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February, 2005

The Advantage of New Perspectives

I just finally finished reading the MIT Technology Review article on anti-aging guru Aubrey de Grey titled "Do You Want to Live Forever?" While the article is definitely worth a read, it's not what it was about that interested me, but instead it was the way that de Grey is approaching the problem of aging. What's so impressive about his approach, and the recognition that has come along with it, is that de Grey has no background in biology.
He is without qualifications for that [hands-on experiments in human biology], and makes no pretensions to being anything other than what he is, a computer scientist who has taught himself natural science. Aubrey de Grey is a man of ideas, and he has set himself toward the goal of transforming the basis of what it means to be human.
Essentially he's an outsider taking a completely different approach to a familiar problem. Fairly quickly into the article I started to make a connection to another article I had read a while back. After doing I quick search online I was able to track it down. The article was from the September issue of Wired. It's titled "Scientific Method Man" and is all about Gordon Rugg, who cracked the 400-year-old mystery of the Voynich manuscript. The Voynich manuscript is, "a hand-lettered book written in an unknown code that has frustrated cryptographers since its discovery in an Italian villa in 1912." What's so impressive about Rugg is that Rugg isn't a code-breaker or mathematician, he's a psychologist. Cracking the Voynich was an intellectual exercise testing a theory he has developed. He calls it the verifier approach and it's a way to overcome seemingly impossible obstacles. Essentially the approach is a three-part proccess that can be used in nearly any field. It involves "watching how they work and think, testing their logic, and uncovering ways to help them solve problems."

Rugg saw an opportunity in the Voynich to test the verifier approach.

As he read about the Voynich and began applying his method - amassing knowledge about a problem and assessing the kinds of expertise applied so far are steps one and two - he saw that no one had seriously explored the idea that the book was a grand hoax.
So that's just what he did. And he solved it. Just to put things into perspective, the article included this:
How impregnable is the Voynich? During World War II, US Army code breakers - the guys who blew away Nazi ciphers - grappled with the manuscript in their spare time and came up empty. Since then, decoding the book's contents has become an obsession for geeks and puzzle nuts everywhere.
So how did everyone miss it? It seems that all of these experts let some nobody come in and beat them to the punch because they got comfortable. It's a problem everywhere, but often most recognizable in education.
This "expertise gap" is rife in academia, but few recognize it, let alone know how to correct for it. It starts with the best of intentions. Institutions want top-notch people, so they offer incentives to attract and groom experts. Young grad students learn early that if they want to carve out a niche, they must confine their interests to a narrow field. It's not enough to work in spinal cord regeneration; it must be stem cell-based solutions to the problem. That's great if a researcher just happens to stumble on a perfect stem cell cure. But as specialists get further from their core expertise, the possible solutions - what's been tried, what hasn't, what was never properly examined, what ought to be tried again - get even more elusive.
Getting back to de Grey for a minute, he hasn't solved anything yet, but it's hard to deny the similarity between the approaches of both men.
Having become interested in biology after marrying a geneticist in 1991, he began poring over texts, and autodidacted until he had mastered the subject. The more he learned, the more he became convinced that the postponement of death was a problem that could very well have real solutions and that he might be just the person to find them. As he reviewed the possible reasons why so little progress had been made in spite of the remarkable molecular and cellular discoveries of recent decades, he came to the conclusion that the problem might be far less difficult to solve than some thought; it seemed to him related to a factor too often brushed under the table when the motivations of scientists are discussed, namely the small likelihood of achieving promising results within the ­period required for academic advancement—careerism, in a word. As he puts it, “High-risk fields are not the most conducive to getting promoted quickly.�
No matter what, de Grey has certainly made a lot of noise and been noticed. It's worth thinking about where else the verifier approach may be successful.

I think Rugg and de Grey just might be onto something here.

UPDATE: Just read the Nerve.com interview with Malcolm Gladwell and realized that he's basically taken a verifier approach. Gladwell says, "Having no formal science training actually freed me up to ask the dumb questions, which are often the most important ones."

February 17, 2005
Noah Brier | Thanks for reading. | Don't fake the funk on a nasty dunk.