Marco's Blog

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en eo


2008-03-18 4 min read marco

One of the things that has always puzzled me is just how adverse a reaction you can get to anything average. You’d think that something average would be ok – I mean, how could it possibly be bad to be like everyone else?

Instead, in all languages I speak, there is a common thread: words that indicate averageness have negative connotations. Let’s see: mediocre (from Latin medius, middle); average; common; durchschnittlich (German for average). Even the very negative “mean” has a cognate that indicates averageness.

This is even more puzzling considering that, with the way we experience things, most of them are average. We find the actual mean value and then add and subtract a full standard deviation from it (that’s why it’s called that way), and that’s what we consider average.

Nope, we are not happy with it. If we are average size, we’d like to be taller. If we are average weight, we need to lose some (which may be true, of course). Average looks don’t help us in life. Let’s not even talk about people with an average IQ!

Why do we go through so much pain to ensure that we get better than average? Is it maybe because we can choose in so many different areas, there has to be some attribute where we can afford above average? I mean, if your new employee has average intelligence, maybe he or she could have above average commitment.

Whatever it is that we find repulsive about mediocrity, our bias has a negative consequence: it makes us blind to the fact that most of the action for change has to occur in the middle, because that’s where the bulk of humans live.

I’ll give you an example of what I am talking about: when I was in college, I was talking with Dean Kastrup about the basic lack of fairness of college exams. After all, I said, a physicist will never be put in a position where he or she (ok, mostly he) needs to deliver something in three hours without a mistake in maths. We should change the exams to be more reflective of the typical work a physicist should be doing.

Dean Kastrup looked at me and said: but Marco, people that are good at physics will succeed no matter what type of exam you use!

I though about that, and it occurred to me, much later, that the Dean was both right and wrong. He was right, in that indeed a good physicist survives pretty much any exam you throw at him/her. He was wrong, though, in thinking that this is something that matters.

Indeed, one of the things I found deplorable about physics in the late 20th century is just how much it is dominated by pedestrian engineering devoid of big ideas. Even the much celebrated string theory is, when you look at it with the eye of a theoretical physicist, simply a case of throwing mathematical abstraction on a problem that requires understanding.

Now, the type of exam we were forced through was indeed inspired by electrical engineering. And while in an engineer you are trying to foster the adoption of a method and the ability to work efficiently and accurately under pressure, you don’t want either of these things in a physicist. Instead, you want creative thinking and the invention of method.

I content now that by selecting by virtue of the wrong criteria, we have modified the entire history of physics. I recall that I left physics because it was boring (by which I mean the people in it bored me). Half a century earlier I would have never done that.

The same is true for software engineers, too, by the way: the curriculum taught in colleges is all wrong: it focuses on engineering skills, but creativity and the ability to absorb and learn are much more important.

We really need to rethink this: {xtypo_quote_alt}the way we select the middle of the field is the way we choose the future of the whole field. {/xtypo_quote_alt}