Skip to main content

Intelligence in Astronomy: What Is Intelligence? (Part 2)


One night in Cambridge, England in the late 1970's, two astrophysics postdocs were sitting at a table outside of the Ft. Saint George Pub. One of the astrophysicists was Ed Turner (Princeton) and the other was Scott Tremaine (Institute for Advanced Study). As my good friend, Ed Turner, tells the story
At some point we fell to debating which of our famous senior colleagues was the best scientist.  Ostriker, Rees, Peebles, Lynden-Bell and others appeared in the conversation. We failed to find a compelling case for any one of them or even for comparing any two of them; generally there were arguments for many or both alternatives re who was the best.  I can't recall whether we discussed only theorists or also some observers. 
Anyway, at some point we noticed that while it was very hard to say whether X was better than Y or vice versa as an overall scientist, it was often relatively easy to say which was better at some particular aspect of science...like who had the most extensive and detailed knowledge or who was more creative or who picked the best problems etc.  I recall making some analogy to comparing baseball players; it is hard to say who is the best overall but relatively easy to say who has the highest batting average, hits the most HRs, steals the most bases etc...
From this point it was only a short hop into science nerdery as they imagined the various components of excellence and traits of successful astronomers as basis vectors in a multidimensional hyperspace, which they termed the 7-Dimensional Scientist Hyperspace (7DSH, pronounced "seven-dish," I guess :). The seven dimensions of excellence that they identified was some version of the following according to an email Scott Tremaine sent me in response to my inquiry:

Taste  - Ability to identify an important question that can be addressed with the skills that you possess.
Intelligence -   Adeptness at the basic problem solving, calculating, perceptual skills needed to work the problem.
Grit - Ability to do the hard extended work needed.  Ability to maintain attention.  Ability to complete. The ability to face struggles and push through.
Knowledge - Breadth and extent of the corpus of knowledge needed to solve the problem and bring in interesting external information.
Curiosity - Alertness to interesting paths, byways, anomalies, etc.
Luck - Intuitive ability to expose oneself to, select for, and respond to constructive paths.
Communication - Ability to advance your ideas and generate needed input.

I really like these dimensions. Note, however, that they do not necessarily form an orthogonal basis set. One cannot be lucky or creative or curious without gaining the necessary knowledge. One cannot communicate well without good taste in selecting the right questions. 

Note also that these traits are not static qualities of an individual, and smartness is only one component of success (mostly closely aligned with a combination of knowledge and intelligence). Even if you don't think you are getting smarter in time, and many people doubt that they are, one's knowledge increases monotonically throughout their lives, curiosity comes through effective communication with others, which generates ideas that can lead to asking important new questions. First-year students don't arrive on campus with this sort of software bundled and pre-installed. These are things that need to be learned, and successful graduate programs focus on training students and helping their projections in these various dimensions grow in time. 

Moving from one-dimensional "smartness" to
multi-dimensional excellence
After thinking on 7DSH for a few months now, I've devised my modified 7-dimensional hyperspace of scientific excellence (M7DHSE), which draws upon the Turner & Tremaine conception as well as Sternberg's Successful Intelligence:

Creativity - The ability to successfully deal with new and unusual research problems and situations by drawing on existing knowledge and skills. The ability to connect disparate concepts to devise solutions to outstanding problems.

Curiosity - Alertness to interesting paths, byways, anomalies. The ability to identify important questions that can be addressed with one’s skills.

Basic intelligence - The ability to quickly identify the correct solution to academic, problem-solving tasks by drawing upon fundamental physical concepts.

Knowledge - Breadth and depth of the corpus of information one possesses that can be used to solve problems

Productivity - The ability to understand what needs to be done in a specific setting and then do it at  rate that contributes to the advancement of knowledge throughout one’s field 

Communication The ability to advance ideas; generate needed input through positive interactions  with others; and disseminate results in oral and/or written form so that others can use them to advance the field.

Pedagogy - Abilities related to the effective training of the next generation of excellent scientists through teaching, advising and mentoring. The ability to adapt to different backgrounds and learning styles in order to help others learn how to be excellent

How does your ability vector, $\vec{A}$,  project into this hyperspace? What is the magnitude of your vector, $|\vec{A}|$? An most importantly, what is the time derivative of your vector, $d\vec{A}/dt$ and what are you doing to accelerate that growth?


Comments

honestjournal said…
A good way to normalize these vectors is to find the unit vectors (see page 5):

https://www.cfa.harvard.edu/~dfabricant/huchra/mapmaker.pdf

Popular posts from this blog

An annual note to all the (NSF) haters

It's that time of year again: students have recently been notified about whether they received the prestigious NSF Graduate Student Research Fellowship. Known in the STEM community as "The NSF," the fellowship provides a student with three years of graduate school tuition and stipend, with the latter typically 5-10% above the standard institutional support for first- and second-year students. It's a sweet deal, and a real accellerant for young students to get their research career humming along smoothly because they don't need to restrict themselves to only advisors who have funding: the students fund themselves!
This is also the time of year that many a white dude executes what I call the "academic soccer flop." It looks kinda like this:


It typically sounds like this: "Congrats! Of course it's easier for you to win the NSF because you're, you know, the right demographic." Or worse: "She only won because she's Hispanic."…

Culture: Made Fresh Daily

There are two inspirations for this essay worth noting. The first is an impromptu talk I gave to the board of trustees at Thatcher School while I was visiting in October as an Anacapa Fellow. Spending time on this remarkable campus interacting with the students, faculty and staff helped solidify my notions about how culture can be intentionally created. The second source is Beam Times and Lifetimes by Sharon Tarweek, an in-depth exploration of the culture of particle physics told by an anthropologist embedded at SLAC for two decades. It's a fascinating look at the strange practices and norms that scientists take for granted.
One of the stories that scientists tell themselves, whether implicitly or explicitly, is that science exists outside of and independent of society. A corollary of this notion is that if a scientific subfield has a culture, e.g. the culture of astronomy vs. the culture of chemistry, that culture is essential rather than constructed. That is to say, scientific c…

The subtle yet real racism of the Supreme Court

Judge Roberts, a member of the highest court in the land, which is currently hearing the sad story of mediocre college aspirant Abigail Fischer, recently asked, "What unique ­perspective does a minority student bring to a physics class? I’m just wondering what the benefits of diversity are in that situation?" 
Did you catch the white supremacy in this question? If not, don't feel bad because it's subtly hidden beneath the cloaking field of colorblind racism. (As for Scalia's ign'nt-ass statements, I'm not even...)
Try rephrasing the question: "What unique perspective does a white student bring to a physics classroom?" The answer is, of course, absolutely nothing! Why? Because race isn't biological, and is therefore not deterministic of cognitive abilities. Did you perhaps forget that you knew that when considering Roberts' question? If so, again, it's understandable. Our society and culture condition all of us to forget basic facts …