Anyone sufficiently experienced is indistinguishable from a magician

31 Oct 2019 Gregory J. Stein
Tags Editorial

There’s a story I retell about an incredibly talented researcher friend of mine from time-to-time. Though the exact details elude me now, since it was a number of years ago, the story goes something like this:

My friend and I were on our way to lunch when we ran into someone he knew in the hallway, who we’ll call Stumped Researcher. He was having some odd issue with a measurement apparatus he’d built; we were all physicists, and every lab has their own custom setup of sensors, signal analyzers, etc. to probe physical phenomena. After a lengthy description, stumped researcher was clearly distraught, unable to collect any data that made sense, indicating that something was wrong with his setup. Without ever having seen the measurement setup and without an understanding of the experimental goals, my friend asked a question that astonished me in its specificity, wanting to know the brand of lock-in amplifier that was being used. Stumped researcher (a bit lost, having not mentioned that any lock-in amplifier was even being used) didn’t remember. My friend responded “Yeah, the older model lock-in amplifiers produced by $COMPANY_NAME ship with cables that are known to fail sometimes. I’ll bet that’s the problem.” Sure enough, a couple days later, upon running into no-longer-stumped researcher, that was indeed the problem; a quick change of cable remedied the issue.

To this day, it remains one of the most incredible instances of remote problem-solving I’ve ever seen. The key enabler of this ability: experience. I know that my friend thought that might be the problem because he’d seen it before in the wild. Tinkering was his passion, and with the number of things he’d bought online, taken apart, and sold for parts, he’d no doubt seen it all. And yet, despite knowing how the trick was done, it certainly seemed like magic to me at the time. I find good doctors also have this ability, to have such a deep understanding of the entire body system that a problem in one region causes them to understand. Recently, it occurred to me that I occasionally do the same thing to the undergraduate researchers I work with, asking an obscure question about their code or data or algorithm and then remotely solving the problem that’s vexed them for days.

The title is an allusion to the perhaps overused Arthur C. Clarke quote: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

I have the privilege of being surrounded by brilliant scientists, philosophers, and thinkers of all kinds, so I witness this phenomena with relative frequency. Yet every time I see someone who surprises me in this way, I try to remember that these circumstances don’t just happen: only though dedication to a craft can one gain the depth of understanding necessary to demonstrate this level of mastery. The pull of impostor’s syndrome is real, but I try to be inspired by these moments whenever I can. Perhaps someday I’ll feature in someone else’s anecdotes.

As always, I welcome your thoughts (and personal anecdotes) in the comments below or on Hacker News.