Cargo Cult Science

All of us have read the Steve Jobs Commencement speech (the one he says that we have to connect the dots backwards). But has anyone read this amazing commencement speech by Richard Feynman (1974 – Caltech). Brilliant in one word, is how I would put it.

An excerpt:

I think the educational and psychological studies I mentioned are examples of what I would like to call cargo cult science. In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they’ve arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head to headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas–he’s the controller–and they wait for the airplanes to land. They’re doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No airplanes land. So I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential, because the planes don’t land.

Now it behooves me, of course, to tell you what they’re missing. But it would be just about as difficult to explain to the South Sea islanders how they have to arrange things so that they get some wealth in their system. It is not something simple like telling them how to improve the shapes of the earphones. But there is one feature I notice that is generally missing in cargo cult science. That is the idea that we all hope you have learned in studying science in school–we never say explicitly what this is, but just hope that you catch on by all the examples of scientific investigation. It is interesting, therefore, to bring it out now and speak of it explicitly. It’s a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty–a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid–not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you’ve eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked–to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.

If the above excerpt excited you enough, go check out the entire speech.


I found this through Seth Godins blog.

Exam Results Online

Incredible, how India’s IT infrastructure has advanced by leaps and bounds. Every state educational board exam result is available online (via NIC – the National Informatics Center). Yesterday my society supervisor came and asked me if I could check the result for two of his nephews. The CBSE (Central Board of Secondary Education) has been having the results online for a few years now. But, it was quite a surprise to me that, now almost every state has its results online too. For instance yesterday, all I had to do was to go (to get the Uttar Pradesh Class X results). Amazing. The interface is incredibly light – so that the servers can take the load and the page can load quickly. The page only has a box for roll number. You type in the roll number, and you get the students name (just to confirm, it is indeed the right marks you are looking at), and the score breakup in each subject.

There is also a top level results page, from where you can jump to any state of your choice.

Email writing 101

Good post in the Blue Flavor Blog about the essentials of email writing. Good points made. The authors talks about how brevity is important, how subject lines decide whether the reader will read the email or not ; and how one should leave the reader with an easily respondable question.

I strongly agree with this. In most cases, I would strongly favor an email asking me something like — “Do you agree with this ? ” — and I would embed my answer into the email. I would not like something like — “What are your thoughts on this ?”, or “Do you think this would work ? ” . Both these require you to put effort into the email, the consequence of which is going to be just a decision. If there is more to be discussed, I would rather expect something like “If you have more thoughts, call me at xxx-xxx-xxxx”.

Check out the post here. [link]

Shall we dance …

Off-topic post:Saw this classic movie on tv last night – Richard Gere at his best. I should say that J-Lo (Jennifer Lopez for the uninitiated) has done a pretty good job too. The two dances their way to glory. The waltzes, the quick steps – wow. They really had done their homework right. I can understand that J-Lo probably learnt dancing – since she dances most times in her music videos – but I bet Richard Gere had to learn a lot of new stuff. Amazing. Ofcourse my fav piece of music was the spanish gypsy dance piece. We used to have this piece as a 45rpm vinyl record once upon a time (we still have the record I think, but we certainly dont have a player.

Endless pools

Point to note: This is probably one of the first ever times, I clicked on an online ad in a webpage.

Endless pools is one of the coolest concepts I have ever seen in a long long time. This thing is basically dubbed as the treadmill for swimmers. It is a small swimming pool (13×8) – the makers claim it can make it through any standard sized door. It has some mechanism by which blowers blow waves against the direction you swim. So in the small space, you just keep swimming hard, but you dont move (just like in a treadmill). Is that not just way too cool.