Intuitively Excellent

Cosmic Variance
By cjohnson
Mar 29, 2006 7:22 AMNov 5, 2019 8:07 AM


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So I told several people that I would probably blog about the most recent Categorically Not! event that took place on Sunday night as soon as I got home. It did not happen because somehow I ended up late night dancing at a salsa club in Culver City, and did not get home until well after midnight. (You'll be pleased to know that I will not show you any pictures of that event.) I had to then get up in time to give a coherent 9:00am class on advanced and retarded potentials in electromagnetism. So sorry about the delay. Here's my report on the proceedings. Please come in and comment, adding bits that I did not mention, telling us whether you liked the event, and discussing the ideas, if you like. The topic was "Intuition". We had one of the most well-attended events in terms of audience numbers, and three really great presenters! Everybody was really engaged in the material and there were so many wonderful questions (and answers). We kicked off with Joe Polchinski (KITP-UCSB) talking about the creative process in science, particulalry theoretical physics.

It was done as a sort of Question and Answer session with our host KC Cole setting the stage first with some introductory remarks about that area of research, and then asking Joe some questions to which he gave answers in general terms and specific terms. The specific terms involved him talking about thought experiments (he mentioned for example Einstein's reasoning about the Equivalence Principle by imaginig freely falling in a elevator....). He explained why thought experiments are useful guides to new insights. (He talked about his own thought experiment that led to his discovery of D-branes. He imagined what happened when you start with a higher dimensional string theory and curl up one of those dimensions and shrink it. He referred to this process as putting open and closed strings into a box and then shrinking the box away...... I won't go into the details here. - For the string theorist readers: It is his famous T-duality argument I like to use in my lectures on the topic. Several of you will know it.) Here's Joe and KC in conversation:

For those of you who are not aware of the Awesome power of the String Theory Masters, for it is seldom on display, check out Joe demonstrating -with careful concentration- the existence of extra dimensions. He's reaching with both arms into the dimension we call "the M-direction" while KC and the audience look on, astonished, as the arms disappear temporarily. Here's a closeup:

On the issue of intuition, I was pleased to hear Joe (and the other two speakers later) appropriately demystify aspects of the term by emphasising the importance of good ol' plain hard work which is needed to develop a huge library of "things you've seen before" which help form a bedrock from which intuition can spring. This is true in any field. The most important asset is experience to draw on. So much familiarity with a set of practices or techniques that you internalise them completely. That comes with hard work. There's no getting away from it, folks! Here's a shot of some intense listening from a physicist (Jeff, a CV reader) and some of his (very pleasant to talk to) architect friends (we all sat together at dinner afterwards and got on like a nice dry petrol-soaked house on fire.)

Antonio Damasio (USC) was up next. He spoke a great deal about the neurological and psychological aspects of Intuition. His was the best single sentence summing up the concept, as we were to use it that evening: "Intuition is the process of getting to a destination without knowing the route." He also added: "Sometimes you did not even know you wanted to get there." I've modified the words a bit, but that's the essence of what he said. It was a definition that was so appreciated, you could hear several audible "hhhhmmmmms" of recognition from the audience.

He discussed a number of attempts in his field to model and characterise various aspects of the decision-making process. A key aspect is one's emotional response to the expected payoff or punishment associated to an outcome (again, from experience). This affects the "Intuitive" aspects of reasoning to a great extent, and in fact works best when done somewhat unconsciously. There are a number of nice experiments which suggest this. One such involves giving groups of people a bunch of important decisions to make (requiring the evaluation of a lot of data about, say purchasing an item), adn then letting them make the decision either while fully focusing on it or while distrated by other tasks. For decisions for which the perception of huge payoff or disaster was greatest (say, buying a to buying a toaster), it turned out that the unconcious decision-making was better! (He was sure to say that further research is needed before recommending that to home-buyers!) The "emotional" aspect of the reasoning was just quicker and more useful. He also mentioned the known correlation between people who's emotional centers of the brain was damaged (so that they cannot empathise, etc) and people who seem unable to do what we call intuitive reasoning. I could go on, but perhaps others might come in with more recollections of other things said.

Jed Dennenbaun, the USC film-maker told us a lot about the use of intuition in film-making. Two aspects.... the intuition exercised on the part of the filmmaker about what would work and what would not. In other words, how intuition fits into the practice of the craft, analoguos to what Joe discussed for the scientist's craft. This is important to emphasize again and again, since it is so important to blow away that stupid myth people have about scientists being automatons and people in the arts being intuitive. (It annoys me so much.)

As an example he talked about the moment in the (wonderful) film "Bleu" where Juliette Binoche's character, in a moment of intense emotional significance, dips a cube of sugar into her coffee and holds it for a moment to let it fill up with coffee (symbolizing her own filling up....), before letting it drop into the cup. Apparently the director (Krzysztof Kieslowski) wanted the duration of the filling up to be five seconds. It could not be three, nor eight. Five seconds intuitively was right for him and so he had an assistant spend an entire day researching all sorts of cugar cube types to find the one that would do it just right. He showed us lots of clips by the way, including that scene. He then described several aspects of how the observer's intuition about the visual meaning of various things (colours, spatial relations, facial expressions, etc) are deliberately manipulated by filmmakers in a way that is mostly invisible to your conscious mind, but are absolutely vital to the emotional impact of a film nonetheless. The sounds and music score in a film are obvious examples, and so he chose not to focus on that, but instead showed us several things more subtle. The blue colouring of the forest scenes in "The Piano" for example, and how they "set up" (filmmaker's technical term by the way) the later climatic underwater scene..... Here's everybody at the end in a question and answer session:

Jeff's corner finally gets called on to ask their question:

Then we all went to Typhoon for dinner. Here's the main table, with KC and former Cat Not! presenter, Antropologist Amy Parish, in front (left photo), and on the other end (right photo) there's for example Joe Polchinski and on his right is his wife Dorothy (they're on the left of photo). A couple of seats away in the bottom left corner of the shot is the performer (and former Cat Not! presenter) Julia Sweeney (oh, yes, I guess she's also famous for her tenure at Saturday Night Live and her excellent theatre shows):

I heard that the discussions there spilled over nicely from the main event of the evening (all the presenters were on that table) and a good time was had by all. This was our table (with two architects, a voice actor, a lawyer, a biotech engineer and two physicists):

....where there was a lot of excellent and animated discussion of science, the arts, and several other things. I found myself not eating enough since I was explaining a lot about duality, extra dimensions, and string theory, but it was fine.

Oh, and, as it was 11:00pm when we were done and too late to get over to Pasadena to hang out with Perimeter Institute's Lee Smolin at a party I was invited to (sorry Lee!), I went off with a friend to shake my booty at aforementioned salsa club. -cvj

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