Science as sharp as your pencil: The disappearing art of “back-of-the-envelope” thinking

People have become so familiar with mobile phones, tablets and PC screens that simply making handwritten notes is often perceived as a burden.

Organisator Studium Generale

di 2 juni 2015 20:00

Locatie Impulse, gebouwnummer 115

And although the world of information at our fingertips, and the seemingly unlimited facilities for storing and manipulating documents and data, obviously provide huge benefits for scientific practice there appears to be a “silent victim” of these developments. This is the subtle, but immensely powerful, art of back-of-the-envelope thinking. This mode of thinking attempts to distil the most salient aspects of a problem using very limited technical means. But these techniques often allow for surprising insights to be gained, which are often hard to distil from the results of more sophisticated approaches  A very vocal proponent of these techniques and one of the few people to have written explicitly about these techniques is the theoretical physicist Sanjoy Mahajan*.

Bela Mulder will show how pencil-and-paper thinking of this type can be immensely in the life sciences as well. He will do so by working out a few simple examples on the whiteboard while engaging the audience to “think along’’. 

An illustrative quote drawn from an article about Maryam Mirzakhani, the first ever female winner of the highest honour in mathematics, the Field’s medal:

As she thinks about mathematics, Mirzakhani constantly doodles, drawing surfaces and other images related to her research. “She has these huge pieces of paper on the floor and spends hours and hours drawing what look to me like the same picture over and over,” Vondrak said, adding that papers and books are scattered haphazardly about her home office. “I have no idea how she can work like this, but it works out in the end,” he said. Perhaps, he speculates, that is because “the problems she is working on are so abstract and complicated, she can’t afford to make logical steps one by one but has to make big jumps.”

Doodling helps her focus, Mirzakhani said. When thinking about a difficult math problem, “you don’t want to write down all the details,” she said. “But the process of drawing something helps you somehow to stay connected.” Mirzakhani said that her 3-year-old daughter, Anahita, often exclaims, “Oh, Mommy is painting again!” when she sees the mathematician drawing. “Maybe she thinks I’m a painter,” Mirzakhani said.

Read more about Mirzakhani in Quanta Magazine.

* Sanjoy Mahajan, Order of Magnitude Physics (PhD thesis, Stanford, 1988), Streetfighting Mathematics (MIT press, 2010), The art of insight in science and engineering (MIT Press, 2014)