Apr 5, 2022

taste, boldness, and grade-school math

Venkatesh Rao:

All the best living engineers I know share the one key trait — they are intuitively good Fermi-Dyson thinkers within the computing revolution. They are right early, and right a lot about the effects of Moore’s law, at every level from chips to societies, and set out to build very basic things, often building blocks, using those effects. Outside their core domains, they tend to achieve mixed results, which makes me suspect Fermi-Dyson thinking is a kind of advanced, quantitative, situated intuition. It is somewhere between Kahnemann’s System 1 and System 2. Call it domain-adapted System 1.5 thinking.

The interesting thing is, Fermi-Dyson thinking does not call for ultra-high IQ or genius-level skills with physics or engineering mathematics. You need to be reasonably intelligent and have decent mathematical skills, but the more important traits required are taste and boldness. The taste can be cultivated, but the boldness seems harder to deliberately acquire, since attitudes towards risk of any sort seem to be deep-rooted and hard-to-change aspects of personality.

Many people with high IQs and genius-level skills often have neither taste, nor boldness. Worse, they are often so attached to their outlier skills that they are too eager to prematurely venture into Extreme Math™ regimes where lesser minds cannot follow, where they find precise and optimized solutions to the wrong problems. They are more interested in demonstrating their intellectual superiority in timid and tasteless ways than in solving interesting problems. They get stuck quibbling with unnecessary precision about unimportant things.

Fermi-Dyson thinking is intellectual risk-taking with numbers, which can be anathema for people for whom thinking is a low-risk sport aimed at acquiring prestigious credentials, safe careers, or cheap social validation.

This makes Enrico Fermi and Freeman Dyson seem even more remarkable as individuals — not only were they high-IQ genius physicist-mathematician-engineers of the kind institutions easily recognize, they had the boldness and taste to overcome that handicap and do simple thinking and grade-school math when the problem demanded it, despite their ability to do arbitrarily complex thinking too.