Sunday, December 05, 2010

Models of thinking Part II

In my last post, I shared about the different models of thinking that transcends the content of the discipline that we're studying. It is this way of perceiving the world, this different lens that gave you a different view of the world that stays with you long after the content had fled. In this post, I'm going to share with you how mathematics and science form the dominant way in which I perceive the world.


1. Discipline and perseverance - What has mathematics got to do with discipline and perseverance? When doing maths, I often try a particular problem multiple times just so that I can get the answer. Most of the 'weaker' students often give up after the very first attempt. Those who are even more mentally weak will give up after looking at the length of the problem (they do not even go into the first step of reading through the problem and they gave up already). I think what is most important about doing maths is that you learn how to steel yourself and just have the mentality that you will try and try until you get the answers. These days when I teach maths, I will treat some of the harder questions as an ice-cream. How do you lick an ice-cream cone? You lick one side, you turn and you lick another side. For me, I'll try one solution to see if it works, and try another solution to see if it's more efficient.

2. Recognize familiar patterns in unfamiliar situations - Maths problems are a varied sort. There are multiple ways of asking the same concept. However, if you recognize the different types of problems that they can ever ask, and learn how to solve all these different types, no matter how varied the problem is, it can still be broken down into patterns that you recognize and thus able to solve. I think this is the hallmark of creativity. Essentially creativity involves putting familiar ideas into unfamiliar situations. That is always going to be useful in real life, after you've long forgotten how to differentiate polynomials and integrate exponentials.

3. Working within the boundary of established rules - Maths always involve established rules. There are rules in algebra and indices, rules in trigonometry and calculus. You can do anything you want as long as the established rules are applied in the right conditions. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. Good because that's what our society needs. Good law-abiding, obedient citizens that follows whoever establish the rules. Bad because you don't tend to question the rules after they had been established. It seems that point 2 and point 3 are anti-thesis of each other, but not really. Creativity without boundaries (any sort of boundary like legal, moral, ethical, financial etc) will lead to disaster. It is important to be creative within a domain and not give creativity a free rein where anything goes.


1. Trial and error - You know the usual cycle of hypothesis, experimental design, execution of experiment, analysis etc to test the scientific hypothesis. I think that's one of the key takeaways of science for me. It's not that I'm going to conduct any experiments in the conventional sense of the word, but I think using this scientific way of trial and error works very well in a lot of situations.

For example, when solving computer bugs. Your computer wouldn't start. You think about all the possible cases on the situations leading to this technical glitch. Perhaps you just installed a new software and it's incompatible. So you test the hypothesis. You un-install the software and you try again. If it doesn't work you try another scenario. If it works, you try installing it again to see if it'll lead you to the same situation. If it does, then it's quite sure that it's the software.

This works well in all situations where the response will correspond to an action. It doesn't work perfectly in social experiments though. For example, you just met a new guy. You talk him about your jokes. He laughs heartily and you conclude that your joke is funny (the correct conclusion is that he likes your joke). You meet the same person some time later and tell the same joke but it falls flat. What I'm trying to say in so many words is that in social occasions, it's fuzzy. Things can not so clear cut and if you apply the scientific theory strictly, you might be very wrong.

2. Faith and trust determines, not facts - The world world works like that, so don't  be shocked. For example, why are leaves green? The answer is that the leaves absorb all the 7 colours of white light except green, hence the green part of white light reflect off the leaves and it appears green to us. Sounds very logical and correct, until you ask why does it only reflect green and not other colours. Or why if it reflects green light then it'll appear green to us. Or how do you know if your 'green' is what my 'green' is, because for all I know, I might be seeing your 'blue' and call it green.

Understanding that there is a point after many 'whys' had been asked and it still doesn't answer much of anything is important. First of all you will begin to realise that facts are not that important. Secondly, you'll realise that the ultimate question is whether you believe or you trust it. There is a point where you have to take a leap of faith and all the facts are just so that you can leap off that faith.

You can discuss at length about the fundamentals of the company but where do you draw the data from? If you believe that that data is correct, then you will work out the details and draw your conclusions. If you think the data might be wrong, then it doesn't matter. I'm saying that if you ask enough whys, there will be a point where you can't answer anymore and you just have to take it as a 'law of nature' or 'that's the way things are' or 'that's a good person you're talking about', which are essentially statement based on faith.

If you understand this, then cut to the chase and get to the problem. If you're a buyer, ask yourself if you believe in this person, if you do, the battle is nearly over.  If you're the seller, ask yourself if you believe in this person too. Basically, just work on relationship and the facts will fill up by itself so that you will make a decision.


Anonymous said...


Scientists work on hypothesis and theories. Engineers have to make some things work even if there is no theory. That's where the safety factor comes in.

Engineering education gives a very good grounding in shaping young minds. An engineer can take a MBA and switch to finance but the other way would be far more difficult.

Unfortunately, engineering is not as sexy as banking and finance. The first batch of NTI ( predecessor of NTU) graduates are writing a book on the diverse careers of it's cohort so as to encourage more youngsters to take up engineering.

Personally, I would still take up engineering today if I had to decide all over again.


la papillion said...

Hi Ali,

I didn't know you're an engineering graduate too. I agree with you that engineers are the applied scientist, the ones that make fanciful theories work given the constraints of practicality.

I would do likewise if I had to choose which course to take again.