Finding the Next Einstein

Why smart is relative

How Do We Get Kids to Want to Be Einstein?

A conversation with Alex Knapp-writer, futurist, and knowledge evangelist

kids dressing up like einstein
Alex Knapp is the social media editor at Forbes and writes the blog Robot Overlords where he focuses on futurism, cutting edge technology, and breaking research. He has training in biochemistry and worked as a patent lawyer before becoming a writer. On his blog he is currently working on "Digging behind the press releases and seeing what kind of science is really going on. Making educated guesses about the future that don't devolve into wishful thinking or fantasy."

On his personal website, Alex describes himself as a knowledge evangelist.

I contacted Alex after he wrote an article about a study I conducted with my colleague Martha Putallaz, and we ended up talking about everything from the best way to educate a gifted writer, how technology amplifies the talent of scientists, how a lot of great science is being done in groups, his experience interviewing scientists, his view on how the internet and social media have changed the practice of science, how he reconciles science and religion, and even his thoughts on finding the next Einstein.

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It turns out that he was also part of the Duke University Talent Identification Program 7th Grade Talent Search, and a data point in the research study that he had actually written about!

To whet your appetite, here are some of my favorite Alex Knapp quotes from our conversation:

On writing: "There are lots of writers with great prose who, in the end, have nothing to say."

On imagination, creativity, and knowledge: "Imagination is a key aspect of creativity, but imagination is useless without a body of knowledge to build from."

On finding the next Einstein: "The bigger question is, how do we build a culture that values intellectual and artistic activity at a higher level, and where people are invited and expected to challenge and improve their own capabilities? In short, how do we make everyone WANT to be Einstein?"

Alex Knapp Writer Forbes
Alex Knapp
WAI: I understand you have a background in biochemistry and patent law. So why did you become a writer? What do you write about and why do you write?

KNAPP: Well, in some respects, I've always been a writer. I even wrote a very bad fantasy book when I was around 7 years old - illustrated, bound and everything. In high school I was active in debate and wrote a small piece for the local newspaper. In college I wrote for the newspaper and as soon as I got to law school, it was around the time that blogging started – I've actually been blogging for over 10 years now. It's always been a hobby and a passion. Now I'm fortunate enough to do it for a living.

In my writing now I primarily focus on science and technology, mostly about what's breaking in research, though I do a fair bit of what's happening now stuff, too, especially with respect to social media. I also write about a fair bit of geek culture. I do a weekly music 'Geek Playlist' and my colleague Erik Kain and I just started up a sci-fi book club at Forbes.

2. Were you ever identified as gifted? If so, how were you identified? Was this in a verbal or writing area or also in other areas? And what are your thoughts on the best ways to educate a gifted writer?

I was identified as gifted in Kindergarten. My parents taught me to read before I was in Kindergarten. My teacher recommended me for the program and then I was tested. I'm not sure what was involved in the testing, but I was part of my school's gifted program throughout elementary, junior high and high school. I know that the testing involved both math and verbal, and my standardized test scores throughout school were pretty much the same in terms of math vs. verbal.

As for the best way to educate a gifted writer, that's easy - it's 20% writing, and 80% learning about the rest of the world. Without a solid base of knowledge your writing might still end up sounding pretty, but it won't necessarily be good. There are lots of writers with great prose who, in the end, have nothing to say.

3. I think it's safe to assume you are constantly writing or thinking about something to write. How do you think writing has influenced your thinking?

Writing helps to make my thoughts organized and coherent. I'm a pretty concise writer by nature, thanks to both my legal and scientific training. So writing about a topic helps me to get to the essence of a concept that I'm thinking about. I also think that the back and forth nature of writing on the internet - comments, debates, etc. - also helps hone my thinking. I can and have changed my mind as a result of writing about a topic and going through a back and forth.

 4. I noticed you quote from the Bible in your article Why It's Essential To Be Humble, among others. Are you religious? If so, how do you reconcile religion and science?

Well, one reason I quote the Bible is because it's familiar. I have also, in other spaces, used Star Trek II to illustrate some of my thinking about mortality and existential philosophy! That said, yes, I do consider myself religious in the sense that I think religious thinking and practice is important to living a fuller human existence. But I don't have much taste for doctrine. I'm pretty close to Karen Armstrong's thinking in that regard in that the essence of religious experience is breaking away from your own ego to make yourself open to other possibilities. I don't adhere to any particular doctrine, except what Armstrong described in her own spiritual memoir, "The one and only test of a valid religious idea, doctrinal statement, spiritual experience, or devotional practice was that it must lead directly to practical compassion. If your understanding of the divine made you kinder, more empathetic, and impelled you to express this sympathy in concrete acts of loving-kindness, this was good theology. But if your notion of God made you unkind, belligerent, cruel, or self-righteous, or if it led you to kill in God's name, it was bad theology."

I find the question of whether religion and science can be reconciled to be simultaneously incredibly easy and incredibly difficult. For most of human history, it wasn't even a question. Some of the greatest scientific minds in history were driven to studying nature precisely because they felt it was a means of getting closer to God. Newton felt that way, as did Descartes. One of my scientific heroes, Ibn Sina, not only revolutionized medicine in his time, but also spent a great deal of time studying theology. St. Augustine understood even in the 4th Century that portions of Genesis didn't comport with what people knew about science and pointed out that they should be understood metaphorically, not literally. The Vatican has an Observatory that does recognized research. It's been widely held by theologians of lots of different religions that when a sacred text is contradicted by science, the text needs to be interpreted accordingly as symbolic or metaphorical.

It doesn't surprise me that people don't think that religion and science can't be reconciled. It's certainly a subject that I've wrestled with myself. I think in part that has to do with the fact that today, the loudest religious voices - not the most common, but the loudest - belong the fundamentalists. Which is too bad, because their voices seem to drown out the rest. Fundamentalism, as it exists today in several religions, is actually a fairly modern phenomenon and is in my view an unfortunate one. I think it does a disservice to both religion and science.

5. In your article Chess, Art, Robots, And The Future of Science you talk about how you think technology will free up scientists to be more involved in the creative process. However, from the perspective of the apprenticeship model, one could argue that you have to be someone's "hands" before being a scientist in your own right. In other words you have to be trained before you can create. What are your thoughts on this?

I think that there's obviously a part of science that's always going to be hands on, especially when you're prototyping or running an experiment for the first time. And definitely that's an important thing to include in training as a scientist, whether as a professional or an amateur. But what I'm referring to in that essay is taking some of the grunt work away from scientists. The endless, tedious repetitions of experiments and minor changes of same. Let robots collect that data. Let humans figure out what it means.

6. You mention that "Another positive aspect of using robots and computers to free humans from the day to day drudgery of science is, I hope, an ability to re-energize the ideal of the scientist as Renaissance Man." Do you really think a Renaissance Man is possible today? Isn't there simply just too much information for any single person to master?

I think that being a Renaissance Man is essential, actually. No, it's not possible for one person to know everything. But I don't think it's an accident that Nobel Prize winning scientists are far more likely to be involved in the arts than the body of scientists at large. Fundamentally, I think that at some level all knowledge is interrelated, and having knowledge of different subjects - even if you're primarily obsessed with and an expert at only one - will help you make breakthroughs that you wouldn't have seen otherwise. Imagination is a key aspect of creativity, but imagination is useless without a body of knowledge to build from.

7. What are your thoughts on how technology might amplify the talent of a scientist? Is the key combining human intuition with computer processing power?

That's absolutely right. There are things that computers are good at that we're terrible at - calculating pi to a thousand places in a few seconds, for one. But there are things that computers, by their nature, are also pretty bad at. The key is to find ways that amplify that creativity. A case in point - computers can use an algorithm to crunch a ton of data in a short period of time. But the creation of an algorithm itself, even today, still involves a lot of creativity and an artistic sense. That's something computers aren't good at and, frankly, are probably a long way from ever being good at.

8. Although we still imagine someone like Einstein coming up with his gedankenexperiments in periods of immense quiet, science has been described by many as a social activity. How do you think scientific social networks of the past compare to scientific social networks today? And how do you think the internet and social media have changed the nature of how science is conducted?

I think that the social activity is essential to science. If you look through history, scientific advances clustered where there were groups of brilliant guys working together, whether that was Athens, Cordoba, London, Berlin, or Beijing.  Today, most great science is being done by groups, and there's a lot of evidence suggesting that, as long as you avoid groupthink, that social process amplifies intelligence. As communication has advanced, it's been possible for scientists to join forces with different groups all over the world. More scientists are blogging. Papers that get tweeted a lot have a higher impact than papers that don't. I think this is absolutely fantastic time for science because the open communication of the internet makes possible collaborations that would have been impossible even 50 years ago.

9. As a science writer for Forbes you are constantly being updated with the newest findings from various disciplines. Many scientists today have to specialize and so they literally do not have the time to read outside their specialty area let alone their discipline. Do you think this positions people like you to make unique connections that specialized scientists might miss?

That's an interesting question. I think it's probably more likely that scientist-bloggers, who are active in their own research areas but engage in other topics, would be more likely to make those kinds of connections and use them to advance their own work. I don't know that I could ever do much more than venture some interesting hypotheses, 90% of which would probably be wrong. But hey, I'm young. Maybe I'll stumble across the Grand Unified Theory while I'm on a deadline.

bradley voytek
Bradley Voytek
10. You've talked with a lot of scientists. What differences do you find between older and younger scientists? And who is the most interesting person you've interviewed?

Not as much as you'd think. The primary generational gap is mostly centered around career. The old systems of tenure aren't what they used to be, so there's a little less pressure on the younger scientists to focus on publishing, publishing, publishing, and being focused on one specialized aspect. Don't get me wrong - there's still a lot of that.  But younger scientists tend to be more involved with social networking, more likely to blog, etc. But there are plenty of older guys doing that, too - especially the one's in the corporate world.

The most interesting scientist I think I've intereviewed is Bradley Voytek, a neuroscience post-doc fellow at UC San Francisco. I think he's kind of emblematic of the future of science - he blogs, he does public outreach via his zombie neuroscience, he does traditional published research, and he's very into applying data crunching to his field. He's also a blast to talk to.

baby einstein
11. What are your thoughts on finding the next Einstein?


Well, we didn't find Einstein, he found us, right? Part of Einstein's fame comes from the fact that he wrote about the Theory of Relativity to the general public in an accessible way, and it turned out to be popular. Plus he was charmingly eccentric. Even with all his brilliance, though, he never fully accepted some of the ramifications of relativity or quantum mechanics. Why not try to find the next Bohr? Now there was a man - helped Jews escape Nazi Germany and later Occupied Denmark. Advanced quantum mechanics and debated it with Einstein over the latter's desire for classical determinism. Why aren't we looking for the next Bohr?

My point being, of course, that there are brilliant people all around us, and most of us are capable of being more brilliant than we are. The challenge isn't finding the next Einstein - the quirky, extroverted geniuses will always make themselves known and will always be discovered. The bigger question is, how do we build a culture that values intellectual and artistic activity at a higher level, and where people are invited and expected to challenge and improve their own capabilities? In short, how do we make everyone WANT to be Einstein? That, I think, is the more interesting question.

© 2012 by Jonathan Wai

You can follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or G+. For more of Finding the Next Einstein: Why Smart is Relative go here.

Jonathan Wai, Ph.D., is a psychologist, writer, and research scientist at Duke University.

 
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