Sunday, April 9, 2017

Collaborating with outsiders

I watched Katie Bouman's TED talk "How to take a picture of a black hole". It was both charming and informative. 
 She emphasized right at the beginning that she is not a physicist but a doctoral student at MIT in computer science.  It is clear to me from her body language that she was excited to be giving a TED talk and who wouldn't be?  Beyond the general level of excitement, a computer scientist who deals with artificial intelligence and image recognition, she had to grasp the basics of the problem of getting an image of something which by definition is not observable.

She also emphasized that she is part of a collaborative team.  Her discussion reminded me of the collaboration between professors and academic staff and secretaries.  Especially when computers were first reduced in size to desktop models while increasing in speed and power, office staff, often accomplished typists, learned quickly what the machines could do and how to make them do their stuff.  What I find especially interesting about collaboration between people of different backgrounds is the need to explain the goals and the questions being explored in language that makes clear to a non-expert what the expert is thinking and aiming for.

The expert may be completely accustomed to certain concepts and facts and procedures but the new learner, from a different field, can be amazed, confused, doubtful.  The new set of ears and eyes can find questions that an expert would not think to ask.  

Basic questions in education often relate to what must a learner do to convince a teacher or an institution that she has learned/mastered a body of knowledge or a set of skills.  Too often, the expert who has been at pains to learn, relearn, mull over, consider, meditate upon, and write about a topic is reluctant to see his beautiful theory, his lovely grasp of knowledge reduced to a few simple notions that a beginner or collaborator seems to accept as the relevant required learning. Yet, as observers of collaboration often find, the beginner's grasp, the beginner's gasp of wonder and the beginner's reduction of the matter to succinct, rather ordinary words is as valuable, or more so, than the expert's version with its details and nuances.

Many people want to understand more but will not and cannot devote a lifetime to details, especially a mixture of outdated details, controversial theories and specialized vocabulary.

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