Monday, July 31, 2017

A Grand Unified Theory of Bureaucracy

Today marks my final day as the chair of my department - I am stepping down after 13 years, 7 months in office. (Longer than Franklin Roosevelt was President, if you're keeping score, but not quite as long as the reign of Queen Elizabeth).

I've learned quite a bit during this time about the way that organizations function, and I wanted to share one insight. Humans are particularly good at picking out signals from noise. Academics are even better, and academic scientists base their entire careers on this ability. But sometimes that's all there is -- just noise and nothing more.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The Physics Problem that Isaac Newton Couldn't Solve

I spent the year before graduate school doing research at the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge. While I was there, Martin Rees (later Sir Martin, and now Lord Rees) gave a talk to the new graduate students on the best way to choose a Ph.D. dissertation topic. I remember him saying, "Don't choose a problem that Poincare couldn't solve. Choose a problem that Poincare never heard of."

But let me dial up the challenge even more. There's a physics problem so difficult, so intractable, that even Isaac Newton, undoubtedly the greatest physicist who ever lived, couldn't solve it. And it's defied everyone else's attempts ever since then.