Sunday, January 29, 2006

The homeless person challenge

The other day my apartment-mate Ian and I were talking about some random biological stuff. I don't remember how it started, but I do remember parts of the conversation -

I (Ian): ... I think viruses are pointy.

Me (Me): Pointy? Why pointy?

I: Well, they have to get into the cells somehow, don't they? I always imagined they poked {punctuated with a finger jerk} their way in.

Several of my own comments were equally inane, and it was pretty clear pretty soon that neither of us knew what we were talking about.

It was a strange feeling.

I mean, I know I don't know everything (just a while ago I was chatting with Parmesh, who was feeling gossipy about which famous Indian was having an affair with which other famous Indian, and I was clueless, and happily so; he was charmingly disappointed).

Still, having spent ten years sequestered with eggheads, there's a subconscious (and sometimes not so sub- either) arrogance in me when it comes to "intellectual" matters. Especially science. There's a feeling of "I only need to apply myself a bit and surely I can reason out the basics myself", a sense of entitlement almost.

Of course, whenever I run against anything where the basic science is just so strange as to defy intuition (read, for instance, string theory), or deals with systems so complex that underlying physical principles can't be used to bootstrap up understanding (read, for instance, biology).

So there I was, feeling like Jennipher (one way to reduce air pollution is to eat less gaseous materials (which, btw, isn't necessarily as off-the-mark as you think)).

Perhaps this was in the back of my mind when the next day I randomly decided to give poor Ian an unsolicited tutorial on RSA cryptography. It's totally out of his field, and honestly, his interest, but I figured that he's a smart cookie and surely my enthusiasm would win the day.

Comme-ci, comme ça, as it turned out. The sharp edges of the cookie caught onto the basic idea quckly enough, but started crumbling under combined disinterest and my overenthusiastic too-much-information approach to teaching.

Kinda a bummer, given I'm writing my teaching statement for some positions right now.

Looking at my woebegone expression, he said the usual cheer-upper. 'Not my field of expertise.' I was like - dammit - I should be able to generate that understanding and enthusiasm in you. Dick Feynman said, “If you can’t explain [an idea] so that a freshman could understand it, then you don’t understand it.”

"You see, wire telegraph is a kind of a very, very long cat. You pull his tail in New York and his head is meowing in Los Angeles. Do you understand this? And radio operates exactly the same way: you send signals here, they receive them there. The only difference is that there is no cat."
Albert Einstein

Gratuitous quotes aside, it was clear that I need yet more practice communicating clearly.

Thus was born the homeless person challenge.

I: If you can explain your research to a homeless person without him asking you for a dollar, I'll give you a dollar.

Me: Deal.

While I don't expect any homeless people to be reading this blog, I'll give it a first shot here. Watch this space...


Anonymous Anonymous said...

cant resist it - virus get in by matching their surface proteins to those of the host- specific sites-get the general drift?

7:11 AM  
Blogger InAustin said...

I tried explaining network coding to an undergrad at a frat party. I got a beer for it.

It went something like this:

You know when you send an email or browse facebook, all the stuff in the network is actually bunches of numbers. All along, we were treating these bunches of numbers like boxes of apples. We picked a box up from one place and sent them to another. Like fom your laptop to the facebook computer. But suddenly someone realized, hey! these are numbers, not boxes of apples. So you can do stuff like add and subtract these numbers and the cool thing is that now, instead of sending so many boxes of numbers, you can make do with fewer boxes of sums and products and differences of numbers. You can't do that with apples, but you can do that with numbers.

1:16 AM  

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