Thursday, 13 August 2009

The Feynman Index

Someone asked me an interesting question about measurement:

“If what gets measured gets done, are we measuring the right things? What would happen if we started to measure different things?”
What indeed?

It nicely encapsulates the problem of measurement. For any given objective we can identify things to measure – many of which either have, or appear to have, a bearing on the problem. Sometime they move us closer to our objective, but sometimes not quickly enough.

Those averse to measurement love this, because they take any weaknesses as a reason not to measure. But that’s missing the point. Any valid measurement is better than no measurement, even if it’s imperfect. Why? Because without a measure you are left with subjective views. Subjective views will be different each time you look, and provide no clear benchmark for whether things are improving or not.

But the original question was interesting – what if we started to measure different things? What if we measured things that appear a little crazy?

I have been quite inspired by reading Richard Feynman: a brilliant chap who was constantly curious. What a marvellous quality – to be constantly curious. Most of us work hard at being blasé about how much we know – experts at this, experienced at that. Few of us want to expose how little we know. Yet here was an acknowledged genius who was quite prepared to admit what he didn’t know – and was always curious to find out more.

One of his life’s ambitions was to visit Tuva – a Russian republic in Siberia. As far as I can make out he had no better reason than that it sounded like a place that didn’t exist, was in an obscure location and therefore had a huge allure for him.

Here was a dedicated and brilliant physicist who devoted a great deal of his life to physics research and teaching. Yet he also had a number of seemingly unrelated obsessions. Did his obsession with Tuva teach him anything about physics? Did his love of playing the bongos help him to relate to his students better? I suggest they did.

Feynman, as a physicist, understood the importance of measurement. In physics measurement makes the difference between something being properly understood or not. As Feynman points out, something can appear to be correct when in fact it is not. It is the accuracy of measurement that exposes the error.

So The Feynman Index takes a sidelong, mischievous swipe at the problem/objective and asks “What Might I Measure Here?” What curve ball or seemingly off-centre measurement might teach me something I don’t already know? It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t work – replace it with something that works better.

Sometimes the “Feynman Index” type measurements tells us more about the central problem than we might possibly guess from the outset… In addition, not instead of, the mainstream measurements.

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