese spray? I’ll go with you on the Pet Rock, but Cheese Whiz? That stuff in the can? That fueled me for much of my childhood.

Correspondent: Yes. “Childhood” being the key.

Lehrer: (laughs)

Correspondent: We’re talking about adulthood.

Lehrer: Okay. Okay.

Correspondent: I mean, we’re talking about ideas that really changed the world. That really have a revolutionary impact. Such as the iPhone or something like that. I mean, you commend Dick Drew as this innovator. And I’m fairly certain that a lot of terrible ideas have also come from 3M. And with the bartender Don Lee, you point out that most of his experiments were utter failures. His attempt to carbonate a cherry didn’t exactly work.

Lehrer: Yeah. And even his Bacon Old Fashioned is very divisive. Like I’m not sure how I feel about it.

Correspondent: Have you tried it?

Lehrer: I have. The first sip is delicious and then it’s kind of unsettling. I think it’s more about my limitations as a consumer than as an eater. And a lot of people don’t like it. So that’s a…

Correspondent: Well, who ultimately determines whether it’s creative or not? I mean, I can just go ahead and spend an evening being completely stoned out of my mind and come up with stupid ideas and that can also be conceptual blending.

Lehrer: Yeah.

Correspondent: I mean, what is the distinguishing quality here?

Lehrer: Well, that’s why I think when defining creativity, one has to invoke the second life of the idea. One has to invoke this notion that it has to be useful to yourself and other people. So you know, one of my favorite stories and moments of insight — I talk about moments of insight in Imagine and the neuroscience of it. And why they happen when we least expect it. But there’s this great story of an insight by Oliver Wendell Holmes when he first took laughing gas for the first time. And he’s stoned out of his mind. High as a kite. While high as a kite, has this big epiphany. He solved the world. This grand solution. Writes it down on a cocktail napkin. And they can’t find the cocktail napkin. And he wakes up the next day. He’s hungover. Searches everywhere. Finally finds a cocktail napkin. So excited to read it. And what it says is: “The world smells like turpentine.”

Correspondent: Yeah. But there are failed economic theories that are also written on cocktail napkins. You know what I mean?

Lehrer: Yeah, yeah, yeah. No, no. So that’s why I think one has to separate the phenomenology of the idea. To use a ten dollar word. Like the feeling of the insight. Like “Oh my god, I made this great connection.” And I think we’ve all had the experience — many of us have had the experience of being stoned or high and being “That was such a brilliant epiphany.” Then you wake up in the morning and you realize it’s useless. So I think when talking about creativity, one should talk about the second life and hopefully not just in the brute financial terms. I don’t think we should get in the business of just measuring creativity by how many books you sell or whether or not it can be monetized. Etcetera etcetera. But we should talk about the second life. Cause that I think is the ultimate way our ideas are measured.

Correspondent: Well, to go ahead and get into some of what you write in the book, late, you write that Alex Osborn’s idea of brainstorming was in fact wrong. That’s been pointed out by numerous people. Why then does your book skim over the really terrible ideas? I mean, how do we reconcile Osborn with the Carson/Peterson/Higgins study involving 86 Harvard undergraduates in which those who considered the irrelevant details were seven times more likely to be rated as “eminent creative achievers”? Now being ranked as an “eminent creative achiever” is a lot different from, oh say, inventing the iPhone or coming up with something that is actually helpful.

Lehrer: Of course. So their ranking of creativity — and what I liked about this study is that it was real world creativity. A lot of limitations of the way scientists study creativity are creativity tests. So it’s tests on divergent thinking, coming up with uses for a brick, finding ways to study traffic in the Bay Area. Stuff like that. But it’s not about the real world. So what I liked about that study was that it was real world achievement. So to get back to your question about why I don’t spend a lot of time on the failed ideas….

Correspondent: Because that would seem to be important, you know.

Lehrer: Well, one of the subplots in the book — at least that I tried to engineer into the book — is this notion that there’s no success without failure, that one of the defining features of successful creators is the way they’ve learned how to fail successfully. One of my favorite lines in the book is Lee Unkrich’s quote — the director of Toy Story 3 — about the secret sauce of Pixar is failing as fast as possible. You know, you go through iteration after iteration. So I’ve got that whole chapter on the importance of revisions and drafting and the conceiving process and going through drafts, looking for your failures, and trying to fix them. So, you know, hopefully I’ve made it clear that all good ideas emerge from the litter of lots of bad ones and that even the best epiphanies, you still have to edit them. You still have to fine tune them and perfect them. So hopefully it’s implicit in the book that part of coming up with a good idea is this entangled relationship with bad ideas. As for why I don’t talk a lot about failed ideas in the book, why I don’t harp on those inventions that never work, I don’t know. I mean, to be honest, I’m sure as a storyteller, it’s easier to tell stories of success. That’s what interests me more. No one wants to buy a book that’s all about…

Correspondent: You’re more of a Mike Daisey type than a New York Times guy?

Lehrer: How’d I go from wanting to tell success stories to being a Mike Daisey type?

Correspondent: Well, because we’re talking about facts vs. storytelling. Which is an ongoing debate especially in 2012. With John D’Agata and Jim Fingal’s The Lifespan of a Fact. With Mike Daisey.

Lehrer: Well, what are facts vs. storytelling?

Correspondent: The point I’m trying to make here is if you are telling a story where everything could be a conceivable success, I mean, there are some things that are inevitably failures. John Carter is probably by every standard a failure. It’s lost more money than any movie.

Lehrer: Yeah, but how does that? To get back to your question about facts and stories, how does that — I’m trying to talk about creativity and where it comes from. I think that one of the defining features of creativity — like I said before — it’s a new idea that people find useful. So there are obviously lots of ideas which people don’t find useful. Lots of failed ideas. In my book, I try to make clear that failure is a part of the creative process. One should learn how to deal with it. But one doesn’t have to write a book about creativity to talk about all the bad ideas that don’t work out. That would be a very, very, very, very long book, and I think fairly incoherent. So that’s why most of the stories I tell in the book are stories where, because that’s part of what creativity is, that’s how I define it. It’s a new idea that works. So I tell the story of new ideas that work.

Correspondent: Okay.

Lehrer: But I don’t quite understand how that means I’m Mike Daisey.

Correspondent: Well, because Mike Daisey took facts to fit his larger narrative. And while from a liberal standpoint, I suppose you could argue that looking at Shenzhen, even if the facts aren’t entirely airtight, might be a good idea, there’s still…

Lehrer: Well, which facts am I eliding to make my larger narrative? I guess that’s my…

Correspondent: Well, when you say you can learn from every failure and there’s a success from there, I don’t know if that’s entirely the truth.

Lehrer: I’m not saying you can — I don’t say that anywhere in the book that all ideas are created equal. In fact, the whole point of why brainstorming doesn’t work — you brought up Alex Osborn’s failed idea — is that it treats all ideas as equal. I mean, the whole point of brainstorming is all ideas are useful. All ideas are good. And as I point out, the reason brainstorming doesn’t work is because groups that engage in criticism and debate and dissent, groups that point out, “That idea is actually a piece of shit,” they do much better. They come up with more ideas and those ideas are better. So hopefully a theme of the book, as I’ve been trying to make clear, is this notion of being honest about which ideas are good and which ideas are bad, identifying failures and fixing them, and out of that process, which is often dismal and unpleasant and insufferable, out of that long process, you will hopefully get a good idea. But there is no shortcut around it.

Correspondent: You talked with Milton Glaser, the graphic designer who came up with the I ? NY logo. You mention WH Auden and how he was hopped up on Benzedrine to produce his poems. You say that it was persistence, this determination to solve the problem of how to rehabilitate the image of New York City, which led to Glaser’s solution. But aside from Earl Miller’s recursive loop, his dopamine findings, I’m curious what science you have to back up this idea of the value of persistence to the creative mind. I mean, is it not possible that maybe Glaser’s idea caught on because, well, New York was kind of stuck with it? Because I ? NY was everywhere? Know what I mean?

Lehrer: Yeah.

Correspondent: And also there’s this troubling idea of, well, do we have to be hopped up on Benzedrine to be a poet?

Lehrer: No, no, definitely not. As Auden himself would discover, there’s a reason why Benzedrine is now illegal. We no longer prescribe it for asthma. It’s incredibly addictive and, as I point out in the book, comes with all sorts of terrible side effects like horrible constipation, insomnia, and heart arrhythmia, and you definitely don’t want to advocate Benzedrine, no matter how much you need to edit your poetry. In terms of the science on persistence, yeah, there’s a lot of interesting research. A lot of which has nothing to do with the brain, at least not yet. Which I think demonstrates that persistence — the technical term for persistence that psychologists study is grit. This is primarily the work of Angela Duckworth. She’s at Penn. I’m actually writing about her now. Writing an article about her. She’s shown in many domains that grit is the single biggest predictor of success. More than IQ scores. So if you’re trying to figure out which 12-year-old will win the National Spelling Bee, it’s about grit. Who’s going to last at West Point? It’s about grit. Who’s going to last at Teach for America? Which amateur golfers are going to make the PGA tour? She argues that grit also plays a very important role in the creative process. She always quotes the Woody Allen line that 80% of success is showing up. Well, grit is what allows you to show up again and again. The two components of grit — and it’s important to point out, it’s not just about persistence. And I think this is an important caveat. It’s not just about persistence. You also have to have the right goal in the first place. So I may want to play in the NBA. But you’re looking at me. It’s not going to happen. So I have to have someone tell me early on hopefully that all the grit in the world, all the persistence in the world, won’t turn me into Spud Webb. Find a different goal. So I think sometimes one of the problems we have is we’re not willing to help people — you know, dreams will come true if you simply try for it. That kind of talk. It sounds really good, but it’s not entirely honest. And I think we need to be honest about it not being honest.

Correspondent: Now that’s a completely reasonable assessment. Why then would you put WH Auden on Benzedrine then in the book? And is this sort of the worst case scenario? Even though he ended up coming up with a number of great poems. If we’re talking about reasonable applications of what we’re talking about here for people to find their creative roots, why would you go for these more extraordinary examples?

Lehrer: Why I chose that in particular?

Correspondent: Yeah. I’m just curious. Why did you include a Benzedrine addict? Genius as he may very well have been.

Lehrer: Sure. To be honest, the reason I chose Auden is because I’ve long been an Auden fan. I’ve always been fascinated by why you look at his most anthologized poems — and my favorite Auden poetry is actually his late poetry. So absolutely after he weaned himself off Benzedrine, and that was a brutal process, but I actually like “In Praise of Limestone” — his later poetry — which is a little messier, a little more chaotic, a little more personal. But if you look at his most anthologized poems, they really come from this three year window when he was really on Benzedrine, “September 1,” “In Memory of Yeats,” etcetera etcetera. And I was interested in why that is. What allowed him to, in this narrow window, produce poems that were spare and precise and transparent and really, really popular and have resonated with people for decades. And so that’s why I chose Auden. Both because I liked the man and I have this lingering interest in this particular phase of his career. So that’s why I chose him. I wasn’t trying to pick an extreme example. You know, for me, it was the storytelling challenge in this chapter was — in the end, the point I’m trying to give readers is incredibly banal. And I’m sure that — I think most readers will realize that, in the end, the point of that chapter is “Sometimes you have to work really hard.” Not the most exciting idea. And so for me, the reason I chose Auden is cause drugs, Benzedrine, and that struck me as a slightly more interesting way to, in the end, make this point that creativity is also about hard work. And Milton Glaser’s motto says it best. “Art is work.”

Correspondent: But wait a minute. If the underlying point of the chapter is banal, then why stretch out a chapter? I’m not saying that…

Lehrer: Well, because that’s an important part of the creative process. I wish I could write a book in which the whole point was “Take showers when you’re stuck.” Get relaxed. Which is part of the process too. I think there’s good evidence for that. But when you talk with creative people, and I’m trying to tell the story of creativity as I see it from talking to people in the business and from the perspectives of scientists who study it. A big part of creative success is showing up, is putting in the work, is going after the drafts. That’s not the sexy stuff. But that needs to be in there too.

Correspondent: But isn’t it your job to sex it up, Jonah? I mean, you’re a guy — we were cracking up about aerosol cheese spray, right?

Lehrer: Oh, I do my best to sex it up. Which is why I begin the chapter by talking about Benzedrine. That was my attempt to sex up a very banal chapter. Hopefully the chapter itself isn’t banal. The idea in it is — you know, if you’ve ever done anything worthwhile in your life, you know it takes work, right? So my challenge as a storyteller in that chapter was, gosh, I’ve got to put this in here. Because that’s a huge part of the creative process. There’s no getting around it. But how can I make it interesting? I can’t just talk about hard work. That’s a chapter I wouldn’t want to write and people wouldn’t want to read. So the way I begin it is by talking about this poet who is an incredibly talented poet. I’m not saying that if we all take Benzedrine, we’ll pump out “September 1st, 1939.” Having dabbled in amphetamines myself, all I got out of it was several nights of insomnia. But I think it does, within the context of Auden, help show how this drug modulated his poetry a little bit.

* — In The Millions‘s comments, Lehrer responded to a lengthy criticism of Imagine offered by Requarth and Crist (namely, Lehrer criticizing the limitations of fMRI in a Wall Street Journal column, while simultaneously relying on similar data elsewhere):

I honestly can’t cite a popular brain book that either 1) doesn’t cite fMRI localization studies at face value at some point or 2) engage in speculative links between neural mechanisms and complex mental phenomena. For instance, I’m currently in the midst of Eric Kandel’s wonderful new book, which has many chapters on fMRI data combined with musings on aesthetics and beauty. Is this inappropriate?

Fortunately, Our Correspondent also happened to read Kandel’s book. In chapter 30, Kandel does cite fMRIs too. But he doesn’t just cite fMRIs. He is careful to write this in Chapter 30:

The two techniques for measuring brain activity complement each other perfectly: EEGs, which are superior for pinpointing when an event occurred but poor at identifying where it occurred, have good temporal resolution but poor spatial resolution, whereas functional MRIs have the inverse and weaknesses.”

In fairness, Lehrer, at the beginning of Imagine, writes:

By combining both techniques — fMRI and EEG — in the same study, Beeman and Kounios were able to deconstruct the epiphany.”

But inexplicably (and this is also the point of contention with Requarth and Crist), he merely applies the fMRI results in relation to jazz improvisation. Kandel did not make this slip at all in The Age of Insight. The issue here is whether Lehrer, who was good enough to talk out this problem at length during this program, is omitting essential data in an effort to appeal to a popular audience. This conversation begins at the 43:44 mark in the program.

Categories: Ideas

James Gleick (BSS #397)

James Gleick is most recently the author of The Information.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Giving little bits of your entropy.

Author: James Gleick

Subjects Discussed: Claude Shannon, the origin of the byte, Charles Babbage and relay switches, measuring information beyond the telegraph, bit storage capacity, being right about data measurement, “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” information overload, TS Eliot’s The Rock, email warnings in 1982, information compression, George Boole’s symbolic logic, information overload, Ada Lovelace and Babbage, James Waldegrave’s November 13, 1713 letter providing the first minimax solution to the two person game Le Her, game theory, Lovelace’s mathematical aptitude, the difficulties of being too scientifically ambitious, connecting pegs to abstraction, Norbert Wiener and cybernetics, Wiener’s contribution to information theory, Wiener vs. Shannon, mathematical formulas to solve games, Ada Lovelace’s clandestine contributions, Luigi Menabrea, a view of machines beyond number crunching, entropy, the Second Law of Thermodynamics, James Clerk Maxwell’s view of disorder as entropy’s essential quality, dissipated energy within information, Kolmogorov’s algorithms and complexity, links between material information and perceived information, molecular disorder, connections between disorganization and physics in the 19th century, extraneous information, Thomas Kuhn’s paradigm shifts, Richard Dawkins’s defense of dyslexia as a selfish genetic quality, new science replacing the old in information theory, the English language’s redundant characters, codebreaking, Shannon’s scientific measurements of linguistic redundancy, the likelihood of words and letters appearing after previous words and letters, Bertrand Russell’s liar’s paradox and Kurt Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, Gregory Chaitin and algorithmic information theory, Alan Turing, uniting Pierre-Simon Laplace and Wikipedia, extreme Newtonianism, and the ideal of perfect knowledge.


Correspondent: I wanted to first of all start with the hero of your book, Claude Shannon, who of course is the inventor of the byte. He built on the work of Charles Babbage. Shannon conducted early experiments in relay switches, creating the Differential Analyzer. He made very unusual connections between electricity and light. He observed that when a relay is open, it may cause the next circuit to become open. The same thing holds, of course, when the relays are closed. Years later, Shannon, as you describe, is able to demonstrate that anything that is nonrandom in a message will allow for compression. I’m curious how Shannon persuaded himself to measure information on the telegraph. In 1949, as you produce in the book, there’s this really fantastic paper where he draws a line and he starts estimating bit storage capacity. As you point out later in the book, he’s actually close with the measurement of the Library of Congress. How can he, or anybody, know that he’s right about data measurement when of course it’s all speculative?

Gleick: Wow. That was a very fast and compressed summary of many of the ideas of Claude Shannon leading into Claude Shannon. Well, as you’re saying, he is the central figure of my book. I’m not sure I would use the word “hero.” But he’s certainly my starting point. My book starts, in a way, in the middle of a long story. And that moment is 1948, when Claude Shannon publishes his world-changing paper, “A Mathematical Theory of Communication.” Which then becomes a book, The Mathematical Theory of Communication. And for the first time, he uses the word “bit” as a unit of measure for this stuff. This somewhat mysterious thing that he’s proposing to speak about scientifically for the first time. He would go around saying to people, “When I talk about information as an engineer and a mathematician, I’m using the word in a scientific way. It’s an old word. And I might not mean what you think I mean.” And that’s true. Cause before scientists took over the word, information was just gossip or news or instructions. Nothing especially interesting. And certainly nothing all-encompassing. I guess the point of my book, to the extent that I have a point, is that information is now all-encompassing. It’s the fuel that powers the world we live in. And that begins, in a way, with Claude Shannon. Although, as I say, that’s the middle of the story.

Correspondent: Got it. Well, as you point out also, information overload or information anxiety — this has been a truism as long as we’ve had information. You bring up both TS Eliot’s The Rock — “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? / Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” — and, of course, a prescient 1982 Computerworld article warning that email will cause severe information overload problems. To what degree did Shannon’s data measurement account for the possibility of overload? I didn’t quite get that in your book and I was very curious. There is no end to that line on the paper.

Gleick: No. Shannon didn’t really predict the world that we live in now. And it wasn’t just that he was measuring data. It’s that he was creating an entire mathematical framework for solving a whole lot of problems having to do with the transmission of information and the storage of information and the compression of information, as you mentioned. He was, after all, working for the telephone company. He was working for Bell Labs, which had a lot of money at stake in solving problems of efficiently sending information over analog copper telephone wires. But Shannon, in creating his mathematical framework, did it simultaneously for the analog problem and the digital problem. Because he was looking ahead — as you also mentioned in your very compressed run-up. He thought very early about relays and electrical circuits. And a relay is a binary thing. It’s either open or closed. And he realized that open or closed was not just the same as on or off, but yes or no or true or false. You could apply electrical circuits to logic and particularly to the symbolic logic invented by George Boole in the 19th century. So Shannon created his mathematical theory of communication, which was both analog and digital. And where it was digital, it had — we can see now with the advantage of hindsight — perfect suitability to the world of computers that was then in the process of being born.

Correspondent: It’s fascinating to me though that he could see the possibilities of endless relay loops but not consider that perhaps there is a threshold as to the load of information that one can handle. There was nothing that he did? To say, “Well, wait a minute. Maybe there’s a limit to all this.”

Gleick: I’m not sure that was really his department.

Correspondent: Okay.

Gleick: I don’t think you can particularly fault him for that or give him credit one way or the other.

Correspondent: It just didn’t occur to him?

Gleick: No, it’s not that it didn’t occur to him. It’s that — well, I would say, and I do say in the book, that this issue — I’m hesitating to call it “problem” of information overload, of information glut — is not as new a thing as we like to think. Of course, the words are new. Information glut, information overload, information fatigue.

Correspondent: Information anxiety.

Gleick: Information anxiety. That’s right. These are all expressions of our time.

Correspondent: There’s also information sickness as well. That’s a good one.

Gleick: One of the little fun side paths that I took in the book was to look back through history at previous complaints about what we now call information overload. And they go back as far as you’re willing to look. As soon as the printing press started flooding Europe with printed books, there were lots of people who were complaining. This was going to be the end of human knowledge as we knew it. Leibniz was one. Jonathan Swift was another. Alexander Pope. They all complained about — well, in Leibniz’s words, “the horrible mass of books.” He thought it threatened a return to barbarity. Why? Because it was now no longer possible for any person, no matter how well educated, no matter how philosophical, to keep up with all human knowledge. There were just too many books. There were a thousand. Or ten thousand. In the entire world. Well, now, there are ten thousand books printed every hour in the world. Individual titles. So yes, we were worried about information overload. And yes, you can say that Claude Shannon, in solving these problems, greased the skids. But I don’t know whether it’s true or not that he didn’t foresee the issue. It just was an issue that wasn’t in his bailiwick.

Correspondent: Got it.

Categories: Ideas

Kathryn Schulz (BSS #339)

Kathryn Schulz is most recently the author of Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Feeling wrong about whether or not he’s right.

Author: Kathryn Schulz

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Correspondent: I wanted to first of all start off with Thomas Kuhn, who you bring up a few times. You note his observation that the breakdown of one belief system and the dawning of another is always characterized by an explosion of competing hypotheses. But he also argued that it was impossible to conduct science in the absence of a preexisting theory. This brings to mind the F. Scott Fitzgerald maxim that the sign of a first-rate intellectual is to be able to hold two opposing notions in the brain at the same time. How can the two opposing viewpoints viewpoint be reconciled with the Kuhnian viewpoint? Do you have any thoughts on this? Or is it really a matter of cognitive dissonance taking care of this problem?

Schulz: I don’t know that those two things are at odds with each other. I suspect that Thomas Kuhn would have been very much in favor of Fitzgerald’s notion that really sophisticated thinking involves the capacity to hold a belief while also being willing to entertain its antithesis, or entertaining evidence that potentially undermines it. And, of course, that’s what practicing scientists — at least in theory — do all the time. Now in practice, is everyone always out there in their labs questioning their own theories? Probably not. But it is part of the ethos in science in general. And there’s a political scientist I quite like named Philip Tetlock, who I cite in the book, who describes this kind of thinking as self-subversive thinking. Which is a phrase I really love. It’s this notion that you can believe something and simultaneously have this undercurrent in your brain that’s saying “Well, what if it’s not true in this situation?” or “What if this part of it’s right or that part of it’s wrong?” or “What if the whole thing falls apart?” And to me, that is the sign. Fitzgerald got it right. That is the sign of sophisticated thinking. And unless I’m missing something, I think Kuhn would have supported that.

Correspondent: Yeah. Well, he believed in this kind of halfway house. Of having competing hypotheses. Or even just having some middle ground. Some transitional middle ground. That’s why I ask the question of whether that middle ground is really reflective of the same Fitzgeraldian viewpoint.

Schulz: Right. I think one distinction is whether you’re talking about an individual person or a system. And I think what Kuhn was getting at was that when you have a scientific paradigm collapse. Like let’s say that we think that the sun revolves around the earth. And suddenly there’s a lot of challenges to that. And we start seeing some counter-evidence. Then there’s this exciting, but also panicky air where everybody is generating new theories to account for this evidence that doesn’t seem to make sense under the old theory. And so you have a whole system that’s in crisis and is generating new theories. And then you’re exactly right. You shift the pedals down. And you arrive at one that new established theory. And I do think that that’s how systems work. Whether it’s science or, for that matter, book publishing. Book publishing is in the middle of a Kuhnian paradigm crisis right now. Where we have an old model. we don’t know what the new model is. And in the meantime, there’s a million competing hypotheses. But within any given individual, I still think that you can hold a belief. And if you are a sophisticated thinker, undermine it, question it, and challenge it in all these ways.

Correspondent: I want to shift tacks and bring up the case of Penny Beerntsen, who you bring up in the book. She was absolutely insistent that Steven Avery had raped and assaulted her. DNA testing demonstrated that Avery was innocent. Then Avery got out of jail and proceeded to murder Teresa Halbach in 2005, the first and only time in the history of the Innocence Project that an exoneree has gone on to commit a violent crime. Penny though, which is a very interesting case — despite the assault, the misidentification, the murder trifecta – she was able to accept the objective evidence of Avery being innocent in relation to her, but guilty in relation to this other woman. What do you think factors into account for that fixed belief? Of being able to look upon the scenario with some objective quality? Is it a matter of having gone through the act of denial? Do you have any particular speculation? Or does it go back to this Kuhnian idea? That once she had gone through the bridge, she was able to reconcile the truth, so to speak. She was not wrong.

Schulz: Well, a couple of things. I mean, first, I will say that having spent quite a lot of time with Penny Beerntsen to get this story out of her and hear all the details, she impressed me as someone who is exceptionally, exceptionally thoughtful about wrongness. And in that respect, could be, probably should be a role model for all of us. And then I think the underlying question is, the one that I assume you’re getting at, is that, well, why? What is it that makes her so able to be responsive in the face of shifting evidence? Because it’s very, very hard to do. Especially in a situation where the stakes are so high, so emotional, so personal. And I asked her that question straight up. You know, how is that when so many people around you were unable to face this evidence — and for that matter, when so many people are unable to face very trivial instances in coping with wrongness — what do you think it is about you that made you able to do this? And it was obviously something she’d thought about a lot, and didn’t have a completely clear answer. In part because personalities are so complicated. And at the bottom of what’s going on, it has something to do with her personality. But one thing she said that was very interesting was that she had spent many years between her assault and Steven Avery’s exoneration working in the prison system. She essentially decided to take the horrible experience that had happened to her and tried to heal herself and other people by working with violent criminals and try and help them understand the impact of their crimes on their victims and on their communities, and really work within a rehabilitation law of criminal justice. So she spent years and years and years talking to people about facing up to being wrong. And I think that she ultimately felt like her turn came. And she could not fail to practice what she had preached.

Categories: Ideas

Neil deGrasse Tyson (BSS #265)

Neil deGrasse Tyson is most recently the author of The Pluto Files.



Condition of Mr. Segundo: Reconfiguring his planetary paradigm, with the aid of minatory electrodes.

Author: Neil deGrasse Tyson

Subjects Discussed: The Great Planet Debate, sensible classification systems, “reorganizing” the solar system, why the International Astronomical Union wasn’t approached before the Rose Center display was established, the usefulness of the word “planet,” playing 20 Questions to gain insight into what Tyson talks about, Copernicus, acceptable groupings, quibbles with the New Horizons reconnaissance mission to “complete” the exploration of the solar system, government and space exploration, Sedna vs. Pluto, efforts to explicate Sedna’s orbit, the ethical implications of scientists who write popular books, scientists and get rich quick schemes, pedagogical paradigms, manned missions to Mars, the celebrity culture of astronauts, manned space program vs. robotic expeditions, how science can endure in the face of looming budgetary cuts, the financial return of science, communications with the Obama Administration, and the possibility of the asteroid Apophis colliding against the Earth in 2036.


Tyson: We just reorganized the solar system, combining objects of like properties together. And at the time, more frozen bodies — small with tipped orbits, crossing the orbits of other planets — were found in the outer solar system that looked more like Pluto. And Pluto looked more like them than any one of them looked like anything else in the solar system. So all we did was group Pluto with its brethren in the outer solar system. Then we grouped the gas giants together as a family. Then we grouped the terrestrials — Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars — together. So the family photo of the solar system was presented in these groupings. At no time did we recount the planets in the solar system. And, in fact, the word “planet” is undervalued in the exhibits entirely. We prefer to focus on physical properties of these objects, rather than try and salvage a word that hasn’t been formally defined since before Copernicus.

Correspondent: Well, to talk about the notion of introducing this exhibit and not tipping anybody off initially, until this New York Times reporter ran with the ball and created something of a media storm, you…

Tyson: Something of a media storm?

Correspondent: Something of a media storm.

Tyson: Just say “media storm.”

Correspondent: Well, I’d like to use reverse hyperbole here. But in the case of this considerable media storm, you didn’t tip anybody off. And I’m curious. I mean, the sentiment in this book that you express multiple times is “Science is not a democracy.” And I’m wondering though why you didn’t approach the IAU to essentially get them to get with the program. That Pluto is not a planet. That it is essentially a TNO, and…

Tyson: Trans-Neptunian Object.

Correspondent: Yes, exactly. Exactly. I’m wondering why. Perhaps you could have smoothed things over a little bit with the IAU before introducing this. Does the IAU really not matter in this particular group?

Tyson: IAU cares about what a planet is. And we didn’t. It’s that simple. We didn’t present a case for planethood or not. All we did was say, “Here’s an interesting way to look at the solar system.” Put Pluto with the icy bodies and present it as such. We didn’t say Pluto was not a planet. We made no such claims. We were widely stereotyped for having done so. And that’s the simplest — if you don’t have the time to read what we did, then that’s the simplest thing that people did. Many interviewers — media — would come up to me and say, “So how many planets are there in your exhibits?” And I said, “We don’t count planets.” We just simply don’t count planets. So I had no interest in lobbying the International Astronomical Union. Because they’re concerned with the definition of planet. And when they do, fine. Define it however they want. It doesn’t change sensible ways to organize the information content of the solar system.

Correspondent: But in the minds of people. You had to be aware of the public perception. I mean, in this book, you point, of course, to the Caltech parade in Pasadena, the funerals for Pluto, the endless editorial cartoons and the like. In fact, I actually saw a Discover magazine headline that said, “Beyond the nine planets.” That was a week ago. So people are still struggling with this taxonomy, even though it’s clearly not a planet. I mean, you had to have been aware of this in some sense. What kind of adjustment period do we need? What kind of outreach do we need? Even to the IAU members. The 10% who voted against the idea, who voted for Pluto being a planet.

Tyson: Obtaining its planet status.

Correspondent: Yes, exactly.

Tyson: A mere 10%, I might add.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Tyson: Well, let me make it clear. There are people who have a lot invested in the word “planet.” Odd. Because like I said, “planet” had no formal definition. Not since ancient Greece. Planet means — it comes from the Greek “planetas,” meaning “wanderer.” And it referred to the objects in the night sky, from night to night, would wander against the background stars. There were seven of them — Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, the sun, and the moon. Did I get the seven there? Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, the sun, and the moon. Seven. That’s an unambiguous definition. No argument there. Seven planets. Copernicus says, “Wait a minute. The Sun is in the middle. Earth is one of these objects that goes around the sun. The moon goes around the earth.” So Earth became a planet. The sun became not a planet. The moon became not a planet. And so, okay. But even at Copernicus’s time, the word “planet” did not get a formal definition. It was only, “It just seems right. Let’s just keep it.” It was not formally defined until the IAU in August 2006. I’m fine with their definition! Because it doesn’t matter to me. The word is not useful.

Categories: Ideas

Daniel Levitin (BSS #235)

Daniel Levitin is most recently the author of The World in Six Songs.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Recalling a traumatic musical episode from his marriage.

Author: Daniel Levitin

Subjects Discussed: Songs that straddle multiple categories within Levitin’s taxonomy, neurological response vs. societal perception of a song, the original eight categories, oxytocin, “I Walk the Line,” Nine Inch Nails, hypothetical subspecies of comfort songs, angst and emo, Janis Ian, social comparison theory, joy songs and advertising jingles, chemical levels rising in relation to specific musical genres, serotonin levels and music, cortisol, responding to Steven Pinker’s “auditory cheesecake” controversy, Steven Mithen’s The Singing Neanderthals, the evolution of language and music, David Huron’s “honest signal” hypothesis, attempts to predict hit music, advertising and music, insincere pop music, smart audiences, the pernicious use of music, the use of Van Halen’s “Panama” to get Manuel Noriega out of his bunker, music used to torture people in Abu Ghraib, and using music in ways that it wasn’t originally intended.


Correspondent: We have six categories. Can you name a single song that can be applied for all six categories? Have you considered examples along these lines?

Levitin: I’m sure if you gave me enough time, I could.

Correspondent: You have thirty seconds. (laughs)

Levitin: (laughs) Well, I’m going to go with “I Walk the Line.” Because I think it’s a very rich song. In the book, I make the case that it crosses two categories.

Correspondent: It really walks the line here.

Levitin: Right. At the surface level, I believe that it looks like a love song. A guy singing to the woman he loves, “Because you’re mine.” There’s a “you” in it. “Because you’re mine / I walk the line.” I’m not cheating on you. But the point I make in the book is that really I think at a deeper level, he’s not really singing it to her. He’s singing it to himself. It’s like a musical string around his finger reminding me of all he has at stake here. “I find it very, very easy to be true / I’m alone when each day is through.” I don’t think so. I don’t think you’ve been alone every night. And I don’t think that you find it that easy to be true. I mean, I think it’s a struggle. And he’s reminding himself of all that he has at stake. That’s a knowledge song. Self-knowledge.

Now at the same time, I think that you can argue that there’s an element of comfort here. People who have been in a similar situation take comfort in hearing it expressed this way. I listen to music often because the songwriter helps me to understand feelings that I haven’t been able to articulate. The right song comes on. Aha! That’s how I feel. And I find that comforting.

Correspondent: I’m wondering also if identifying song by the six categories is a matter of identifying perhaps a dominant and a recessive category for each particular song. Perhaps a stronger song is more likely to have at least two categories attached to it. Or maybe some songs are utterly simple and just intended to serve one purpose. I mean, it all depends on any number of factors. Maybe you can talk about this a little bit.

Levitin: Well, I think the other aspect of it is that it’s not that the songs themselves fit into six categories. It’s that these are the six ways that people use music. The six ways that people have had music in their lives. The six ways that they use to communicate with one other.

Correspondent: I wanted to ask you about comfort songs. You cite specific personal examples. But I wanted to give you a personal example that I had as a teenager. I had a tendency to blast Nine Inch Nails quite loud. It was a comfort song to me largely because I would listen to this man who was utterly depressed. And I’d say to myself in a sad state, “Oh, you know, there is someone who is worse off than me.” And it was a way for me to corral my emotions with reason. However, the examples that you use in the comfort chapter tend to be people who are looking just for emotional comfort, but not this association between reason and emotion. And I was wondering if it’s very possible that we could be talking about two subspecies of comfort songs.

Levitin: What do you mean? The connection between reason and emotion?

Correspondent: Well, by listening to Trent Reznor, I would be able to immediately understand that my own particular emotions were somewhat folly in some sense. And the rational part of my teenage brain would kick in. And I’d say, “I’m beating myself up here for no reason.”

Levitin: Kind of like listening to Morrissey.

Correspondent: Yeah, exactly!

Levitin: “I want to kill myself.”

Correspondent: Any of the emo.

Levitin: “Everything’s bad tonight.” (laughs)

Correspondent: Yeah, exactly. I mean, should we draw two types of distinctions in comfort songs along these lines? I mean, we have to factor in emo. We just do.

Categories: Ideas

Courtney Humphries (BSS #234)

Courtney Humphries is the author of Superdove


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Severely underestimating the carnivorous impulses of pigeons.

Author: Courtney Humphries

Subjects Discussed: Eating squab, pigeon dining options in restaurants, Robert Dunn’s pigeon paradox, urban forms of nature, pigeons as an ineluctable aspect of the city, people’s attitudes towards wildlife, the pigeon’s place in the food chain, pigeons as the garbage disposal of Mother Nature, feral pigeons, interbreeding, when baby pigeons fend for themselves, distinguishing pigeon types, corpulent vs. svelte pigeons, individual variation, Daniel Haag-Wackernagel’s efforts to reduce the pigeon population in Basel, Switzerland, synanthropy vs. symbiotic relationships, the human failure to consider other species within our current habitats, being a social synanthropic animal, cooing sounds, birds imitating urban sounds, the difficulties of raising funds to study pigeons, Richard Johnston’s Feral Pigeons, artificial selection, General Mills’s funding of B.F. Skinner’s Project Pigeon, the folly of the pigeon-guided missile, overstating the cognitive potential of pigeons, Robert Cook’s experiments at Tufts, and Charles Walcott and pigeon homing.


Correspondent: You’ve actually dined on squab. You allude to the fact that it’s delicious, that it’s dark meat. But as a carnivore and somewhat of a curio, I had to ask whether it tasted like chicken or like duck or like turkey. I mean, you didn’t go into specifics here. And I’m wondering if the experience was possibly unsettling or you couldn’t convince yourself completely that it was delicious. Because you also sympathized with these birds. But what of this?

Humphries: Yeah, I was a little bit nervous about eating them. At the time, I had been looking at pigeons for a long time and was working on this book. And so I was very interested in them. So I was a little worried about eating a pigeon, how I’d feel about it. But it was really good. Because it’s dark meat. They’re small birds. So you’re not getting huge pieces of meat. But it’s kind of a dense meat. It’s not fatty like duck is. But it’s good. And I had it again recently in Chinatown — in Boston, where I live — and it was crispy fried squab, where they didn’t deep-fry the whole bird. And they serve it to you cut in pieces including the head. So that was a little more.

Correspondent: With the head included, yeah.

Humphries: That was a little unnerving to me to have the head just lying there.

Correspondent: But you ate it anyway.

Humphries: I did. But I have to admit that I didn’t feel as great about it as the first time I had it, which was a very nice upscale restaurant. They just served some pieces of the squab sitting on some rice.

Correspondent: So that’s twice you’ve had pigeon?

Humphries: Yes.

Correspondent: Have you had it any other time?

Humphries: No, well, for one thing, it’s very expensive when you go to the nice restaurants. It can cost you a lot. You know, I wouldn’t mind trying more different varieties. I do feel that if I was eating pigeon all the time and talking about how great they are, maybe I wouldn’t. I’d feel strange.

Correspondent: You’d be branded in some sense.

Categories: Ideas

Faye Flam (BSS #223)

Faye Flam is most recently the author of The Score.


Condition of the Show: Attempting to contend with gender generalizations.

Author: Faye Flam

Subjects Discussed: Boot Seduction Camp as the prism with which to approach evolutionary science, the Mystery Method, crude philosophical rules vs. scientific rules, the SRY gene, masculinity’s backup gene, genetics and the delineation between gender, Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex, bonobos and bisexuality, biological pair bonding, Alan Alda and testosterone poisoning, the decline of macho actors, oxytocin, Andrew Sullivan’s testosterone injections, certain oversights Ms. Flam made from John Tierney’s article on the correlation between shorter men and money, Alfred Kinsey and the human heterodoxy, Joan Roughgarden’s Evolution’s Rainbow, Dr. Peter Hurd’s studyon finger length and aggression, the differences between humans and sparrows, Rachmaninov’s hands, evolutionary science and other species, homosexuality and “sexually antagonistic selection,” risk-taking behavior and attractiveness, biological clocks, young men and very older women, and whether scientists or cultural pundits set the terms for human behavior.


Correspondent: But not every man, Faye, is going to sit down and slap thousands of dollars wanting to get laid like this.

Flam: (laughs) No.

Correspondent: I mean, this isn’t the archetypal man. It’s almost as if this is an extraordinary, almost cartoonish construct on which you respond with science and examples with other species and the like. So I’m wondering why this was the one. Why you couldn’t just have some schlumpy guy in a bar who isn’t paying thousands of dollars?

Flam: I guess so. Well, these classes are pretty popular. There are a lot of guys who are into this. And The Game was a bestselling book. So it was a pretty big phenomenon. And it was a little extraordinary, which is what made it interesting. I wanted to start with something that was human and yet not totally mundane. And it caught my interest. It did sort of reflect this idea of the male sex working at just getting sex. Women will put a lot of effort into their hair and makeup, but not really to get sex. I mean, You can walk into a bar without makeup and still get some guy to go home with you.

Correspondent: Depends upon what types of bars you frequent.

Categories: Ideas, People

Michio Kaku (BSS #197)

Michio Kaku is most recently the author of Physics of the Impossible.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Dreaming the impossible dream.

Author: Michio Kaku

Subjects Discussed: Maximum caps on bandying about theory in physics, relativity and string theory, the Theory of Everything, decoherence and the wave function of the universe, the Large Hadron Collider, detecting sparticles, how journalists are duped by perpetual motion machines, the Alcubierre warp drive, Edward Teller, the hydrogen bomb, military funding for research, invisibility, being asked to prognosticate on when new technologies are available, the slingshot effect, ray guns, phasers, WR104 and the Death Star, neural networks, the Blue Brain Project, Moore’s Law, the deficiencies of quantum computing, functional MRIs, telepathy, and lie detectors.


Correspondent: But I’m wondering though where does science fiction play into this? If some people are losing their shirts and some people are actually profiting from knowledge — like the Alcubierre drive, for example — then is science fiction good, bad, or is it one of those neutral constructs in our world in which people can be exploited or actually be inspired by?

Kaku: Well, science fiction, I think, plays several roles. First of all, it inspires scientists. Jules Verne’s work inspired Edwin Hubble to become an astronomer — the greatest astronomer of the 20th century — rather than a lawyer. He was in law school when he switched and decided to become an astronomer, because he remembered the thrill as a child of reading Jules Verne. Also, Carl Sagan read Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter of Mars series and dreamed about roaming on the surface of Mars. That’s why Carl Sagan became an astronomer. And second of all, there’s a lot of cross-pollination between the two. Many people think that antimatter was invented by Gene Roddenberry of Star Trek fame. Wrong. Antimatter comes from physics. 1928. The work of Paul Dirac. He predicted the existence of antimatter. Second of all, when you look at warp drive, warp drive had its origins in the work of Albert Einstein. So Gene Roddenberry copied Einstein. But then Alcubierre was watching Star Trek one day and said, “Let’s take this seriously. A warp drive just like the Enterprise.” He put that into Einstein’s equations and out popped out the Alcubierre drive. So here was a question of physics fertilizing Roddenberry, fertilizing physics.

Correspondent: But most people opt to believe in the Roddenberry over the Alcubierre. That’s the question, you know?

Kaku: Yeah. But when we physicists though — we’re the ones who build these things. When we have to look at these equations, we realize that Roddenberry was a fiction writer. Also, I mention in the book that H.G. Wells predicted the atomic bomb. He predicted the year that a scientist would discover the secret of the atomic bomb. Leó Szilárd read that book. I repeat, the man who discovered the chain reaction read H.G. Wells’s book, saw himself as the man who discovered the secret of the atomic bomb, and got the secret just within a year or so of the prediction. And that led to the atomic bomb. So in some sense, the atomic bomb was in some sense inspired by H.G. Wells.

Correspondent: You’re rather giddy talking about the atomic bomb. I’m a little worried here.

Kaku: When I was a kid, my mentor was Edward Teller. He’s the father of the hydrogen bomb. And he even offered me a job building hydrogen bombs.

Correspondent: And you declined that job.

Kaku: I declined that job.

Correspondent: Why did you do that?

Kaku: I’d rather work on something even bigger.

Categories: Ideas

Andrea Barrett (BSS #156)

Andrea Barret is most recently the author of The Air We Breathe.



Condition of Mr. Segundo: Praising the smell of authors.

Author: Andrea Barrett

Subjects Discussed: The similarities between pre-World War I and contemporary environments, stumbling upon 1916, sanatoriums, The Magic Mountain, ethnic backgrounds, dwelling upon immigrants and working class backgrounds, blowhard intellectuals, cure cottages, the American Protective League, writing in first person plural, working from two green volumes of chemistry, amateurs in science, X-rays and radiation, the dark underbelly of science, research and ensuring verisimilitude, period clothing, symbols of an ethereal environment, unintentional imagery, stylizing a love quartet, characters who maintain a love of science, character names, Eudora Welty, on being a chaotic writer, the 1916 silent film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, on being labeled a “historical fiction” writer, writing in the past vs. writing in the present, inventing details vs. being inspired by real-life details, the importance of architecture, entertainment vs. atmospheric narrative emphasis, movie rights and film adaptation, how Barrett’s names turn into characters, and the access to inner lives within novels.


Barrett: That time — just the time of the First World War, before the war — was really the last time as a culture when we could imagine science as wholly benign, as something that was only going to help people, as something that was only full of intellectual excitement. It is the First World War, really, that gives us the dark underbelly of science. It’s when X-rays are discovered and then they’re found to be damaging. It’s when the chemical and dye industry is bringing all these wonderful things to light and at the same time they’re making poison gas. It’s when cars are invented and then they turn into tanks. It’s when airplanes are invented and they drop bombs. Everything gets turned so quickly in the First World War into darkness.

Categories: Fiction