“The importance of stupidity in scientific research”

From the Moveable Type chuck-pearson.org blog, February 24, 2009; edited to fix linkrot.

With a hat tip to Miz Richardson (who I’d link if she had web space to link to, apart from a Facebook page), an essay by Martin Schwarz in the Journal of Cell Science with one of the most impressive titles ever in academia.

And the article’s just as good, too. In fact, Nicole forwarded it along to me because we’d had so many conversations that plowed exactly the same ground. To wit:

For almost all of us, one of the reasons that we liked science in high school and college is that we were good at it. That can’t be the only reason – fascination with understanding the physical world and an emotional need to discover new things has to enter into it too. But high-school and college science means taking courses, and doing well in courses means getting the right answers on tests. If you know those answers, you do well and get to feel smart.

A Ph.D., in which you have to do a research project, is a whole different thing. For me, it was a daunting task. How could I possibly frame the questions that would lead to significant discoveries; design and interpret an experiment so that the conclusions were absolutely convincing; foresee difficulties and see ways around them, or, failing that, solve them when they occurred? My Ph.D. project was somewhat interdisciplinary and, for a while, whenever I ran into a problem, I pestered the faculty in my department who were experts in the various disciplines that I needed. I remember the day when Henry Taube (who won the Nobel Prize two years later) told me he didn’t know how to solve the problem I was having in his area. I was a third-year graduate student and I figured that Taube knew about 1000 times more than I did (conservative estimate). If he didn’t have the answer, nobody did.

That’s when it hit me: nobody did. That’s why it was a research problem. And being my research problem, it was up to me to solve. Once I faced that fact, I solved the problem in a couple of days. (It wasn’t really very hard; I just had to try a few things.) The crucial lesson was that the scope of things I didn’t know wasn’t merely vast; it was, for all practical purposes, infinite. That realization, instead of being discouraging, was liberating. If our ignorance is infinite, the only possible course of action is to muddle through as best we can.

I may be projecting, but I think one of the things that occurred to Nicole as she read that was an exchange I frequently have with students even now:

Student: Oh, my word, I completely should have known that. I feel so stupid.
Me: I had that feeling all time as a student. It was better when I figured out what that feeling really was.
Student: What was it?
Me: Learning.

I don’t know if it came from this, but there were also several times as I was yammering with Nicole that she was asking questions that I didn’t have good answers to. At a certain point when you do science, you recognize that there’s just ALL THOSE PAPERS IN THE UNIVERSE and there’s no way on God’s green earth that you are going to be able to read them all. So you get pretty comfortable shrugging your shoulders and saying “I don’t know, why don’t you read some stuff and get back to me?” I don’t do that to be a jerk; I do that because I’d really like to know myownself, and I don’t have time to read the relevant papers on my own.

(I’d like to, but professors get a bit more on their plate than just reading all day – even the guys who do research full time have to write the big-money grant proposals to earn their keep.)

Ultimately, when you do science, you hit that realization that, to paraphrase what David Suzuki once said, you are contributing little bits of knowledge to a vast well of science information. You are an expert on those little bits; nobody knows as much about those little bits as you. But others are going to use those little bits (interpreting what you supply in their own way, which may or may not have had anything to do with what you were thinking) to generate their own bits of knowledge, which they’ll contribute to that well. Everybody is building their explanations of how this world really works in their own way, and self-doubt can overwhelm you when you see how vast and intricate the world is; but you can get through that self-doubt by realizing that, in that small realm of knowledge, you really are an expert if you’ve read it and studied it deeply enough.

Partly, reading this was a affirmation that I’m telling my charges the right things about science.

Partly, this was a reminder of the excitement I have for a large fleet of my students, preparing to go off and start developing their own knowledge and taking part of this wonderful journey.

And then there’s the realization that I’m still at the front side of one of these back-and-forths with a new colleague in science…who just so happened to be one of my first students at Shorter. We’ve got a couple of decades of these back and forths ahead of us.

And then there are all the new colleagues to come.

I’m still starting what’s going to be an amazing career.

Saying goodbye to an old friend

This was originally published on February 12, 2009 on Blogcritics.org; Eric Olsen (who founded the site) let me back into the “sinister cabal” so I could make sure the piece found the wider readership that LAUNCHcast merited.

Of course, the official version was edited likewhoa, and didn’t have all the normal tics of my writing – so I posted this “de-edited” version on the Moveable Type chuck-pearson.org blog on that February 15.

I’m sitting at my computer. It’s about 11:00 in the morning.

I’m listening to my streaming LAUNCHcast when I hear a familiar tune. It’s the tune to “Dig” by the stalwart of early ’90s alternative Christian music, Adam Again. However, it’s not the dark acoustic and reverb and nasal voice of Gene Eugene – it’s lighter acoustics and Dan Haseltine’s gentler voice leading the harmonies of Jars of Clay.

I suddenly stare at my computer with a start – I didn’t know they covered that!

And I have something to look up later.

Just as I did when I heard a Jimmy Eat World song I hadn’t heard before last week – “Dizzy”, from the Chase ThisLight album – and was so affected by the song that I just went out that night and – shock, horror – paid money at the record store for the album.

Just as I did nearly ten years ago when the song was a set of snare drums ahead of some thin electric guitars that heralded the start of Sarge’s “Charms and Feigns”, and I simply had to know who that woman singing that song WAS.

LAUNCHcast has been a wonderful old friend. And it’s going away. By the time you read this, it may already be gone.


The guys who started up LAUNCH Media in Santa Monica in 1999 had quite a few good ideas. Iremember hitting up their website several times in the formative days, watching music videos and reading music news. God knows how many people they sucked in – or nearly repelled away – with ads featuring a new video by a new starlet, Britney Spears (those were the days), but there were plenty of music-based content to keep your eyes trained.

And then there was LAUNCHcast.

Customizable radio.

Start rating your favorite artists, your favorite songs, your favorite genres. The scale goes from 0 to 100. Your station is then compared to other stations, especially those who rated similar songs high, and there would be an electronic hunt for songs that you might like. “Music that listens to you” is the promise.

Even if it had been a false promise, I might have still been hooked at the mere concept. It wasn’t a false promise. The station began to figure out my favorite styles of music immediately, and select new stuff that I had never heard of and immediately loved. The programming of the widget was simply AMAZING. (I think we frequently overlook the kind of talent it requires to code an app like LAUNCHcast, and to make it work broadly for so many people. So many people whose names we’ll never know deserve a rich, deep round of applause for this one. For my part: Todd Beaupre, Jeff Boulter, and every coder around you two who hacked the thing together, SAAA-LUTE.)

It’s hard to continue the story too far beyond this point without mentioning the raging battle between LAUNCH and the recording industry. Lawsuits began to crop up, using phrases like “unlicensed use of music” and “unapproved level of interactivity.” I simply can’t understand the threat behind allowing listeners of music to choose the music they listen to when they listen to a radio station, and the volumes written about the RIAA’s control-freak nature are simply too overwhelming for me to add anything of value to them. This isn’t for them, anyway; too many people see the commodity and miss the riff, the groove, the killer lyric, the joy of listening to music.

The small community that grew up around LAUNCH – and I especially remember Todd Beaupre’s simple username, “hitsman”, and the wonderful adult alternative station he assembled that was a pretty essential “influencer” station – had no part of this. There were just a ton of really cool people who had wonderful and interesting tastes in music. As a late 20-something who was in a music-listening rut, so many of those stations were absolute revelations. I discovered Sunny Day Real Estate on LAUNCHcast. The Frames and Glen Hansard. The Promise Ring. Lincoln. American Football. Coheed & Cambria. I rediscovered many of my loves from college radio – Animal Logic, Poole, Kirsty MacColl, Hüsker Dü, and Roseanne Cash’s amazing Interiors album.

Of course, when LAUNCH Media got bought out by Yahoo! in 2001, the small community was no longer small, and the attention paid wasn’t small either. The paid subscriptions to listen to the station without ads and with an unlimited ability to skip songs you didn’t want to hear was necessary – and, honestly, a small price to pay. And if I have one regret about my time on LAUNCH, it was holding out on the subscriptions as long as I did. It probably wouldn’t have made a difference in the long haul, but cheapskates like me need to be less cheap-skatey in this economy – nothing proves a concept like the money it can make, and LAUNCHcast never really made enough.


I think a large part of the problem here can be summarized in who I am, who the majority of the American music-consuming public is, and why LAUNCHcast was so suited for me and not for them.

I’m a music geek.

The example at the front of this piece (unless you are one of my brothers who cut his fandom teeth on early ’90s alternative Christian music – and if you are, I want to talk to you, desperately) very likely means nothing to you. You listen to music because it can form the background of your workday or your drive home. There may be a few specific artists who you really enjoy deeply, who you’re a fan of, but you don’t listen to individual songs that intently. That’s not a value judgement. That don’t make me a better fan than you. Most people are content, if they like one Promise Ring song, with listening to any Promise Ring song, and vice-versa. They don’t concern themselves with the subtle differences that make me adore Kelly Clarkson’s “Low”, not really care about “Irvine”, melt over “Sober”, get tired of “Since U Been Gone”, swoon over “Behind These Hazel Eyes”, and just say “eh” over “My Life Would Suck Without You”. A monolithic Kelly fan, I am not.

So when Yahoo! Music gets swallowed up by CBS Radio, and it’s advertised as an exciting time for music fans because a host of pre-programmed stations are going to become available and the streaming quality will improve and you’ll be able to listen to everything on Firefox, I can see where a garden variety music fan would buy in.

But I’m going to hate all those stations. They’ll play a song that I love, and then they’ll play a song that I hate, and this won’t change. There was one thing, and only one thing on LAUNCHcast that was worth the price of admission for me, and that’s precisely the thing that’s going away – a programmable player on which I could rate stuff on a sliding scale and control not only which songs turned up, but HOW OFTEN they turned up.

A radio station, that you could program to play the songs you like.

I know, I keep coming back to it. It’s still revolutionary in 2009. In 1999, it completely fractured my brain.

Pandora is nice, as far as it goes, but it won’t fill the need for me. The algorithm isn’t as good. I DON’T just either like a song or hate it – thumbs up or thumbs down is no good. I have shades of gray. I will listen to “Cowboys” by Counting Crows (another song I heard for the first time on LAUNCHcast, and completely fell for) any time it comes up. I’ll listen to Big Head Todd and the Monsters’ “Broken-Hearted Savior”, but I don’t want to hear it every day. I can take a Wilco song once every other month at most. And so on.

And I have an mp3 player, but I know all those songs already. I’d like to discover new music, too.

Of course, there’s the great irony. Because of LAUNCHcast, I now have CD’s by Sunny Day Real Estate and The Promise Ring and Coheed & Cambria and The Reputation (because I finally found out who that woman fronting Sarge was, and because LAUNCH helped me find Elizabeth Elmore’s other band, too) and so many of the rest – to say nothing of that Jimmy Eat World album. See, because of LAUNCHcast, I did something unheard of in the year 2009.

I actually bought CD’s. More CD’s. Real, physical CD’s.

You can tell me I don’t get the new media revolution all you want. I don’t care. I found my own way through it. I’m not a revolutionary by any stretch. I’m just a guy who likes music and wants to support the good stuff.

And I’m losing one of my best tools, a tool so familiar that I call it a wonderful old friend. It’s just really, really sad.


I just heard one more new song that impressed me – a band called World Wide Spies, a song called “Philosophy.” I rated it 90. There’s no chance I’ll see it come back around on this station before it dies, so the rating was in vain, but it was completely automatic, just like it has been for so much of the past ten years.

I suppose I can always visit their MySpace page.