Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Herbert A. Simon

The scientist and the surgeon

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The idea that there can be a normative theory of discovery is no more surprising than the idea that there can be a normative theory of surgery. Some surgeons do better work than others, presumably because they have better heuristics and techniques (some in the form of conscious principles and problem-solving methods, some in the form of abilities to recognize the critical features of situations, some in the form of tools and instruments, and some in the form of practiced motor skills). The combination of all these heuristics and techniques makes skill in surgery more than a matter of chance, but not a matter of certainty in any particular operation. Patients who might have been saved do die, even in the hands of the most skillful surgeons.

Some scientists, too, do better work than others and make more important discoveries. It seems reasonable to presume that the superior scientists have more effective methodological principles and problem-solving methods, are better able to recognize critical features in data and theoretical formulations, have better laboratory and computing instruments, and are more skillful in the laboratory than their less successful colleagues…Skill in surgery may be specialized to particular classes of operations. The superiority of a brain surgeon may rest on heuristics specialized to the anatomy of the human head, and may provide him with no special ability with organ transplants. Similarly, the heuristics provided by a particular scientist may provide him with a comparative advantage only in some relatively limited domain of science. It is even possible that there is no “scientific method” of all, but only special methods for doing research involving gene transplants, or experiments on nuclear magnetic resonance, or theoretical work in particle physics.

Pat Langley, Herbert A. Simon, Gary L. Bradshaw, and Jan M. Zytkow, Scientific Discovery

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July 15, 2017 at 7:30 am

Quote of the Day

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Herbert A. Simon

Einstein was only twenty-six when he invented spatial relativity in 1905, but do you know how old he was when he wrote his first paper on the speed of light? Fifteen or sixteen. That’s the magic ten years. It turns out that the time separating people’s first in-depth exposure to a field and their first world-class achievement in that field is ten years, neither more nor less by much. Einstein knew a hell of a lot about light rays and all sorts of odd information related to them by the time he turned twenty-six.

Herbert A. Simon, to Omni

Written by nevalalee

November 13, 2015 at 7:30 am

The way of trial and error

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Herbert A. Simon

Let us turn now to some phenomena that have no obvious connection with biological evolution: human problem-solving processes. Consider, for example, the task of discovering the proof for a difficult theorem. The process can be—and often has been—described as a search through a maze. Starting with the axioms and previously proved theorems, various transformations allowed by the rules of the mathematical systems are attempted, to obtain new expressions. These are modified in turn until, with persistence and good fortune, a sequence or path of transformations is discovered that leads to the goal.

The process ordinarily involves much trial and error. Various paths are tried; some are abandoned, others are pushed further. Before a solution is found, many paths of the maze may be explored. The more difficult and novel the problem, the greater is likely to be the amount of trial and error required to find a solution. At the same time the trial and error is not completely random or blind; it is in fact rather highly selective. The new expressions that are obtained by transforming given ones are examined to see whether they represent progress toward the goal. Indications of progress spur further search in the same direction; lack of progress signals the abandonment of a line of search. Problem solving requires selective trial and error…

All that we have learned about these mazes points to the same conclusion: that human problem solving, from the most blundering to the most insightful, involves nothing more than varying mixtures of trial and error and selectivity. The selectivity derives from various rules of thumb, or heuristics, that suggest which paths should be tried first and which leads are promising.

Herbert A. Simon

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April 12, 2015 at 7:30 am

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Quote of the Day

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Herbert A. Simon

I am an adaptive system, whose survival and success, whatever my goals, depend on maintaining a reasonably veridical picture of my environment of things and people. Since my world picture approximates reality only crudely, I cannot aspire to optimize anything; at most, I can aim at satisficing. Searching for the best can only dissipate scarce cognitive resources; the best is the enemy of the good.

Herbert A. Simon

Written by nevalalee

January 20, 2015 at 7:30 am

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