The universal method

by reestheskin on 17/08/2015

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I can’t remember where I got this from. My memory is that it was in an article or talk by Larry Summers, but I can’t trace the source. Anyway, it may be from somewhere else, so if you know better, let me know. This is my universal graph, that I try and apply to everything.larry summers graph

Note, time is on the X axis, but the Y axis is unlabelled. Often the Y axis will be some measure of advance or progress. I have used it to think about science, and more recently education. They key point is that life is more fun if you are between points 3 and 4, around the inflection. If you move into a field just before the inflection point, your world changes, and what was once impossible now becomes tractable. Conversely, if you are patiently working somewhere between points 1 and 2, it is not clear much progress is being made: is the line horizontal, or the gradient just weakly positive or weakly negative? But as you move past the inflection, to point 5, you know that this sort of increase cannot go on for ever. At some point saturation will take over. The problem is simple: you are never really certain where you are at a single time point, and only if you are in a field say between points 3 and 4 can you feel the sense of excitement of the world changing and lots of progress being made. The difficulty of being on the first (flattish) line say at point 2, is that you don’t know how long it will take before you get to the exciting bit just after point 3. So, we know there is going to be catastrophic change or disruption, but we just don’t know when it will be. I think points 3 and 4 were where medical therapeutics was in 1960. For human genetics, the corresponding time was in the 1990s. For much of what interests me now — how we organise higher education and medical education in particular — I would like to think we are moving towards 3. Interesting times, maybe. Of course, the graph can be inverted or the Y axis reversed. Things can get worse, too.