Is That Guy Really, Really Smart?

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A friend I run into regularly says, “Hey, Ann.  Do you know that guy from around here who won that Nobel whatever?”  He means Adam Riess, and yes, I know Riess.  I’ve interviewed him, I say hello, he says hello back.  “I have a question for you,” says my friend. “Is your Nobel guy really, really smart?”  Of course Riess is really, really smart.   I think about that.  “But I don’t know that he’s smarter than other astronomers,” I say.  And now I have to figure out how I know that astronomers are smart, given that I understand only a storified version of what they do; and though I try hard I don’t quite know how they think; and no, I’m not going to define “smart.”

The closest I can come to a decision about a scientist’s smartness is to give myself the problem he or she has solved and see how far I’d get on it.  So the results would go from 1) if I had the same education, I’d have thought that solution was obvious; to 10) where the hell did that come from?

For example:  I was listening to an astronomer explain his latest attack on the decades-old problem of how the universe came to look the way it does:  gas and stars collect into galaxies, galaxies tend to cluster, and their clusters tend to line up into superclusters.  The current solution — happily called λCDM —  says the little things pulled together gravitationally into bigger things and then into bigger things yet.  That means astronomers should see, hanging around galaxies, small remnant clumps of light matter – which they do see as little shining messes called dwarf galaxies.  Lest this problem be too simple, the universe threw in a complication:  galaxies are only a fraction of the stuff that’s out there; the rest you can’t see, it’s invisible, it’s dark.  So along with those clumps of light matter should be  similar clumps of dark matter.  And that’s the problem the astronomer was talking about:  to believe λCDM, you need to find dark matter clumps, but how do you do that when they’re invisible?

What would I do?  I happen to know that dark matter is routinely located indirectly, by its gravitational pull on light matter: that is, the galaxy is rotating or orbiting as though under the influence of something invisible.  So I think the obvious solution for finding dark matter clumps might involve finding some part of the galaxy that the clumps were pulling out of whack.  But that’s not what the astronomer did at all.

Instead, he pointed to the streams of stars that surround galaxies like a parade full of banners, and asked what would happen to one of the streams if a dark matter clump barreled through it.  The stream would have a gap in it.  The number of gaps would be related to the number of clumps.  The astronomer did a lot of calculations and simulations and made assumptions and ruled things out and in the end, predicted the number of clumps and therefore the number of gaps.  “So that’s a buncha theory,” he said.  “What’s it got to do with reality?”

He found some nice surveys of stars, looked up their streams, and counted the gaps in them.  The gaps were what they should have been if they were made by dark matter clumps.  And the number accorded well enough with λCDM.

The astronomer didn’t think he’d proved λCDM, he wasn’t even certain about the dark matter clumps, he thought it was only partway along the road to believability.  Nor is he one of astronomy’s rockstars; he’s probably in no danger of getting a Nobel.  But his idea was not only not obvious — I wouldn’t have thought of it — it was also clever, neat, calculable, observable, and even a little elegant.  The astronomer is smart,  isn’t he.  I’d give him a 7, maybe an 8.

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My nephew-the-scientist-in-training has a way to tell if a scientist is smart:  “Generally speaking, I think scientists are smart if they can skillfully tackle or approach science that is outside of their area of expertise.  I see this ‘smartness’ often at research seminars where a cardiologist will pose a very straightforward and intelligent question to the presenter who is an oncologist. These university seminars are little gems and I consider them a test of my novice scientific ‘smartness’. ”  Smart kid.  My husband-the-retired-physicist has yet another way:  a scientist who can talk about his or her work clearly and understandably is smart.

So here’s the question:  you listen to a scientist; what would make you think, “Oh, this guy is really, really smart?”

_________

Photo credits:  scientist (not Adam Riess, not an astronomer, probably not even a scientist) – [martin]; galaxy with star streams – R. Jay GaBany via Wikimedia Commons

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14 thoughts on “Is That Guy Really, Really Smart?

  1. I’m a Chemical Engineer, and I agree with your husband. If you can clearly explain it to another person, that’s smart. I add to it that it’s a sign of someone else’s intelligence that they can follow abstract ideas. You have to be able to follow an idea well enough to ask yourself “where did this red shift come from?” or “Where is the extra matter?” and pursue the answer.

    Never stop learning.

  2. Dawn, I’ll add that my brother-the-quantitative-psychologist also agrees with my husband and with you. After decades of interviewing scientists, I’ve never found a correlation between the ability to explain clearly and eminence in the field. I know the latter doesn’t equal “smart,” but I’m ruthless in not defining smart.

  3. It’s not a useful word. Chambers has 17 definitions as an adjective, all of which are synonyms. As with most adjectives, no value is added. You should be asking ‘is this guy adding any value, and if so, how, exactly?’

  4. Ok, smartypants Tim, you’re absolutely right. So how do you decide if the guy is adding value? Isn’t that an even less-constrained question? Ha.

  5. Whoo. That leads my thoughts into ZatAoMM territory (which isn’t somewhere I want to go right now). ‘Value’? Is that the same thing as ‘Quality’? I’ll have to think about that.

  6. This is a very messy question with very messy answers. Psychologists who study this sort of thing very carefully have for a long time understood that there are different kinds of smart (they call it intelligence or cognition, mostly because it sounds more impressive than smart, not because there is a useful distinction, as Tim points out). Just so we don’t get too bogged down trying to reach consensus, psychologists have a hard time agreeing on exactly what the different kinds of smart are, so why should we do any better here? But, without getting in too deep, you can see this in the two different aspects of smart displayed in the creative problem solving of Ann’s dark matter clump guy, and that displayed in the agile observations of Ann’s nephew-the-scientist-in-training’s cardiologist. As Ann implies in asking her final question, there are others too: I would include things like artistry, eloquence, the wisdom born of experience, and common sense. I want to point out that Ann’s husband the retired physicist (and yours truly as well) are describing an indirect indicator of smarts. Not really the same thing exactly, but, I think, a perfectly appropriate answer to Ann’s question of what would make you think somebody is smart.

    I really want to add another interesting question: for whichever flavor of smart you favor, is smart volatile or durable? That is, is it a state that you can move in and out of relatively rapidly (like moods or diseases), or is it something that is more durable, maybe like your hair color or maybe like riding a bike?

  7. Translation of Tim’s ZatAoMM: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintainence or however you spell it, and I don’t want to go there either.

    Bruz, that’s a great question and I guess the answer would truly depend on what you want to get done. Does anybody have both? Because if I want to be a good writer, that’s what I’d want, both.

  8. I interviewed a physicist yesterday who told me intelligence was the most important quality he looked for in students; if they didn’t have it, it couldn’t be taught and there was no hope in working with them.

    Being able to work with, and talk to, all sorts of people is what I think is smart. Keeping your eyes and ears open to the world, and being able to see something in all that jumble … I don’t think you have to be a scientist for that. But what do I know, I almost got stuck on that spam protection question, “sum of five + eight?”

  9. Very Interesting! So I was wrong, it obviously is a useful word, as Bruz eloquently demonstrates. Just how useful, again, depends on that last question: does it come and go, or is it innate to an individual? I think what we’re talking about here is a skill rather than an ability (if that makes sense).
    My hair has learnt to be mostly grey now; wasn’t always.

  10. Ann, whether astronomers are smart or not is not exactly relevant. Sure, you have to be “smart” in the sense that you like what you are doing! If you hate math, you will not be an astronomer no matter how smart you are otherwise. And i believe that liking math is not a talent, but something learned and programmed in us by our peers at schools and at home.

    As for the smart people winning prizes, that is certainly not true. To be successful in astronomy requires two things to happen: (1) you are lucky to find an interesting problem and (2) you take advantage of your luck and you work your butt off on the problem while having fun.

  11. I know some very “smart” scientists who are complete idiots in other matters. Similarly I know brilliant artists who can’t get their head around scientific concepts. I also, incidentally, know mathematicians who can do all sort of complex mathematical analyses but count on their fingers.

    So yes, what does “smart” mean?. To you it involves math problems, but that’s not everybody’s gauge. No a fan of “add value” since it sounds too corporate to me.

  12. @Nicholas S and Ann: Brian Schmidt–new Nobel laureate in physics and co-founder (with Nicholas S) of one of the supernova teams that went on to discover evidence for the acceleration of the expansion of the universe–once told me that he was the third best physics student in his high school. The “smarter” physics students, however, had other passions, which they pursued successfully as adults. Brian’s passion, however, was physics. So maybe at least in some cases we cay say: “smart” = smarts + passion. And sometimes, as Nicholas S suggests, “really smart” = smarts + passion + serendipity.

  13. Ok, so we’re working on a tome here and the question is, are we adding up to something? Or not?

    Dawn: If you can clearly explain it to another person, that’s smart. I add to it that it’s a sign of someone else’s intelligence that they can follow abstract ideas.

    Bruz: [edited] the creative problem solving of Ann’s dark matter clump guy, the agile observations of Ann’s nephew-the-scientist-in-training’s cardiologist. I would include things like artistry, eloquence, the wisdom born of experience, and common sense.

    Amy: Being able to work with, and talk to, all sorts of people is what I think is smart. Keeping your eyes and ears open to the world, and being able to see something in all that jumble.

    Nick: [freely interpreted] Smart is doing what you like doing, recognizing what’s interesting, being willing to work your butt off.

    Richard: “smart” = smarts + passion. And sometimes, as Nicholas S suggests, “really smart” = smarts + passion + serendipity.

    And the Tim/Bruz question of whether “smart” comes and goes or whether it’s like your hair color.

    Shall we publish?

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