23 January 2019 – Last week two concepts reared their ugly heads that I’ve been banging on about for years. They’re closely intertwined, so it’s worthwhile to spend a little blog space discussing why they fit so tightly together.
Diversity is Good
The first idea is that diversity is good. It’s good in almost every human pursuit. I’m particularly sensitive to this, being someone who grew up with the idea that rugged individualism was the highest ideal.
Diversity, of course, is incompatible with individualism. Individualism is the cult of the one. “One” cannot logically be diverse. Diversity is a property of groups, and groups by definition consist of more than one.
Okay, set theory admits of groups with one or even no members, but those groups have a diversity “score” (Gini–Simpson index) of zero. To have any diversity at all, your group has to have at absolute minimum two members. The more the merrier (or diversitier).
The idea that diversity is good came up in a couple of contexts over the past week.
First, I’m reading a book entitled Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most by Steven Johnson, which I plan eventually to review in this blog. Part of the advice Johnson offers is that groups make better decisions when their membership is diverse. How they are diverse is less important than the extent to which they are diverse. In other words, this is a case where quantity is more important than quality.
Second, I divided my physics-lab students into groups to perform their first experiment. We break students into groups to prepare them for working in teams after graduation. Unlike when I was a student fifty years ago, activity in scientific research and technology development is always done in teams.
When I was a student, research was (supposedly) done by individuals working largely in isolation. I believe it was Willard Gibbs (I have no reliable reference for this quote) who said: “An experimental physicist must be a professional scientist and an amateur everything else.”
By this he meant that building a successful physics experiment requires the experimenter to apply so many diverse skills that it is impossible to have professional mastery of all of them. He (or she) must have an amateur’s ability pick up novel skills in order to reach the next goal in their research. They must be ready to work outside their normal comfort zone.
That asked a lot from an experimental researcher! Individuals who could do that were few and far between.
Today, the fast pace of technological development has reduced that pool of qualified individuals essentially to zero. It certainly is too small to maintain the pace society expects of the engineering and scientific communities.
Tolkien’s “unimaginable hand and mind of Feanor” puttering around alone in his personal workshop crafting magical things is unimaginable today. Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus character, who had mastered all earthly knowledge, is now laughable. No one person is capable of making a major contribution to today’s technology on their own.
The solution is to perform the work of technological research and development in teams with diverse skill sets.
In the sciences, theoreticians with strong mathematical backgrounds partner with engineers capable of designing machines to test the theories, and technicians with the skills needed to fabricate the machines and make them work.
The second idea I want to deal with in this essay is that we live in a chaotic Universe.
Chaos is a property of complex systems. These are systems consisting of many interacting moving parts that show predictable behavior on short time scales, but eventually foil the most diligent attempts at long-term prognostication.
A pendulum, by contrast, is a simple system consisting of, basically, three moving parts: a massive weight, or “pendulum bob,” that hangs by a rod or string (the arm) from a fixed support. Simple systems usually do not exhibit chaotic behavior.
The solar system, consisting of a huge, massive star (the Sun), eight major planets and a host of minor planets, is decidedly not a simple system. Its behavior is borderline chaotic. I say “borderline” because the solar system seems well behaved on short time scales (e.g., millennia), but when viewed on time scales of millions of years does all sorts of unpredictable things.
For example, approximately four and a half billion years ago (a few tens of millions of years after the system’s initial formation) a Mars-sized planet collided with Earth, spalling off a mass of material that coalesced to form the Moon, then ricochetted out of the solar system. That’s the sort of unpredictable event that happens in a chaotic system if you wait long enough.
Putting It Together
The way these two ideas (diversity is good, and we live in a chaotic Universe) work together is that collaborating in diverse groups is the only way to successfully navigate life in a chaotic Universe.
An individual human being is so powerless that attempting anything but the smallest task is beyond his or her capacity. The only way to do anything of significance is to collaborate with others in a diverse team.
In the late 1980s my wife and I decided to build a house. To begin with, we had to decide where to build the house. That required weeks of collaboration (by our little team of two) to combine our experiences of different communities in the area where we were living, develop scenarios of what life might be like living in each community, and finally agree on which we might like the best. Then we had to find an architect to work with our growing team to design the building. Then we had to negotiate with banks for construction loans, bridge loans, and ultimate mortgage financing. Our architect recommended adding a prime contractor who had connections with carpenters, plumbers, electricians and so forth to actually complete the work. The better part of a year later, we had our dream house.
There’s no way I could have managed even that little project – building one house – entirely on my own!
In 2015, I ran across the opportunity to produce a short film for a film festival. I knew how to write a script, run a video camera, sew a costume, act a part, do the editing, and so forth. In short, I had all the skills needed to make that 30-minute film.
Did that mean I could make it all by my onesies? Nope! By the time the thing was completed, the list of cast and crew counted over a dozen people, each with their own job in the production.
By now, I think I’ve made my point. The take-home lesson of this essay is that if you want to accomplish anything in this chaotic Universe, start by assembling a diverse team, and the more diverse, the better!