May 19th, 2015 · 40 comments
The Inspiring Story: A Brilliant Mind “Thinks Different”
In a pivotal scene in the Stephen Hawking biopic, The Theory of Everything, the physicist is staring into the embers of a dying fire when he has an epiphany: black holes emit heat!
The next scene shows Hawking triumphantly announcing his result to a stunned audience — and just like that, his insight vaults him into the ranks of scientific stardom.
This story is inspirational. But as the physicist Leonard Mlodinow points out in a recent New York Times op-ed, it’s not at all how Hawking’s breakthrough actually happened…
The Stubborn Reality: A Highly-Trained Mathematician Works Hard
In reality, Hawking had encountered a theory by two Russian physicists that argued rotating black holes should emit energy until they slowed to a stationary configuration.
Hawking, who at the time was a promising young scientist who had not yet made his mark, was intrigued, but also skeptical.
So he decided to look deeper .
In the (many) months that followed, Hawking trained his preternatural analytical skill to investigate the validity of the Russians’ claims. This task required any number of minor breakthroughs, all orbiting the need to somehow reconcile (in a targeted way) both quantum theory and relativity.
This was really hard work.
The number of physicists at the time with enough specialized training and grit to follow through this investigation probably wouldn’t have filled a moderate size classroom.
But Hawking persisted.
And to his eventual “surprise and annoyance,” his mathematics confirmed an even more shocking conclusion: even stationary black holes can emit heat.
There was no fireside eureka moment, but instead a growing awareness that gained traction as the mathematics were refined and checked again and again.
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May 4th, 2015 · 39 comments
The Annoyed Rhodes Scholar
To research my first book, I interviewed several Rhodes Scholars. During this process, I noticed they tended to be touchy about their press coverage.
When you win a Rhodes, not surprisingly, reporters will seek you out and write articles about you. Most of these articles follow the same shock and awe template of listing the student’s accomplishments, one after another, in an attempt to overwhelm the reader.
It was this article format that annoyed winners.
To understand why, you must first understand that most Rhodes Scholars follow a similar path: they invest a large amount of energy in doing a small number of things (usually two) extremely well (for someone their age).
Over time, as they get better and better at their core points of focus, related opportunities and accomplishments start to come along for free (see my third book for more on this phenomenon, sometimes called The Matthew Effect). It’s these freebies that ultimately extend their CV’s to a head-spinning length.
Consider, for example, the following lines from a profile of 2015 Rhodes Scholar Noam Angrist:
While at M.I.T., he did economic research for the World Bank, The White House, and on the Affordable Care Act…As a Fulbright Scholar in Botswana, Noam founded an NGO for HIV education designed to discourage intergenerational sex (“sugar daddy awareness”). Its success led him to raise the money to extend the program to 340 schools, and he now plans to launch it in four other southern African countries.
This list can appear inexplicable at first read, but a closer examination makes it clear that all of these accomplishments flow from a single deep focus: mastering the intersection between economics and program evaluation (a field being innovated at MIT, where Noam is a student).
The internships at the World Bank and White House, as well as the Fulbright Scholarship (which led to the HIV prevention program) are all side effects of Noam proving unambiguously that he was really good at this one type of academic research.
The reason Rhode Scholars get upset by volume-centric, over-hyped, shock and awe press coverage is that it obscures what they’re really proud about: doing professional quality work in a field that they respect and want respect from.
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