Welcome to Science Talk, the podcast of Scientific American for the seven days starting August 2nd. I am Steve Mirsky. This week on the podcast we will reveal the secret of how to get really good at anything with Phil Ross, the author of "The Expert Mind" in the August issue of Scientific American and we will also hear from Sheldon Schafer, the Curator of the Solar system, about how you can bicycle to Pluto. All will be explained. Plus we will test you on some recent science in the news.
First up, Phil Ross. He was a contributing editor at Scientific American when he wrote "The Expert Mind" and has just become the Web editor for the publication IEEE Spectrum. I called him at his office in New York City.
Steve: Hi Phil. How are you?
Phil: Hi. How are you?
Steve: Good. So you have the cover story in the August issue Scientific American, "The Expert Mind"; and so let me ask you this: How do I get to Carnegie Hall?
Phil: Well practice, practice, practice is the standard answer, and a lot of people have thought it was not quite true. They thought talent played a role—and they may be right, its hard to disprove that hypothesis—but the current belief, it seems, is—among people who study expertise, the experts on expertise—is there is no good reason why any one of us could not become a recognized expert.
Steve: Practice really does make perfect, rather than a neat kind of talent for a field, but it has to be the right kind of practice, right?
Phil: Yes. Imagine a good
acknowledge[analogy] for anyone is to take the one thing that we are truly expert in, which is something to do with language that is not natural—reading. Everyone speaks a language, and you can't call that expertise, because there is an argument that we are programmed to learn the language; but there is nothing out there programming us to learn how to read and write. It's very artificial, it takes many years to learn, to get to the level of a normal educated adult reader, I do not think can be done in less than ten years; and imagine how much better you would have gotten if you would [had] stayed with the See Spot Run books that you were first exposed to in kindergarten or the first grade.
Steve: You mean how much better you would not have gotten.
Phil: Yes, you'd have stayed the same, exactly like the poor golfer who just learns enough to get to the point where he keep up with other bad golfers and not embarrass himself and then stops improving. Imagine that all you ever want to do with reading was continue to read comic books. You'd never get better than you need to read comic books.
Steve: The article refers to it as effortful study rather than just doing the activity.
Phil: Yes, effortful study is a phrase coined by Anders Ericsson—a big expert in this field off at Florida—and he means by it work that
's involv[es] ed constant self grading. So for example if you are [a] violinist and you have problems with a particular passage, you wouldn't just bleep over it very well. People won't notice it or I'll just do better elsewhere. You work on that one, you try to get better, maybe don't—after all it's difficult for you—so you try a different tactic, you try a different method, you try to approach it from the different way, and you work at it and work at it; and you do this sort of thing until you can handle the passage in question. A day later you make sure you can still handle it, a week later you make sure you can still handle it, then you figure you've got it down, pat, and you hit the next weakness in your playing. You do this 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year for 10 years and pretty soon we're talking with a good violinist.
Steve: Now one might think that for, lets say for the violinist, a concert would be a key growth event, or for an athlete the competition would be the key thing, but the article points out that—and for chess as well, that competition—the article points out that the value of actual competition in enhancing expertise is really only to illuminate those areas that require more work.
Phil: Yes, if you look at chess players who play in serious competition against recognized opponents all the time, compare them to the others who play much less frequently or not at all, yet
t[f]ill up the extra time with intensive study, the second group does better. The practice itself is the key matter. It works at all levels, all the way up to the world champion; and when you find examples of so called naturals—you know them in sports, it's also known in chess. The examples get more exotic, more convincing, and more amazing the further back in time you go and the wors[e] t your records are. So, for example Capablanca, he is the great Cuban chess grand master who became world champion in 1921. He was considered to be a great natural player; he used to boast that he never read a chess book. In his day, the chess books for the most part weren't very good. He studied chess incessantly, and he made a great effort to seem like he wasn't making an effort that's my opinion.
Steve: So it's motivation that's more important than any kind of a neat ability.
Phil: Motivation, effort in the right way, doing the right things.
Steve: Can you talk just a little bit about—in the article—that there is a discussion of brain scans of masters versus novices.
Phil: Yes, masters are more likely to rely on long-term memory, accessing patterns that they laid down and mastered long ago in the course of their play.
Steve: The thing that I remember being struck by was that the novices and the masters were contemplating the same number of choices, but the masters were contemplating a better variety of choices, a stronger variety.
Phil: The correlation goes as follows. Very weak players do not look at many options in part because it is so effortful for them just to generate legal moves and to project ahead, one move ahead let us say; but as the players get better, the number of positions that they consider in the course of choosing a move goes up, and somewhere around the expert level, which is just below the master, it seems to reach a plateau. And [from] that point onward though the gap in performance, that gap in ability may increase immensely, the number of positions looked at stays pretty much the same, maybe goes up very slightly. The argument for this is that after a certain point, after people become pretty good at chess, the differences come not from analysis, but from knowledge.
Steve: So, what can general education take away from what we've learned from analyzing how chess players work?
if you can look at [a] number of things, not just chess—you can say, what about normal music classes versus serious music classes? You can say, what about normal mathematics from KG to 12 versus the mathematics of those children who take an actual interest, who join math club? Even if you take into account that that there are some more hours spent by the involved kids than in the bored ones, you cannot begin to account for the gap in performance. You have—and that's why it's tempting to put it all on the shoulders of talent. Talent in the form of general intelligence has to play a role in many things in life; I'm not denying that and no one really does; but in mastering an established body of knowledge where we've seen that people of different levels of intelligence can do it, it must have to do with effortful practice. And having people sit in a class where they are supposed to learn [the] course for an hour a day for 40 weeks a year—even asked two hours a week, 40 weeks a year for 10 years—is far, far less productive than having them struggle with a violin or some other instrument for the same number of hours in a given month. I think that this is intuitively obvious—you don't get better in the first case; you just get older.
Steve: You just get older and stay the same.
Phil: A lot of what goes on in school involves aging the children, seasoning them, waiting till they ripen the wine, so that you can employ them into a job somewhere, as opposed to teaching them something. This is also, by the way, true in chess. I happen to know that in New York City, there are a number of schools, actually schools for very intelligent children, selective schools where chess is a required subject at least for several grades. And these schools do not produce anything like what you'd expect [in terms of] the number of expert players, one or two is typical
ly per school. Whereas given the effort and given the coaching—it is typically a master coach—you would expect far more. Why? It's because of it is taking just like another subject, one that's not particularly interesting to most of the kids. It's the ones, So motivation is everything—stimulating it is not a trivial question. If you made it into an absolutely important righteous passage in our society—two that come to mind are reading and writing on the one hand and driving a car on the other—you can count a 99 percent achievement. People who don't have organic brain troubles will learn to read, write and drive a car, yet reading and writing and driving a car are not particularly easy and playing chess on a fairly good level, fairly good, is not particularly hard. It is rare the motivation isn't there; it's possible to achieve great things just by developing interest in them.
Steve: Phil, thanks very much, very interesting: "The Expert Mind" in the August Scientific American.
Phil: Thank you.
Steve: So now you know the secret of getting really good at anything—just 10 years of hard work. By the way, Phil Ross's article is available free at out Web site, www.sciam.com, and check out IEEE Spectrum Online, spectrum.ieee.org. We'll be right back.
Rennie: Hi, I am John Rennie, editor-in-chief of Scientific American. Our magazine is now available in a digital edition. Not only
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Now it's time to play TOTALL.......Y BOGUS. Here are your four science stories, but only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL.......Y BOGUS.
Story number 1: The shuttlecocks used in badminton aren't as good these days because avian flu has left good goose feathers in short supply.
Story number 2: Icy cold watermelon is delicious, but room temperature watermelon is more nutritious.
Story number 3: A vaccine appears to fight the battle of the bulge—in rats anyway.
And Story number 4: Intelligence tests show that monkeys are at least as smart as our ape cousins, with the tiny marmoset outsmarting even orangutans.
We'll be back with the answer. But first, I was reading Bicycling Magazine and I saw a short item about something taking place in the weekend of August 12th and 13th called the Interplanetary Bicycle Ride. Naturally I was intrigued, so I got in touch with Sheldon Schafer. One of his titles is actually Curator of the Solar System. He is also the vice president of education and the director of the planetarium at the Lakeview Museum of Arts and Sciences in Peoria, Illinois. I called him at his home in Peoria.
Steve: Mr. Schafer thanks for being with us today.
Schafer: I am excited to be here.
Steve: Tell me about the Interplanetary Bicycle Ride.
Schafer: Well the Interplanetary Bicycle Ride is a one-and-a-half-day event which takes cyclists, bicyclists on a tour of Peoria's Community Solar System, and we often bill it as the world's longest and fastest bicycle ride, using the scale factors of the ride of course.
Steve: This is no model of the solar system like people may be used to that cover[s] a desk or room even.
Schafer: No, not at all. This model we extend out in different directions—16 miles
of[to] the southeast and 22 miles to the northeast and 40 miles to the northwest—to arrange the planets in the appropriate distances, not positionally accurate for any moment in time, but the right distances from the sun relative to our model Sun here at Lakeview Museum.
Steve: And the relative
s' correct sizes of the bodies, correct?
Schafer: Exactly. We have distance and size on the same scale, and that's what differentiates our model from many of the models you may have encountered in your life.
Steve: Right. I mean, for example the usual model that the Sun is the size of say a basketball, the Earth is size of, maybe an apple or a golf ball, and it's a foot or two away, so in your model how big is the Sun, how big is the Earth, and how far is it away?
Schafer: The sun is a 36-foot sphere represented by our planetarium dome and painted on the outside of our building. The Earth is four inches in diameter—an
d accurately custom painted Earth globe—and it's located in a gas station about 3[three-] quarters of mile from the museum.
Steve: And how far away is Pluto?
Schafer: Pluto, as the crow flies, is about 40 miles away.
Steve: So, we're doing this bike ride, and we leave the Sun, and the idea is to really get a sense of the scale of our solar system in a way that no other models that I've ever seen can do.
Schafer: Exactly. And in fact this model wasn't intentionally sized for bicycle[s], but it works out extremely well with bicycles. One of the design criteria I had was that it had to fit in Illinois and Pluto had to be big enough to see.
Steve: And how big is Pluto in your model?
Schafer: It's [a]
about sphere [about] two- or three-quarters of inch in diameter. Actually that's our second Pluto; the first Pluto was ripped off. And ...
Steve: (laughs) Somebody stole Pluto!
Schafer: Somebody stole Pluto; and actually the proprietor of the furniture store where it was located inserted a gumball in its place and didn't even tell me until some of my students from Bradley University were out there on a class assignment and said you know, Pluto looks oddly like a gum ball. (laughs)
Steve: I understand you've made a calculation as to the speed of light in your model.
Schafer: Actually this is one of the real serendipitous things. I teach part-time at Bradley University and the chairman of the department—after a dinner calculation on the back of a napkin—literally remarked to me, you know, on your model the speed of light is about 7 miles per hour.
Steve: Which means that your average bicyclist can easily do twice the speed of light on this ride?
Schafer: Exactly. And over the distance, most people—well the serious cyclist, the century riders—will certainly do twice the speed of light and even the casual rider will exceed the speed of light, and nobody will drop below the speed of light, I don't think.
Steve: So you should finish the ride before you began it.
Schafer: Exactly. There has to be relativistic implications for going many times faster or several times faster than the speed of light.
Steve: Right—within your model anyway—and how many people show up for the ride every year?
Schafer: It's range starts between a 150 and 250, depending on the year and the weather, and this year I think we might guarantee hot weather. (laughs)
Steve: Yeah it
s looks that way. Do people have to pre-register or can they just show up?
Schafer: Pre-registration is encouraged, but we ex[pect]
cept half of the ride[rs], they just show up.
Steve: The Interplanetary Bicycle Ride—and that's going to be a week from this coming Saturday, August 12th and Sunday, August 13th.
Schafer: Right. Saturday you can start at Saturn and you can ride back to over to Jupiter or out to the planet Uranus, Neptune or Pluto and back; or we have a bus to Pluto so that you can take the bus to Pluto and ride back from Pluto.
Steve: Okay the sag wagon to Pluto for anybody who doesn't want to bike the whole thing. Terrific. Mr. Schafer thanks very much. Good luck with the ride.
Schafer: Thank you so much.
Steve: For more on the ride just Google Interplanetary Bicycle Ride or go to the site of the Lakeview Museum, www.lakeview-museum.org.
Now it's time to see which story was TOTALL.......Y BOGUS!
Let's review the four stories.
Story number 1: Avian flu is making for sickly shuttlecocks.
Story number 2: Warm watermelon is more nutritious than the cold kind.
Story number 3: An experimental vaccine seems to fight obesity in rats.
And story number 4: Marmosets are smarter than chimps and orangutans.
Story number 1 is true. The Northern Chinese geese that ordinarily provide top quality feathers for shuttlecocks have been slaughtered by the millions to try to stop the spread of avian flu. The Associated Press reports that lesser quality feathers are being used for shuttlecocks and at top of the line shuttlecocks could triple in prices if the trend continues.
Story number 2 is true.
Waters reports that Chilling watermelon appears to cut down its lycopene and beta-carotene, that's according to Agriculture Department research. Watermelons keep making the compounds after being picked, but that process can get stopped cold; but I am still going for the refrigerated stuff because, when it's a 100 degrees—I'm sorry—my decision-making gets a bit intemperate.
Story number 3 is true. Scientists at the Scripps Research Institute have developed a vaccine that targets a hormone that makes us and rats think we're hungry. Vaccinated rats gain less weight than other rats that ate the same amount. You can read more in David Biello's article on our website www.sciam.com
All of which means that the story about monkeys beating out apes in intelligence tests is of course TOTALL.......Y BOGUS! Because research reported yesterday from the Duke University Medical Center showed, as might be expected, that orangutans and chimps consistently outsmart monkeys and lemurs in a wide range of tests. The study was published in the journal Evolutionary Psychology. Study coauthor Carel Van Schaik said the fact that great apes perform better than other primates in these laboratory tests is reassuring—after all in absolute terms their brains are the largest and they show the most sophisticated behavior under natural conditions. To hear Carel Van Schaik talk generally about his work, check out the podcasts from April 5th and April 12th available at [www.]sciam.com/podcast, and his Scientific American article, "Why are Some Animals so Smart?" is available free on our Web site; just go to [www.]sciam.com and navigate to the April 2006 issue. We'll be right back.
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