IF Blog

Information Is Not Power

The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination. - Albert Einstein

We're regularly told "to buckle down," "to focus" on goals, but when it comes to imaginative outcomes, a single-minded focus can be counterproductive. In fact, Daniel Goleman's book "Focus" makes the case for an indirect receptiveness to information of all kinds. From a New York Times Sunday Book Review of the work:

According to Goleman, the author of 'Emotional Intelligence,' it’s a form of attentiveness characterized by 'utter receptivity to whatever floats into the mind.' Experiments suggest it’s also the source of our most creative thoughts. Going beyond 'orienting,' in which we deliberately gather information, and 'selective attention,' in which we concentrate on solving a particular problem, open awareness frees the brain to make the “serendipitous associations” that lead to fresh insights. Artists and inventors alike seem unusually adept at such productive daydreaming.

We tend to think of attention as a switch that’s on or off — we’re focused or we’re distracted. That’s a misperception. Attention, as Goleman explains, comes in many varieties. Its extreme forms tend to be the most limiting....

What appears to be most at risk is our ability to experience open awareness. Always a rare and elusive form of thinking, it seems to be getting rarer and more elusive. Our modern search-engine culture celebrates information gathering and problem solving — ways of thinking associated with orienting and selective focus — but has little patience for the mind’s reveries. Letting one’s thoughts wander seems frivolous, a waste of practical brainpower. Worse, our infatuation with social media is making it harder to hear the mind’s whispers. Solitude has fallen out of fashion. Even when we’re by ourselves, we’re rarely alone with our thoughts.

The reviewer points out that any misunderstanding of what it means to focus can also be attributed to a belief that attention is solely a function of the brain when, in fact, it's informed at least in part by culture. The mention of solitude instantly reminded me of William Deresiewicz's West Point address on solitude and leadership, wherein the essayist argues that leaders need time and space to reflect. "If you want others to follow, learn to be alone with your thoughts."

Does your culture encourage reflection or mere information churn?

The latter is not only counterproductive, but dangerous. Paying attention to the wrong things is the leading cause of flying accidents, as I was repeatedly told by my primary flight instructor when I was learning to fly. Every year, pilots lose their lives because they blundered deeper and deeper into a dangerous situation, missing, or dismissing, the cues that could have warned them of danger. The information they had was wrong.

A "productive awareness" also means being attuned to our senses, of feeling, as clearly as possible, what we are feeling at any moment in time so as to not miss important connections. Suspending belief in their own ways, successful scientists and playwrights see what there is to see because they know that information is not power. The right information is power. To have that aha moment, we must use imagination. We must be open to surprise. We must be curious.

The cognitive "reverie" is what I loved about Occupy Lunch's Robert Karimi and his fellow Creative Capital artists at IdeaFestival 2014. They peek behind the curtain. They have leaky mental filters. From time to time, they make space to think about nothing in particular because they care about leadership - self-leadership. The irony is that by venturing beyond mere "orienting" in the search for knowledge, they come to know what they know.

Stay curious.


Image: Geoff Oliver Bugbee

ExoMed-3, the "Google Glass" Mission, Set for Sat. Launch

If all goes according to the current schedule, on Saturday at 4:47a EST, the Kentucky Space "ExoMed-3" mission will go to the International Space Station aboard a SpaceX rocket.

The micro-gravity work in regenerative medicine is being carried out in partnership with Tufts University.

Following the SpaceX capsule Dragon's berthing with the station, flatworms will be brought out of cold stasis for roughly 17 days on orbit. From the press release (PDF) of the experiment posted to the Kentucky Space site, the mission

will analyze the regeneration mechanisms of planarian flatworms in the microgravity environment (and absence of a geomagnetic field) of space. This experiment is a critical step in a specific regenerative medicine research and commercial pathway being pursued by the parties. Once returned (alive) to Earth mid-January, the flatworms’ regeneration patterns will be analyzed via morphological molecular genetic methods.

The mission will also feature the use of Google Glass to record astronaut interaction with Kentucky Space payloads. Transportation will be handled by FedEx Space Solutions.

Few people know that the nation's newest national laboratory is 240 miles overhead, continuously falling around the Earth at 17,500 miles per hour. When controlling for gravity (read that again), the science done in recent years shows that cells and genes behave and express themselves differently. As you might image, understanding exactly why that happens has attracted the attention of life sciences researchers, and may, if the ongoing work systematized and iterated for a reasonable cost, lead to a better understanding of regenerative dynamics and disease pathologies. The inhabitants living at the bottom of the gravity well on Earth would be the happy beneficiaries. 

SpaceX, in another first, will attempt to autonomously return the launch vehicle's 14-story first stage to a barge in the Atlantic ocean for an upright landing. It's part of the company's ongoing work to develop fully reusable rockets. It's important because rocket developers have always built new rockets for each mission, often discarding the husks on orbit as debris. SpaceX, if successful, could eventually return, refit and refly the same launch vehicles, exponentially lowering the cost for space access for themselves and, of course, their customers.

If flying towers and mastering gravity don't necessarily interest you, there is an altogether different and compelling reason why space exploration, among other highly technical and science based businesses, of course, is important.

Virtually all job growth in the past 20 years has come from companies less than five years old.

Is innovation important? The IdeaFestival thinks so.

Questions about the ExoMed-3 mission may be directed to the mission managers identified in the linked press release. Kentucky Space space systems engineer Twyman Clements is shown here working with the payload at Kennedy Space Center.

Stay curious.


Big Idea: Do Physical Laws Evolve?

In Scientific American, John Horgan has published a fascinating interview with Lee Smolin, author and theoretical physicist, who describes why he was initially attracted to the field, as well as his work today on a theory that would finally unite quantum physics, or the world of the vanishingly small, with Einstein's relativity, or the physics of time and gravity and colossal, universe-sized matter.

Quantum mechanics and relativity are well tested theories supported by empirical evidence. Sadly, the project to harmonize both descriptions of nature is no closer to completion than it was 60 years ago.

In his exchange with Horgan, Smolin makes an intriguing argument for why this is so: the laws of physics themselves may evolve, a process he refers to as "cosmological natural selection." Scientific American:

Horgan: Why hasn’t the acceleration of universe—arguably the most important discovery in physics of the past 30 years–led to more theoretical advancement?

Smolin: At one level there is no problem, in that the acceleration of the universe’s expansion is easily described by adding a cosmological constant to Einstein’s equations, just as Einstein proposed in 1917.  The problem is just with the value of that constant—it’s ridiculously tiny. This is an extreme example of the basic problem that plagues the standard model of particle physics, which is that we don’t understand the reason for the value of any of the roughly 30 parameterize we need to write the laws of physics.

I am convinced that the answer to all these puzzles must be that these constants evolve, so the explanation for their values must be historical. Indeed cosmological natural selection gives a plausible explanation for the observed value of the cosmological constant.

Horgan is a skeptic about whether a unified theory can be had.

He briefly pursues this line of thinking. Does saying that laws evolve, he asks Smolin, also mean throwing out notions of falsifiability? Smolin counters by noting that the time scales involved should increase the chances that any theory could also make falsifiable predictions. It is after all what natural selection does. Smolin:

As Roberto Mangabeira Unger and I argue in our new book The Singular Universe, the most important discovery cosmologists have made is that the universe has a history. We argue this has to be extended to the laws themselves. Biology became science when the question switched from listing the species to the dynamical question of how species evolve. Fundamental physics and cosmology have to transform themselves from a search for timeless laws and symmetries to the investigation of hypotheses about how laws evolve (emphasis supplied).

The physicist, however, acknowledges "bedeviling metaphysical baggage" haunts these kinds of questions. We are, after all, metaphorical machines. Interested in things as they are, we live as creaturely poets in a beglamored space between, describing ever-always what things are like. Our analogies hold us back.

For fans of popular physics and the humanities majors among us, the lengthy email exchange between science journalist and scientist will reward.

While reading it, I was reminded of a favorite video of mine, in which Mars scientist Nathalie Cabrol argues passionately that we must "explore or die." The parallel is certainly far from exact, but change, whether in the inanimate or animate worlds, is inescapable. I've posted it here for you to watch.

Stay curious.


Thank You, Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

To all of our supporters, thanks for being a part of the IdeaFestival! Your sponsorship and purchases of festival passes make the non-profit nerdocalypse possible.

We simply couldn't do it without you!

For 2015, we're planning the most IdeaFestival IdeaFestival ever. So mark your calendars now and plan to be at the Kentucky Center in Louisville, Sept. 30 - Oct. 2, 2015. Follow us on Twitter, like our Facebook page and check out our YouTube channel, IFTV, to stay in touch.

From all of us at the IdeaFestival, Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays. We'll see you next year!

Stay curious.


Image: Attribution Some rights reserved by OakleyOriginals

This Holiday Season, Give Someone the IdeaFestival

During this special season, give someone the gift of the IdeaFestival.

The IF Team invites you to give a 2015 IdeaFestival Pass to yourself, a friend or colleague this holiday season at our lowest rate of only $325!

IdeaFestival 2015 will once again be held in Louisville from September 30th - October 2nd, 2015. Your Festival Pass provides admission to all sessions during the Festival, as well as invitations to other IF - related activities. You will also have the opportunity to meet and interact with world class speakers and some of the smartest and most accomplished people around. 

If you need a reminder of the value and mission of IdeaFestival, please take a moment to watch this video from our Founder, Kris Kimel. This limited time offer will end on December 19th!

Please take a moment to give the perfect holiday gift now.

Stay curious!

IdeaFestival/ICI, Inc. | 200 West Vine Street, Suite 420 | Lexington, KY 40507 | idea@ideafestival.com | phone: 866-966-4607 toll-free or 502-966-4607 | fax: 859.259.0986

Copyright @ ICI, Inc. 2014