Rule #1: Don’t be afraid to break the rules

The first time I heard of social network analysis was not in class, but was in fact on the CBS crime drama Numb3rs. I’d like to say that I watch the show because my best friend’s a mathematician and he’s given me a profound love of math but that’s not true. It’s because I have a carryover love for Rob Morrow that comes from years of watching Northern Exposure. But the show is quite good and also quite math-centric. Whether or not I believe that math rules the world and that social network analysis can tell you things about society that individual people can’t is very interesting.
But what I found most interesting in David Lazer’s lecture was the idea that communication was bad for a society, that it could cause a certain plateau in thinking. I found this sentiment extremely logical. People are ingrained to think in a certain way. Everyone’s told that there are a certain set of rules in everything and that by following the rules you can find the answer. But who are some of our most brilliant creators and thinkers and innovators? People who don’t follow rules. Rules are good for a lot of things. They given a developing brain a safety net that they can hang on to when it’s learning something new. But in the same vein, one of the most prominent rules has to be that the only way to discover something new is to break the rules. I’ve been reading a lot about discovery lately, about finding new planets and discovering giant trees. There was an article this summer in the New Yorker about Mike Brown, a professor at Caltech, who discovered Eris (informally called “Xena”), the would-have-been tenth planet. Brown was waiting one night to use one of the four telescopes at Caltech and wandered into an older telescope that took pictures of larger areas of the sky than the telescope he normally used. He started using this telescope only, eventually incorporating new technology to find what then could have been the next planet. What I take from this story is that you can’t be afraid to break the boundaries of what has always been taught (which seems eerily like the motto of the Public Opinion class) because you just might end up finding a completely new way of doing things. On Numb3rs, Rob Morrow’s character is an FBI agent whose math professor brother starts working on a case with him. Eventually the brother and his colleagues become an integral part of the team and are instrumental in solving cases. Now this is all TV of course but I think they make a good point. Just because it’s different doesn’t mean it’s wrong and just because there’s rules doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be broken.

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