Gustavo Ballvé on March 26th, 2012
Food for thought, Home, Mental models, Science

What does an article about the fringes of Physics – that “unexplored territory where truth and fantasy are not yet disentangled” – have to do with investing? Not much, but that’s OK for this blog as long as there are some building blocks or models to be taken away. In this case, the importance of balancing both an abstract imagination and a rigorous experimental discipline seems to apply to investing as well as science.

One useful idea from the article is a reminder of the twin factors of scientific discovery: abstract imagination and experimental rigor. Imagination without rigorous experimentation yields scenarios, hypotheses and in the worst case fantasies (when one does not yield to facts). Conversely, all rigor and no imagination limits the boundaries of knowledge by perhaps missing the right questions – imagining scenarios, however unlikely at first, but that could logically lead to a “proof” (even if it is proof that you’re wrong).

Another useful idea from the article is the distinction between “experts” and “amateurs”, so to speak. Recently, this has been framed as science vs. pseudo-science or “fast science” – and this will be increasingly important as crowdsourcing gains momentum, i.e., as we “trust” others with issues usually left for “experts” in the traditional sense. While you may choose not to believe in “titles”/ “certifications”/ “labels” until you’ve seen the process behind the results, it’s clear that some fields of knowledge demand that you “pay the tolls” to acquire knowledge. But non-scientists can still contribute by potentially bringing new visions/ angles/ imaginative inputs and innovations (even methods, machines etc.) to the scientific process.

We’ve dealt with “Art and Analysis” here, and with multi-disciplinarian approach and science here (do yourself a favor and watch the Richard Feynman video in the 2nd link).

Yet another useful bit is the one that mentions two highly-respected scientists (then and now) who had failed theories and beliefs of their own. Only a few people in the History of mankind were able to be as big imaginative geniuses as they were geniuses in rigorously assessing their hypothesis. That’s OK!

In investing, which is not a “science” in any way, it’s still important that we have an “abstract imagination” as well as an “intellectual rigor, discipline and humility”. Know which type you are and seek to control the other aspect or surround yourself with people who can help you there. More: remember that investing is also much more dynamic – conditions change, scenarios change, even the “rules” may change – so revisiting and retesting your “knowledge” is a must, even after you think you’ve paid the tolls…

Finally, some excerpts from the article – excerpts that will make much more sense if you read the article:

“Why do I value so highly the memory of Eddington and Velikovsky, and why does Margaret Wertheim treasure the memory of William Thomson and Jim Carter? We honor them because science is only a small part of human capability. We gain knowledge of our place in the universe not only from science but also from history, art, and literature. Science is a creative interaction of observation with imagination. “Physics at the Fringe” is what happens when imagination loses touch with observation. Imagination by itself can still enlarge our vision when observation fails. The mythologies of Carter and Velikovsky fail to be science, but they are works of art and high imagining. As William Blake told us long ago, ‘You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.’ “


[In Science], There is good reason to pay more attention to scientific experts than to amateurs, so long as science is based on experiments. Only trained experts can do experiments with the care and precision that experiments demand. Expert experimenters are not infallible, but they are less fallible than amateurs. Experiments give orthodox beliefs a solid basis. An experimental basis exists for the established disciplines of physics and chemistry and biology. However, some parts of physics are less secure than others, because the experts in physics are divided into experimenters and theorists.”


“Over most of the territory of physics, theorists and experimenters are engaged in a common enterprise, and theories are tested rigorously by experiment. The theorists listen to the voice of nature speaking through experimental tools. (…) String cosmology is different. String cosmology is a part of theoretical physics that has become detached from experiments. String cosmologists are free to imagine universes and multiverses, guided by intuition and aesthetic judgment alone. Their creations must be logically consistent and mathematically elegant, but they are otherwise unconstrained. (…) The fringe of physics is not a sharp boundary with truth on one side and fantasy on the other. All of science is uncertain and subject to revision. The glory of science is to imagine more than we can prove. The fringe is the unexplored territory where truth and fantasy are not yet disentangled.”

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