Mike Beversluis

Friday, May 08, 2009

Them's the breaks

Metacool: 13: Do everything right, and you'll still fail.

Working in optics offered a good perspective on the differences between physics and engineering, since it contains both. On one hand you have people working on very basic problems, like trying to develop quantum computers using quantum optics, and they'll be thrilled if they can get their very jury-rigged experiment to work 1% of the time (if that...). If you can do that, that's easily a couple of papers (depending on how you dribble the results out...) and you'll have a shot at getting grant money, etc. On the other hand, you have people in lens design and optical fabrication, and the challenge there is the business world six nines deal, where you are trying to take something that works 99.9% to 99.999% of the time, or some such improvement. Basically these tasks lie on opposite ends of the "S-curve", and so the mentalities of the two groups are different.

If you take a group of bright people, you'll find they sort themselves into the two camps. The physicists are more arrogant and less concerned with precision, e.g., throw in a factor of pi, get an order-of-magnitude agreement, and if you can do that over a wide range of scales, it shows you understand the underlying mechanism. If you discover that, the rest is scribbling and accounting. The engineers are more pedantic and worry about machine unit errors. They'll take a points off your homework because you're off in the fourth decimal place, but it's also easier to hide weak thinking in an empirical approach. Just scatter-plot everything against everything, and look for correlation without too much concern about causation, because the former is all that matters on an assembly line (sometimes).

It was odd to take classes in both, because you notice that the physicists prefer simple units (energy, time, etc), with complicated functions to fit a data set. The engineer would transform the units into something complicated, but the curves would all be lines... Not unlike where you stick the time-dependence in quantum mechanics with either the Schrodinger picture (in the state vector) or Heisenberg picture (in the operators).

What does this all have to do with the rule above?? Well, when you are trying to innovate, there is always a tension between "pure" and "applied" innovation, and having worked a lot more on the pure side, where things never work, I'm curious about the other side. I suspect that the grass is not greener, and it's just as hard to innovate there - this is the classic "knee in the curve" breakthrough in Moore's law curves, e.g., time keeping with atomic clocks. I can't find the plot right now, but historically atomic clock precision improved at some gradual logarithmic rate until the mid-1990's, when they invented broad-band laser frequency combs, which allowed them to dramatically improve and simplify the clock. Suddenly the clock's precision improved rapidly, and a new slope appeared in the curve, which is the result from the engineering refinement of the new technique.

Of course the way to win fame and awards and get things named after you is to invent the new technique, even though much, if not most, of the benefit comes from subsequent refinement and mass production, which is often just as hard, but a lot more anonymous. I guess the upside would be that engineers are less inclined to believe demonstrably wrong theories, in a Kuhnian paradigm shift sort of way, because they don't pretend to understand things deeply in the first place. The physicists are the ones who walk around with no clothes...

That bit of science/engineering sociology aside, either sort of improvement is still difficult, and coming up with a new idea is no guarantee of its success. In fact, in either camp, the coming up with the napkin sketch for the new idea is the easy part. Which also reminded me of this post by Megan McArdle on investment banker salaries, the upshot of which was:

The real problem with investment bankers goes deeper, and is the problem of the entire upper middle class: we have come to believe that complying with the rules produces excellent results as by some natural law. In school, if you do your work, teacher gives you an A. It comes to seem like a sort of a natural law: if you have a good education and work hard, the universe is supposed to reward you. After school, the upper middle class gravitates towards careers with very well defined advancement hierarchies: medicine, law, finance, consulting, where this subtle belief is constantly reinforced.

True, a lot of people fall by the wayside in the up-or-out structures of most of the top firms. But that was always true--the whole idea that you deserve to be rewarded for your hard work always involved ignoring the entirely undeserved natural endowment of intelligence and social capital that most upper-middle-class kids are given by their parents. The people who stay in the system and make it to the upper levels do not see it as mostly the product of luck; they view it as the just reward for all their hard work and sacrifices.

If you look at the tenured folks in academia, you'll see completely different politics, but the same attitude, except that instead of salary they look for reputation and prestige. Which IMHO won't make them any happier than the banker's phone number salary, but that's on them.

The point isn't just that there isn't an infallible set of rules which will ensure success - just guidelines which work out more often than the alternatives; the point is that you should look deeper to understand what you're really after in the first place. Why do you want to innovate or make a lot of money? Fame, prestige, money etc, should not be the goals of your existence, and it's ironic if you can't even appreciate them because your pursuit of them is so all-consuming. There is a lot of the Theory of Moral Sentiments at work though, because Steve Jobs may be a miserable (evidently) egotist, as are most research professors and from the looks of things, bankers, but their self-interested pursuit broadly benefits everyone around them... I just wouldn't want to be in their family.

So allow me to interject a bit of maudlin I think this is fine if you understand that it's not the end-all, be-all of your life, and in a hyper-competitive environment, stop and smell the daisies, etc. Like Churchill said, move cheerfully from one failure to the next...

Labels: ,


  • Fascinating post. As a cognitive psychologist, I have been most interested in the mathematically/musically gifted compared to the often more socially perceptive. I live in Cambridge England which probably contains the highest concentration of autistically-inclined scientifically brilliant people in the world. But I've tended to put both theoretical and applied scientists into one category on the left and empathetics in the other category on the right. Your analysis is intriguing. I'm going to think about it further.

    (Did Churchill really say that?)

    By Anonymous The Other I, at 11 May, 2009 16:39  

  • Thanks - I was paraphrasing on the quote, though

    "Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm."

    By Blogger Mike Beversluis, at 12 May, 2009 21:11  

  • Randomly, this made me think of how media has influenced peoples thoughts on "success". Recently, I read about a report done by E's company, where they were interviewing teenagers across socioeconomic status. 90% of the kids felt that they would become both rich and famous, but of that huge percentage, NONE had realistic or specific plans on how they would achieve fame and fortune. "It" would just happen for them.
    Although teenagers tend to not be the most steady group of participants, I don't think these results would have existed 25 years ago.

    By Anonymous Laura, at 13 May, 2009 13:38  

Post a Comment

<< Home