Catchy Sayings That Make Sense - 2/2001

When I am doing seminars, I have two slides I often use to begin my presentations. Both have lots of relevance to the high technology marketplace in which we operate and are good advice for everyone.

The first is a quote from Arthur C. Clarke, the science fiction author (remember 2001?) which my son Dan brought to my attention:

"Sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

Ever wonder how understandable most of the technology we work with really is? For example, how does a PC work? No that's too complicated to start with - how about the telephone? Television? Radio? Records, tapes, CDs or DVDs? The engine in your car? A refrigerator or AC?

Most people are absolutely clueless when it comes to how most of the things around us work. They/we are not stupid people. Few of us know how most things work; there are simply too many things to learn about to learn them all. However, since we have grown up with these gadgets, we take them for granted.

Consider, however, an isolated tribe in the Amazon being introduced to some of the modern gadgets we take for granted. Surely they appear to be magic. Likewise, when we try to teach some of the technology we use daily to newcomers, especially those without a scientific education, what we are discussing might as well be magic.

Treating some of these topics casually enhances the perception that what we are discussing is not understandable - like magic - so the student turns off. That is a failure on the part of the teacher, I believe, since practically everything can be put into terms that are understandable - if you understand it well yourself.

I remember reading Walter Sullivan, the science writer of the NY Times as I was growing up, admiring his ability to explain technology for the average reader. His ability to simplify and create understandable analogies inspired me to not only begin a career in science, but to learn how to communicate what I knew - not only to my peers but also to those without my scientific training.

So while I believe that Clarke's statement is correct, it should be inspiration to those of us who teach and write to try to overcome it's admonition.

"All generalizations, with the possible exception of this one, are false."

This one is a paraphrase taken from the works of Kurt Godel, an Austrian philosopher and mathematician who was a close friend of Albert Einstein. Combining logic and math, Godel showed that some theories can neither be proved nor disproved - his Undecidability Theorem - and that there will be contradictory statements in systems where decidability is required - his Incompleteness Theorem. Thus Godel proved that not all problems have solutions.

Consider his friendship with Einstein, author of the Theory of Relativity, and think what wonderful discussions the two of them must have had! Pity most of us would have thought they were talking some made-up language.

My appreciation of this statement comes from the fact that too often we generalize without basis. We impute that all things are one way, when in fact they may be many sides to the issue. As teachers, we often would prefer to tell our students that "this is the way it is" when reality is otherwise. I want my students to know that whenever I generalize, they are free to question me and make me explain why I made such a rash statement! This makes for lively classes.

PS: I must admit to having a tremendous love for both science and philosophy. My undergraduate degree is in Physics-Astronomy with a minor in Math, but I have enough hours for a minor in Philosophy too! We always said it was very similar to Astronomy!


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