Explaining Complex Information Visually

Gravitational Wave ripples effect on earth

Einstein predicted Gravitational Waves 100 years ago, and their existence has now been confirmed. “If scientists are still doing his homework from a 100 years ago,” says Stephen Colbert. He must have been pretty smart.

Astrophysicist Brian Greene explains that gravitational waves are essentially ripples in the fabric of space, like what we see when we throw a pebble into a pond. Except for the waves occur in space itself.

Einstein discovered general relativity in 1915, a year earlier. He found that gravity comes from warps and curves in the fabric of space. The sun warps the space and keeps the earth in orbit like on a trampoline.

But Einstein didn't stop there, says Greene:

Imagine kids running on a trampoline, what happens is their movements keep sending ripples on the surface. The physicist said the same should be true of the fabric of space. When we have two rapidly orbiting stars or black holes, Einstein's math predicts that they will generate a steady march of ripples in the fabric of space.

Those are gravitational waves that he predicted mathematically.

Einstein's math shows that as a gravitational wave ripples by anything it will stretch it and compress it.

The simulation is exaggerated. Greene says the stretching and compression happens in a diameter of an atom scale. This was detected by a sophisticated detector known as LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory#:

It’s a discovery nearly a quarter-century in the making: LIGO was spearheaded by Caltech and MIT in 1992, and now involves nearly 1000 researchers from the UK, Germany, Australia, and beyond. With a total cost of more than $600 million, LIGO is the largest project ever funded by NSF.

Making something visual to explain something complex like scientific information helps people see it in their mind's eye. Which comes as close as we can to them internalizing what it is without needing to know all the technical aspects of how we got there.

At any one time we are having a conversations, we are actually in two of them —one with someone else, and one with ourselves. When the person in conversation with us makes it easier to understand them because they use clear language and translate the complexity for us, we need to talk less to ourselves in our heads to try and make sense of what they are saying. Which is why we can pay more attention to their message.

For knowledge workers this is a key skill to develop. Reading quality material and writing a lot both help us learn how to think more clearly, but it is our experience in doing things that drives the point home —for us when we try to teach someone else.

Greene can explain gravitational waves simply because he understands the mathematical information behind them. Hence the visualization. It is in the actual doing that he can demonstrate how discovery works. He knows the tools, and how to use them. In other words, he operates from his circle of competence.

Circle of competence is Warren Buffett's belief# that an investor's best strategy is to select an area where they can know significantly more than the average investor, and focus their efforts on that area. His partner Charlie Munger says, “We know the edge of our competency better than most.”

Knowing how far one can go is valuable in business. We do well when we build our business based on our circle of competence, and have mixed results when we don't. We can learn to think better and by engaging in deliberate practice, figure out how far we want to expand our circle of competence. We may get the math right, and take a very long time for the rest of the work to show its compounding effects.

Watch the entertaining and informative conversation about gravitational waves below.



[image The Late Show with Stephen Colbert]


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