The transcript from this week’s MIB: Thomas Lin of Quanta, is below.
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VOICE-OVER:This is Masters in Business with Barry Ritholtz on Bloomberg Radio.
RITHOLTZ: I have an extra special guest. His name is Thomas Lin, and he has a fascinating background in math and science as well as Journalism. He is the Founding Editor of “Quanta Magazine,” which is a News and math website founded and funded by Jim Simons Foundation.
Simons is the Founder of Renaissance Technologies, one of the most successful hedge funds in the world. Jim Simons and his wife Marilyn run a philanthropic foundation where they are very interested in math and science education, both that at — at the most basic level educating American students to be better at math and Science, and as you’ll see with Quanta at the very highest levels.
I’ve been a fan of the site for — since it launched, it’s really quite fascinating. You don’t need a PhD in mathematics or science to be able to keep up with it. It’s really intriguing. Thomas has done a — a wonderful job finding some of the most interesting research, and stories and breaking news about the latest discoveries in math and science and — and making it very readable and very accessible.
If you’re at all interested in science and math — and really all of us should be — then I think you’ll find this conversation to be absolutely fascinating. So with no further ado, my conversation with Quanta Magazine’s Editor-in-Chief Thomas Lin.
My guest this week is Thomas Lin. He is the Founding Editor of Quanta Magazine. It is an award-winning, editorially independent science and math site published by the Simons Foundation. That is the philanthropic arm of Jim Simons who founded Renaissance Technologies.
Thomas Lin previously was the Digital Editor for the “New York Times.” He comes to us by way of Cornell University and the Oregon State University where he got his masters in Teaching and Literature, is that right?
LIN: That’s right.
RITHOLTZ: Fantastic. Thomas Lin, welcome to Bloomberg.
LIN: Thank you.
RITHOLTZ: So — so you have a really eclectic background, and I want to spend a little time getting into that and find out how you ended up founding in Quanta, but let’s talk about your background. You’re an engineer. You’re a former Editor of “The Times.” How do you end up creating a magazine like Quanta?
LIN: Yeah, it’s kind of a crazy story. I mean, I think with — as with a lot of people who end up in — in a place that they ultimately really enjoy and feel very satisfied with and in terms of their careers I sort of fell into it. I mean, it started out, you know, in college just not knowing what I wanted to do, and I studied physics, and I studied literature, and I, you know, really was all over the place. And so I ended up sort of utilizing a little bit of the physics side of things as an engineer initially, but then also I wanted the human aspect so I taught for a few years. And then I realized, especially after 9/11, I realized I wanted to be out there in the world, learning more about what’s happening, helping to bring news events to the broader public. And so I decided to become a journalist and eventually back my way into science journalism.
RITHOLTZ: So — so you end up on that the Writers’ Institute at the CUNY Graduate Center. Ultimately, you started teaching journalism there. When you look at the world of science writing, are there many people who have both aspects, the hard science of physics and, you know, literature or journalism, or does that make you a relatively rare bird?
LIN: You know, I think that people — a lot of people are — are smarter than I am, and when they’re younger and they realize what they’re good at and they specialize, and they either go to the science track or they become, you know, humanities major, they study literature or they study, you know, something else, or they’re going to law or medicine or something like that. I really just had a broad interest from a very young age, and I loved writing. I was very interested in literature, but I also had parents who are essentially physicists, and I grew up in this very science culture kind of environment. All my family, I have a lot of scientists in my family, and so there’s always that part of my brain that — that works that way.
RITHOLTZ: So — so both parents were physicists. What — what was the dinner table conversation like?
LIN: Yeah. You know, I was definitely pushed to go ahead in things like math and physics in — in school. I — I ended up studying calculus out of my freshman year in high school. And — and, you know, so the — the conversations were about everything, but there was definitely a scientific bent to a lot of those conversations. And we had — my mom loved puzzles and we had puzzles all over the place in our house.
RITHOLTZ: That’s interesting. So you spent a few years doing journalism. You end up as a digital editor at the “New York Times.” What — what did that involve?
LIN: Yeah. So initially I — I started on this — the national desk at “The Times,” so it wasn’t about science at all and I was just a journalist to learn about what’s happening in the world and bring that to people. And — and that was great. I mean, “The Times,” when I decided I wanted to go into journalism, you know, like many people, “The Times” was the dream, right? That’s where I wanted to be.
LIN: I was very lucky to — to be able to land that — that job when I did and I started on the digital side, which put really interesting opportunities in terms of that interface between the newer technologies that we’re starting to change the way journalism was done and some of the older traditional legacy pen publication. There are a lot of things that are just changing as a very sort of radical time in a way to be at “The Times.”
RITHOLTZ: And I recall the “New York Times” being pretty leading-edge in terms of interactive graphics. Anytime there’s a — a complex news event, “The Times” as well as the “Wall Street Journal” and — and later on “The Washington Post” would have these giant intricate — so Katrina and the flooding, I remember you just kind of scroll through that and it was — and now you go back to look at the time that was so advanced, today that’s kind of rookie stuff. It’s really bleeding edge …
RITHOLTZ: … technology, isn’t it?
LIN: Very much, very much. And they — they were — they had a great foresight in terms of it starting early. They didn’t necessarily have it all figured out early on, but they started early. They started getting stuff on the web. They started hiring people like me to think about what we could do journalistically online that wasn’t just replicating the paper. Remember working on some of the Hurricane Katrina coverage and working all night because it’s so important to bring people immediate pictures of what was happening on the ground, and that’s not something you can get through a daily newspaper.
RITHOLTZ: Right. The — the print — listen, print is really important and — and the written word really matters, but it’s true. If a picture is worth a thousand words, what is an interactive graphic were?
RITHOLTZ: So — so how do you get from “The Times” to Quanta? That’s a pretty big — I’ll avoid all the clichés. That’s a pretty big leap, isn’t it?
LIN: Sure, yeah. You know, and it’s hard because I — I was at “The Times” for almost eight years. I was there about seven and a half years. After the national desk, I worked on the science desk for about three years and learned a lot from the editors there. And I think it was because I was on the science desk, somebody from the Simons Foundation reached out asking did I know any good science editors who could help them produce high-quality science articles. And I sort of scratched my head and I wanted to find out more about who I should recommend, so I asked them about this job just to find out who — who could fit.
RITHOLTZ: Hey, I know a guy.
LIN: Yeah, no. But — and — and, you know, and I think I said, you know, I — I was a journalist so I — I was not interested in going to do communications or P.R., that sort of thing.
LIN: And so — but in talking to the Foundation I — I started to learn that they actually had this other publication already that was editorially independent, and there’s a possibility that whoever came into this role could do some editorially-independent science journalism. And so I got a little bit interested and thought, well, what if we actually could start a magazine and do something a little bit bigger and really change the way hopefully that people see how science coverage is done.
RITHOLTZ: And — and Quanta online, I link to it pretty regularly. I — I love some of the graphics that you guys do. It’s pretty clear that this is a well-thought-out big-budget specialty site. What …
LIN: So that is not that big budget actually, so we — we have …
LIN: … small — small team who — that works very, very hard.
Because — well, let me then rephrase that. It looks like it has a pretty big budget because it’s — there — there are a lot of, you know, gee whiz special effects, but it’s pretty in-depth coverage and — and a lot of the breaking news in math and science and I know that’s almost a counterintuitive statement. It doesn’t just get, you know, a rip and read off a P.R. release …
LIN: Yeah, never.
RITHOLTZ: … it’s a deep explanation about here’s what just was discovered for this research and here’s why it’s significant, and here’s how this fits into the long history of this aspect of math or science.
LIN: Right, right, exactly, and that’s exactly what I wanted to start this publication. As I looked out there at the offerings that most mainstream publications had in terms of their science coverage, and it was a little disheartening I — I have to say. I mean, not — not only the level of — the — the lack of depth of the coverage but also to some extent the choice. I mean, so much of what you see is — is health and technology coverage, but so little of it is fundamental basic science, which is really where all of our knowledge comes from about the world by the universe around us. And so I wanted to cover not only these subjects which are inherently the most fundamental deepest biggest questions we have about everything and what’s — you know, what’s in the universe, how things work but also cover in a way with a little bit of depth, still tell engaging stories about it but actually get things right, do the careful fact-checking, do the careful reporting and research, take the time to get the story right and to tell the more nuanced way of what’s happening in science.
RITHOLTZ: Quite fascinating. So let’s talk a little bit about that. I — I had a conversation recently with someone, and part of our discussion was having to acknowledge that we are living in the golden age of physics, of new mathematical breakthroughs, of astrophysics. We have never known more about the universe either on an astronomical level or at the quantum level than ever before. Am I overselling that or is that — is that a fair statement?
LIN: So I think it — it’s — it — I think that’s fair on one hand, so we are learning more than ever. At the same time, we’re also learning how much we don’t know, and I think that’s also where we are, so it’s the golden era in terms of being in this — I think it’s very exciting the things we can do now, whether it’s experimentally in terms of the theories and the math that’s being developed, at the same time, we’re also hitting the limits of what we can test experimentally in terms of the largest structures and — and thinking about the — the cosmos, but also the smallest, you know, quantum level interactions.
We’re — we’re sort of coming to a point where the theories can no longer be fully tested experimentally, and that is leading to a little bit of a — an internal sort of a soul-searching and — and, you know, there’s — there’s work to be done to figure out what the next revolution will be in physics.
RITHOLTZ: So — so the Dunning-Kruger curve applies to everything. You could say that.
So — and for those of you who are not familiar with that, just google Dunning-Kruger and you’ll — you’ll spend hours reading fascinating things about the things we think we know, but don’t. But — but that’s really kind of a fascinating area as we approach the limits of what we can test in a laboratory. Does that mean theoretical physics or — or moving away from applied mathematics, the theoretical math becomes an increasingly important aspect of our research?
LIN: Well, I think that’s where the — the debates are happening right around — this is, you know, both things whether it’s in the laboratory in terms of look at things that are really small or also even looking out, what we can actually — in terms of the visible universe, what we can see and, of course, there’s a lot that we can’t see in terms of the dark matter and dark energy, things that we — most of the universe is — 95 percent of the universe is made up of stuff that we don’t even know what it is, right?
RITHOLTZ: Or we are just not seeing what’s there, and there is an interest — I — I’m trying to remember. So I have two of your books, which we’ll talk about later, but there was this — a debate about dark matter and part of the question becomes, is there — is dark matter really 95 percent of the universe or our …
LIN: And dark energy to get …
RITHOLTZ: Right, or are our technologies and ability to perceive the rest of the universe not picking up what — what may or may not be there? And so the assumption is it’s dark matter or something else. How much of this is a measurement issue and how much of this is, gee, we really have no idea what the heck is out there?
LIN: Well, there — there is a lot of indirect evidence that the stuff is out there. Everything that we’re observing indicates that dark matter and dark energy does exist. There are some theories out there that have, I think, slowly bend — they’re — they’re sort of not — they’re — they’re losing favor because the evidence is not supporting it. There’s some ideas of modified gravity and another way …
LIN: … that you could explain away things like dark matter. But I think most physicists agree that dark matter and dark energy exist, but we just don’t know what is and we don’t have the ability to detect it and we can’t see it because whatever it is …
RITHOLTZ: It’s dark.
LIN: … it’s not (inaudible), yeah, it’s dark but it’s not interacting with things that we can detect.
RITHOLTZ: But we — we continue to see that — that the universe continues to expand faster than it would if — if visible matter and energy was all there was, so there has to be something driving galaxies apart no matter what direction in …
LIN: Right, right.
RITHOLTZ: … space it was.
LIN: The — the movements of galaxies, you know, there’s got to be something that — that’s affecting that movement and that’s dark matter. And then the acceleration of the universe is — is the dark energy causing that.
RITHOLTZ: So — so let’s talk a little bit about Quanta. You’re a foundation-based publication as opposed to a subscription/advertising format. How does that make what you do a little different and does that afford you freedoms to go places that perhaps the traditional media just simply doesn’t have the time or patience?
LIN: Yeah, no, I think it is liberating in the sense that we are both editorially-independent and yet we are funded to do this very mission-oriented, very important kind of journalism making fundamental science accessible to all. There are other publications like this that are nonprofit that are funded by foundations like ProPublica, for example …
LIN: … that is very important investigative journalism. And these are the areas of journalism that have a hard time attracting advertisers. They’re very expensive because it takes a lot of time to do it well, but they — they don’t pay for themselves and so they’ve been slowly receding from the — the commercial publications that — that we have.
RITHOLTZ: None of — none of your headlines would — would make it onto a BuzzFeed to — to say the least. “How Neanderthal DNA Helps Humanity,” “The Neuroscience Behind Bad Decisions,” “In Newly Created Life-Form, A Major Mystery,” I mean, these aren’t the sort of things that are especially clicky, but they are important parts of — of new research and disseminating them out from behind a paywall is important.
LIN: Very much, it’s very important that’s been accessible. And, you know, we try to make the — our — our headlines inviting, but at the same time we — we try to capture a little bit of what the story is really about, and so we don’t do the click-bait, we don’t do things that are overly sensational or — or misleading.
RITHOLTZ: So — so really that raises the key question, how do you decide, hey, this is a good topic, this is a good subject or this piece of research is accessible enough to those people who weren’t experts in this. You know, it used to be you’re a journalist a mile wide and not too deep, now it’s the opposite. Everyone is such a specialist. It’s a quarter-inch wide and a mile deep. How do you decide who to appeal to?
RITHOLTZ: Yeah, first of all, I would say there’s nothing that I consider something that we wouldn’t cover in terms of how difficult it is. That — that’s something that we — that’s sort of our calling as a publication. We will cover the hardest, the most abstract difficult subjects out there, but we — you know, it really — so one thing is that as journalists and as people who were — have been covering this — these areas for quite a while, we do get a sense. We get — we get a sense of — of — develop, hopefully, a — a good taste in terms of what are important and interesting stories, but at the same time, we’re not experts in this subject so we can’t just say, oh, I think this is important therefore we’re just cover this.
We actually to talk to a lot of the — the true experts out in the field. We talk to many people not just people with their own pet theories, but to enough people where we can get a sense that, OK, there — there is this ground swelling of — of — of interest and — and level of excitement about this new idea that’s worth talking about. At the same time, it’s worth talking about the caveats, too, and the limitations, and so we try to do that as well.
RITHOLTZ: So who are the journalists you have writing about these very hard subjects? Are they science people first who can write or are they writers who have an interest in science?
LIN: It’s really both, yeah. So we have both, we have people who — we have a former math professor who — who is now a fantastic — probably one of the best math writer — journalists out there. Today, we have our — our staff physics writer studied at least partway through a — a physics graduate program. We also have our — our staff math writer is someone who was a humanities major and — and did not have a math background, but now has been covering for enough — long enough and who has been talking to enough of the top experts that he has this just crystal-clear ability to explain some of the most difficult profound pure mathematics that you wouldn’t believe. And so it’s something — and, you know, other writers like Carl Zimmer, a very well-known biology writer …
LIN: … who have written for us a couple times. He was also humanities major as well. He’s one of the foremost biology writers of our time and — and has re-written textbooks on evolution and things like that. So really it can come from both sides. As long as end up in a place where you can do both, understand enough of the — of the deep science and write well about it.
RITHOLTZ: Quite — quite fascinating. So no less than expert than Sean Carroll who writes for a number of fine publications including the “New York Times” called Quanta a revelation. What makes Quanta different than your typical math or science publication, assuming that there are still math publications? I don’t know if there are.
LIN: Well, that’s one of the things. There really aren’t any popular math publications, and that’s probably why I wanted to start Quanta as well. That was very kind of Sean to say that. He also wrote the foreword to our new science book as well, “Alice and Bob Meet the Wall of Fire.” And he said some really kind things in there, but he also talked about something that is — that’s very true about sort of where we are in terms of media coverage of science.
And then there are the scientists who are the ones who are the experts, who are doing this work often look at, even though they — they do take the interviews and they talk to reporters, they often are quite skeptical of the way that the media treats their work because, unfortunately, some publications don’t take the time to carefully vet their work and they cover things that either aren’t necessarily good studies or they don’t talk to enough people to get a sense of what’s really going on or they just throw out these headlines that make it seem like, you know, we’ve cured cancer when really we haven’t. We’ve learned maybe a little bit more about one specific aspect of it.
RITHOLTZ: Sure, sure. Look at — look at how the entire anti-vaxer craziness just ran away from any rational thought. And it was just a combination of people not doing their homework and, of course, a giant fraud in the Lancet to start out. So the whole thinking behind this is we want to do this right, we want to do it carefully. How long do you typically take to create a full story? Some of these are pretty in-depth and it looks like they’re not like I can crank something out in 20 minutes. These are not short pieces.
LIN: Right, no, not at all. And, you know, it really does — does depend. Sometimes there is news that we have to respond to quickly and we have to turn something around in a few days. That’s — that’s not that common though in the areas that we’re covering, right? So most of the time we do have at least a few weeks to work on these stories.
Some stories, some features, you know, that are a couple of thousand words could take three weeks to do. Some pieces take a few months just partly because we’re still — the ideas are still developing, we need to talk to people. The work isn’t and quite completed yet. And often, we’re actually covering papers that are coming — coming out on the archive, what’s known as the archive, which is a repository of scientific preprint papers, which means that they haven’t yet been accepted to a — a journal and they haven’t been peer-reviewed and yet, this is the place now where you have open access to all sorts of important papers that then other scientists can just chime in and they can give feedback on it. And we can also talk to other experts to make sure that a paper is worthwhile, that it’s been carefully vetted before we cover it.
RITHOLTZ: So — so let me throw a curveball at you because I think the average person is unaware of what’s going on in academia and publications even though most of this research is funded by the government — is taxpayer-funded — a handful began as a handful of research journal started to get bought up by one or two organizations, and they just kept getting bought up, and — and eventually reached the point where the vast majority of academic publications are — are behind a paywall. And it’s not a cheap pay wall, these are thousands …
RITHOLTZ: … and thousands of dollars.
LIN: Yes, yes.
RITHOLTZ: How problematic is that for the progress of science?
LIN: That’s a great question. This is something I covered for the “New York Times” back in 2012. I had a story that was on the cover of — of “Science Times.” And, you know, this is — I guess, it really goes to the fundamental question of what is science for, who is it for, who has the right to access and see the results of the work that our tax money is — you know, is — is paying for essentially. And so you’re — you’re right that there have been companies that have been extremely profitable in taking the work of scientists, taxpayer-funded science and the scientists who actually run the journals and edit the journals often for free, and turning around and packaging and bundling these into journals and that they sell for a very high price back to universities and normal people.
RITHOLTZ: Academic libraries …
RITHOLTZ: … and — and the like.
LIN: Exactly, they …
RITHOLTZ: Who have to buy these.
LIN: Right, they make millions of money. And actually so there was a — a big piece of news recently when the — that the entire University of California system …
RITHOLTZ: Said no more.
LIN: … decided yes, we are no longer — to — to one particular publisher, Elsevier, which is — it really has drawn a lot of the ire of — of scientists and — and people who want access to these — to the science that they’re paying for,
RITHOLTZ: So I’m glad you ceded that. Wouldn’t it be just as easy to have Congress to say — oh, and, by the way, if you’re going to take our millions of dollars of research, you must publish in a no paywall peer review site. and this is — this is for everybody not just for a few mercenary publishers.
LIN: Right. And — and that put the onus on the scientists, and I think that’s really where the — the, you know, rubber meets the road in terms of they’re now — people — the scientists — the people doing the research are put in a tough spot in terms of do they continue to submit their papers to these very reputable journals where you have, you know, these gravitation points that affects your ability to get tenure and — and to — to sort of move forward in your academic career to be published in these — the most well-known journals or do you then say, well, we’re going to start going to the Public Library of Science or to the new bio-archive. Are we going to, you know, sort of skip that step and is there enough of an incentive structure built around those newer forms of open access science publications that can then feedback and make it worthwhile for — for our researchers to go that route?
RITHOLTZ: Quite intriguing. You know, given that peer reviews are so important to scientific papers and given how successfully the Internet seems to do that, one would think that there would be some sort of a — a venue for people to bypass these. I know it’s a résumé builder, I know it’s very prestigious and anybody who hopes to win subsequent research grants and/or awards wants to be published in these places, but there’s sort of a vicious cycle. How do you break that if you want to disseminate this widely and yet still allow taxpayer research to find its way into the hands of public — of the public?
LIN: Right, I think that’s being worked on now. There are some groups and — and people who are leading the charge for starting things like the bio-archive and — who have been working on the archive for many years and — and trying to develop a better model for how to publish science, how to vet it carefully and how to ultimately make it accessible to anyone who wants to read it.
RITHOLTZ: So — so you said the harder a subject is to understand, the more likely we are to cover it. Can you give me an example of that?
LIN: OK, that’s sort of an inside joke. That’s not — we don’t — we don’t just look at that, we don’t decide what to cover based on how difficult it is, but at the same time we don’t shy away from that either. So I — I think the example that I — I like to give for that is that one of our early viral stories — actually, in fact, it’s still the most popular story that we’ve ever published — is about this very, very deep physics idea that is both a way — it’s a geometric way to simplify calculations of particle interactions, a way in a sense to simplify what Feynman diagrams tried to simplify back when Richard Feynman created them decades ago.
And at the same time, this geometric approach could also lead eventually — hasn’t yet — it hasn’t been proven yet could lead to a way to get things like gravity and space time to emerge from — from a more fundamental reality. And so this was a mind blowing concept. The math itself and this physics itself is — is very complicated.
LIN: But this story was read and shared so broadly, it was viewed more than a million times.
LIN: It even made an appearance on Conan O’Brien Show. He mentioned it in his — in his opening monologue. And so this is shared so broadly and widely, but it was a mind-blowing idea because people — I think a lot of people hadn’t necessarily grasped the possibility that space, time and gravity aren’t necessarily the most fundamental aspects of our universe, and that could be emerging and that there could be things that could lead to a new math that we could figure out a new simple — somewhat simple-looking geometries that could be underlying all reality.
RITHOLTZ: Quite — quite fascinating. Let’s talk a little bit about science getting a little bit political lately. Isn’t politics the antithesis of science?
LIN: So I think yes, collectively. As a collective enterprise, science is all about having ideas, carefully examining them, finding evidence to support it, and if it’s a bad idea, throwing it out, right? And if it’s a good idea, you keep working on it, you keep refining it further.
Politics generally doesn’t work that way, right? You sort of — it’s — it’s much more of a — a hodgepodge of — of ideas and people throwing. And there’s not a lot of evidence sometimes supporting that, and so on a collective level I think that’s true.
Individually, scientists are human also, and have opinions and have political views. And so I don’t know that it’s a — as — as a — a human activity that it’s completely divorced from politics and certainly not from society, but I think that in the sense that scientists striving for truth and — and — and finding facts, and politics often does not do that, so I would say that they can be quite different at times.
RITHOLTZ: So — so briefly, why do you find that science literacy is so important for people in society who eventually will be casting votes that help determine our future?
LIN: Right. You know, I think — I think one thing is that science is the best way for understanding reality, right? It’s the way that we have developed all of the technologies, all of the modern medicine, everything that — that we enjoy now in terms of the quality of life comes from that. And so many of the decisions that we have to make as citizens, as a country, as a government have a scientific element to them. And if we can examine those scientific facts carefully, we can make better decisions.
And another way to think about it is would you rather live in a society where people just sort of believe, whether they want to believe or would you rather be part of a community where everyone — even if you have disagreements in terms of your ideologies, your politics, your philosophy, you at least agree that facts are facts. And I think that’s, you know, one of the — the key is I think to me is why I want people want to be more scientifically literate.
RITHOLTZ: See, I would like to live in a — a society where facts are important and — and reality matters. But for now, I’m staying in America …
… so until we resolve that. But the funny thing is — and — and I only say that half-jokingly, on the finance side, you have people like Ray Dalio of Bridgewater and — and other people who have made that exact argument with the caveat that if you put capital at risk based on something that is not reality-based, well, you’re going to lose money. And so what we see in politics is there — at least so far there’s not a penalty for believing things that aren’t true.
RITHOLTZ: The beauty of the markets are that feedback loop is very immediate. Politics, you can go decades. Look at the — the people who claim smoking didn’t cause cancer.
RITHOLTZ: It took decades before that came home to roost.
LIN: Right. And then — and then I’ll just add that I think this works on a personal level, too. I think that people who are scientifically literarily at least can think in a more scientific way can make better decisions for themselves so they don’t get into trouble. They don’t either fall for scams or they — they can make better career choice, and certainly it can lead to — to better options for themselves.
RITHOLTZ: That — that’s a fair — fair statement. Here is the — the credible pushback I — we were going to get about this, and I don’t mean the flatter of people or the, you know, anti-vaxers or the …
RITHOLTZ: … global warming denialist. Very recently, something came out and now eggs are bad for us again.
If you remember, eggs were bad for us a long time ago and then eggs were good for us. And I — I mentioned to somebody I was going to be speaking to you and their question was, margarine, can we eat it? Can we throw it away? It was good, it was bad; it was good, it was bad.
I understand the scientific process is provisional …
RITHOLTZ: … dependent upon whatever the next best piece of information that comes along, but how do you deal with the public that I just can’t keep up with all of this.
RITHOLTZ: How — how do you manage that sort of expectation that people want black and white answers in a world that’s really very nuanced?
LIN: Right. This is sort of what I was alluding to before in terms of the responsibility. I think that journalists and the media have to cover science accurately and carefully. And so the one thing is that, yes, there are many studies out there. There is — there are stronger studies and there are weaker studies. And there — there are studies that have mistakes in them as well. And so the — the journalists who are covering and writing about science to a broader public have to be able to differentiate between what are studies that are — have — have been done with the right procedures that have the large sample sizes that, you know, have been carefully vetted by others as well.
And then also even talking about it and writing about it accurately and carefully conveying what the study really says, right, because again that’s where you get the headlines that say we’ve done this or margarine …
LIN: … is bad for you or salt is bad for you or whatever it is. And it — it really — they ignore too often the nuances of it. What does that study really say, what do we not know and what are we still trying to learn?
RITHOLTZ: So what you do with something like quantum physics? Does — does — when we’re talking about subatomic particles, at a certain point, is that just far beyond the grasp of a layperson to understand? And how do you cover something like that or do you just shrug your shoulders and say no one is going to ever understand what a muon or a gluon is amongst the lay population?
LIN: And so I — I would start by saying that even the foremost expert physicists don’t really understand everything about quantum physics, right? So I mean, it is a lot of …
LIN: It’s very difficult, it’s a very difficult subject to wrap your head around. And yet for us, that’s the challenge we enjoy, right? We actually like and then I would go a step further to say that not only are these subjects difficult but they’re — at the same time, they’re actually some of the most fascinating things that we can think about because this is the ultimate sort of the — the most fundamental aspect or layer of reality that we can try to understand. And so I would hope that everyone would be interested and want to pursue some understanding of this just for your own — to satisfy your own intellectual curiosity. And so I think the interest is there, but you’re right, it is a challenge and we love the challenge that we take it on every day.
RITHOLTZ: So along those lines, how do you measure the success of Quanta? I don’t get the sense that you’re counting page views and — and clicks. Given that it’s not just a simple traffic issue, how do you figure out, hey, are we succeeding? Are we building a loyal audience? And are we making a difference in people’s understanding of science? It sounds like it’s really difficult to — to come up with a measure of that.
LIN: Right. Now that’s a good question. And — and so we never use traffic as a justification for doing a story. We don’t chase after clicks or views. However, what we’re really looking at is impact, right, broader impact. Are we both covering the science that is important? Are we choosing the right stories to cover? And are we doing it in a way that is accessible and is interesting and get set the key insights in a way that enough people will want to read it and learn about it?
And so there is a measure of — of reach as well. We do want the audience to grow. And right now we have — see, last year, I think we’re ahead over seven million people visit our site.
LIN: And it’s — it’s growing year — year-to-year very nicely because again people are interested in these subjects and — and we’re trying our best to — to make it accessible for them. So it’s both — the — the numbers are important, but at the same time, center we want to make sure that the people who are reading it, especially the special people who are experts who actually know these stories really well also find it valuable and they — they find that — that this is actually a resource that not only they can use, but that we are actually accurately covering the subjects for anyone who wants to learn more.
RITHOLTZ: So what’s it like working with the Simons Foundation? I know that he has a deep and abiding interest in mathematics and has set-up a number of philanthropic goals to try and not only focus on some of the really sophisticated deep progress in math, but also make Americans a — a better mathematical society. Early learning in math and some advanced mathematical programs, how do you interact with the — with the foundation?
LIN: Yes. So — and I should add that really the — the — one of the founders and the president of the foundation is Marilyn Simons, Jim Simons’ wife, and she leads a lot of the efforts that are geared more towards education and outreach and making sure people understand and know more about science. And Quanta falls under that umbrella within the foundation.
And so we — I — I speak with both Jim and Marilyn, probably a little more with Marilyn because that’s — that’s the area that she leads. And, you know, really the foundation is a fantastic place to work. It’s — it’s a place where you — good ideas are supported, and I hope, you know, people think that Quanta was a good idea. At the same time, the freedom is whether it’s academic freedom for researchers to study and pursue what they’re interested in and — and to learn whatever they can about the universe or our journalistic freedom to do real independent journalism while trying to — to benefit society and make the impact that we can.
RITHOLTZ: So — so let’s talk about the two collections that you put out, one is on math, one is on science. The — the first one, “The Prime Number Conspiracy,” you have a lovely foreword from James Gleick who has written a number of books, perhaps most famously “Chaos,” I think is — is …
LIN: That’s right, that’s right, the master of science writing.
RITHOLTZ: He’s just fascinating. And his most recent book was on time travel, although I’ll — I will describe it as somewhat skeptical …
… and kind of a survey of all the — the various thoughts on. But — but in this book you really go into a lot of details about various new discoveries, and there are these mathematical problems that have been around for decades, in some cases, centuries and …
RITHOLTZ: … whether it’s computing power or something else …
LIN: Prime numbers.
RITHOLTZ: … you — a perfect example, “The Prime Number Conspiracy,” suddenly were able to reach conclusions that we couldn’t have done a century ago or even a few decades ago.
LIN: Right. Math is just — I mean, pure math especially, right, I mean, this is — this is one of those areas where — and one of the deep questions that, you know, people have asked over the years is, you know, why does math even work in describing the real world, right? Is math invented or discovered? That’s just one of those questions that …
RITHOLTZ: It’s a great — it’s a great dichotomy.
LIN: Right, right. And — and so — but the — the pure math that we cover, you know, is done again to build out this logical universe, right, to sort of see where — where people can explore. It’s almost like it’s — it’s not necessarily a map to our actual reality. And yet strangely, some of the math that’s being developed, just again extending our — our logical universe, does come up back to be — being very useful in terms of the physics and other sciences that we’re studying. So this is just one of the — philosophically, I feel like that’s one of the most interesting questions out there, why does it work?
RITHOLTZ: And — and let’s talk about “Alice and Bob Meet the Wall of Fire.” You have to explain that title for people who may not be familiar with the — with the subject.
LIN: Sure, sure. I — I picked the title. It’s — it’s one of the stories that’s in the book because it sounds kind of dramatic, right? You have — and the — the cover shows two astronauts standing in front of this hole in the ground, which is supposed to metaphorically represent a — a black hole, and there’s a — a ring of fire around this deep dark pit.
And — and this actually one of the interesting theoretical questions in physics that has come about in recent years. It was put forward by a few researchers, including Joe Polchinski who unfortunately passed away recently. But the question is — this is also made that Stephen Hawking put forth initially, which is black holes we know can have — or have intense gravity and they suck things in, and the things that I, at a — at a quantum level, contain quantum information. And if something falls into a black hole, you know, what happens to that information especially after Stephen Hawking discovered that black holes radiate. And if they’re radiating, what’s now known as — as “Hawking radiation” then eventually over a very, very long time period, the black hole will evaporate and disappear.
And so what happened to a lot of the information that fell into the black hole in the first place? You can’t — physics says you can’t lose information, you’ve got to conserve information. And so what happens to it? And so this is a paradox, which was highlighted by this idea that that these researchers, including Joe Polchinski, had of a black hole firewall. And so the idea was, well, if information that drops in we can’t lose it, maybe there’s a firewall that just incinerates everything before it gets in so it never goes inside.
And this also gets at — again, one of the — the most fundamental questions right now in physics, which is how do we reconcile quantum mechanics with general relativity because general relativity says if we follow Einstein’s laws of — of — of gravity, which, you know, essentially is described as — as a curvature in space-time, if you fall into a black hole as you pass the event horizon, nothing should happen. According to general relativity, you should — you shouldn’t feel anything at all.
But quantum mechanics says everything has to be quantized, everything has to be done in discrete bits and as particle interactions. And so that’s why you have the problem of the information coming — falling in and possibly disappearing when the black hole evaporates, and that’s where you get this firewall. And so quantum mechanics makes you think maybe there has to be something like a firewall or something that — that’s preventing the information from getting in and getting lost. And so there’s this big conflict between the — the two most fundamental theories that we have in physics, and we don’t yet know how to connect those two things.
RITHOLTZ: It’s quite fascinating. We have been speaking with Thomas Lin. He is the Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief of Quanta as well as two collections of articles, “Alice and Bob Meet the Wall of Fire,” the biggest ideas in science, and “The Prime Number Conspiracy,” the biggest ideas in math.
If you enjoy this conversation, come back for the podcast extras where we keep the tape rolling and continue discussing all things of quantum mechanics. You can find that at iTunes, Overcast, Stitcher, bloomberg.com, wherever your finer podcasts are sold.
We love your comments, feedback and suggestions. Write to us at [email protected],net. You can check out my daily column at bloomberg.com/opinion. Follow me on Twitter @ritholtz. I’m Barry Ritholtz. You’re listening to Masters in Business on Bloomberg Radio.
Welcome to the podcast. Thomas, thank you so much for — for doing this. I’ve been reading Quanta pretty much since it first came out and kind of felt like it was you and me, and not a lot of people knew about it. I’m a little bit of a science geek. But every now and then, there’s something kind of intriguing and accessible. And so I would work some of your — your stories into my — my list of go read these 10 things each morning.
LIN: Thank you for doing that.
RITHOLTZ: And — well, it’s just really interesting stuff, and I — I love being the person who gets to expose other people to something new and interesting. And the work you guys do is — is quite fascinating.
LIN: Thank you.
RITHOLTZ: I actually have lots and lots of Jim Simons stories, most of which I won’t share on the air, but I could share one, which is I went to Stony Brook, an undergraduate I started out anyway as applied mathematics and physics. And when I was getting a tour of the university when I still in high school, I want to say this was like ’77 or ’78, you get a tour of the math department or at least in the tour there’s the math department. And there is this guy standing outside chain-smoking a cigarette with this sort of scraggly beard, and I just remember thinking who the hell is that, and then — you know, oh and there’s the head of our mathematics department, Jim Simons.
I recall looking at him and thinking this guy is lucky he’s an academic. (If they are born) into finance, no one would give this guy a dime, which is …
… which is pretty hilarious considering how spectacular the track record of Renaissance Technologies has been. I have other stories but I …
LIN: He definitely has an adventurous spirit, and he’s such a …
RITHOLTZ: A code breaker, just an amazing background.
LIN: Right, so smart and — and so many interest. He really — you know, he is modern-day, you know, Renaissance man.
RITHOLTZ: He — he really is. And — and the fact that he said — says to himself, “I’m going to put together a hedge fund, but I’m not going to do it in New York and I’m not going to do it in Greenwich, Connecticut, I’m going to do it out in — he’s — they’re in East Setauket.
LIN: I’ve never been out there. I — I don’t …
RITHOLTZ: Past Stony …
RITHOLTZ: I mean, I know the area, it’s past Stony Brook, and I’m not going to do with traditional Wall Street people, I’m just going to hire mathematicians, and physicists and computer programmers. I think that’s the most fascinating story in — in finance, just yes, yes, what Wall Street is doing is interesting, but I want to do it this way, and — and has been tremendously successful. So it’s — it’s …
LIN: They’re able to do the work that we do because of it.
RITHOLTZ: It’s incredibly inspiring that someone could say the mainstream approach is not where my strength lay and I’m going to do it this way, and it ends up being wildly successful. It’s — it’s — you got to love a story like that, it’s fascinating. So I know I only have you for — for a short period of time. There were one or two questions we missed that I want to get to before I get to my — my favorite questions.
I know we — we talked about how long it could take to write a story, but when you try to figure out, hey, will this make for a — a good piece? What — what goes into that calculus?
LIN: Yeah, I know it’s a combination of things. One is that we want to make sure that what recovering is some of the most important and — and perceive that way by the — the research community itself and pour ideas that will then lead to new other ideas, and it’s really pushing things forward. So one thing is that — another is that, you know, we do want to cover again attempts to answer some of the big fundamental questions. That really is ultimately what we’re about at Quanta. I think that’s what I feel is a draw to anybody out there whether you have a science or math background or not is that you want to know where we came from, where the universe came from, what is in this universe that — that we’re a part of and, you know, what is reality made of really? And so if — if you want to know these things, you have to get at some of the basic questions that the research that we cover try to answer.
RITHOLTZ: I don’t remember if this was Quanta. I — I read pretty broadly, but I think it was Quanta that the discussion — so we have the general theory of Big Bang and there’s a few holes in that theory, how did that giant inflationary expansion happen, blah blah blah. But — but some people have looked at, well, will go back before the Big Bang. And I recall reading — I hope I’m not getting this wrong, someone had written a theoretical physics piece that said that the idea of nothingness is inherently unstable. And so you can’t have nothingness forever because eventually nothingness will just vomit out a universe because, on a human level, we understand what nothingness is, but on a — I can’t even say galactic — within the broad universe, having absolutely nothing is just unbalanced and unstable and can’t be sustained for trillions of years. Was that a Quanta piece?
LIN: So they’re — they’re — we did do a story that looked at some new ideas, you know, that in cosmology where — you know, there’s a lot of evidence that something like cosmic inflation happened, right? Although there are questions as to whether there was really just one Big Bang or whether there’s more of a cyclic kind of thing going on or more of a big bounce, right, where things are expanding and then they end up contracting and then they balance and you get another inflationary period and, you know, things kind of go in that way because …
RITHOLTZ: Big crunch, big bang, it goes back and forth.
LIN: … you know, right, because if they’re once a, you know, just one and if there was nothing before that …
RITHOLTZ: Then will eventually — the universe will eventually die.
LIN: Right, and what even …
RITHOLTZ: Entropy reuses that.
LIN: … the — that the initial ingredients to — to lead to the inflation of the universe.
LIN: So there’s a lot of questions that are hard to answer with — with existing knowledge.
RITHOLTZ: Just wait a few trillion years and we’ll — we’ll have all the answers.
Little Yes, well either that or we have nothing.
RITHOLTZ: That’s exactly right. So let me get to some my favorite questions that I ask all my guests. Let’s jump right into it. Tell us the most important thing that we don’t know about Thomas Lin.
LIN: Wow, let’s see. You do — probably do not know that in 1994, when I was 20, I rode a bicycle across the United States of America.
RITHOLTZ: Really? I have a friend who did that. What was that like?
LIN: That was amazing. We were young. We did not know what we were doing.
RITHOLTZ: It was a group?
LIN: No, it’s just a friend and I, so a college buddy and I. This is between my junior and senior years in college that we took those — those months to ride from Oregon to New York and it was …
RITHOLTZ: How long did it take?
LIN: … the most amazing thing. It took about two months.
RITHOLTZ: And where are you sleeping? Well, how — how are you eating?
LIN: Yeah, so …
RITHOLTZ: How are you living?
LIN: … this was — we — we went whole-hog in terms of just putting everything that we needed to live on the bicycles themselves. We had about 50, 60 pounds of gear …
LIN: … in our panniers in the front and a bag over the front bag wheels. And everything we needed from the tent, sleeping bags, to a cook stove that we went to the gas station to pay 25 cents to get a little bit of gas to — to cook our meals, everything we needed. And clothing and — and food and everything was in those bags, and we had quite an adventure.
RITHOLTZ: How long did this take?
LIN: This took about two months and even counting for the extra day we spent in Yellowstone National Park and places where he wanted to just sort of enjoy ourselves a little bit. It was …
RITHOLTZ: Did you — did you map it out advance or was it just on the — kind of winging on the road?
LIN: Yes, so back then — I mean, back — before we had GPS …
RITHOLTZ: No Google Maps, right.
LIN: … right, no GPS, no phones, no smartphones, anything of that sort of thing.
There was an organization called Bikecentennial that used to sell these different routes that you could take. And I think that we took — the route we took was one of the longer ones. It was called, I think, the TransAmerica Route. It was about 4,000 miles …
LIN: … where you went up from Oregon up to Idaho and Montana to the Rockies, and then you ended up winding and going down the Rockies all the way down to Colorado. We crossed the Continental Divide like nine times, I believe.
LIN: And then we started heading across the plains of Kansas and back up through Missouri, back to New York.
RITHOLTZ: That 4,000 miles, that — that’s impressive. Tell us about your early mentors. Who impacted the way you look at the world of — of both writing and — and science?
LIN: Yeah, so many mentors. I mean, I — you know, I have to really think everybody that almost all the editors I’ve worked for and with over the years, especially some of the editors at the science desk — former editors now, some of them. But Laura Chang was the — was the Desk Editor at the New York — the Science Desk Editor at the “New York Times” when I was there. Jim Gorman was “Science Times” editor at the time; David Corcoran. So many of these editors helped shape me as a writer and editor, and also thinking about the best ways to communicate science to the public.
RITHOLTZ: So let’s talk about your favorite books, be they fiction, nonfiction, science or not. What do you like?
LIN: I read a lot of different things. More recent books would — so right now I’m reading Viet Thanh Nguyen’s book, “The Sympathizer,” which I think a couple of years ago won the Pulitzer to be — it’s a fictional novel about the Vietnam War. I also — recently read — Steve Strogatz just published a new book called “Infinite Powers.” It’s about calculus. It’s amazing whether you like calculus or whether you hate it, you will love the book and you will learn things that you never knew you could or — or that you wanted to, but you will be so happy that you did.
RITHOLTZ: Wow, that’s fascinating. Give us — give us one more book. I mean, give me three.
LIN: OK. Oh, wow, so — you know what, those are more recent books. Going all the way back, I would say maybe two quick …
LIN: … books that — in terms of my all-time favorites, one is “The Kingdom and The Power” by Gay Talese. It’s about the “New York Times” during that era decades ago about how it served as both the fort of state as a publication, but also the internal machinations, and the politics, and the — the internal sort of a struggles within the newsroom itself. And it gives you a really — a really good insight into how a major newspaper like “The Times” came to be and — and operate.
RITHOLTZ: And you were there. So did it ring — read very true to you?
LIN: Yeah, very much, very much. My finding is that decades later I was there and still many of the same general themes existed, and — and it was really fascinating to read — be reading the book while also living it there. The other book I would say that’s one of my all-time favorites is on the “Peloponnesian War” by Thucydides. It’s about, you know, the conflict between the — the — the Greeks and — and — and the Spartans back, you know, many centuries ago.
RITHOLTZ: Thousands of years ago.
LIN: And — and it — you know, to me, that — that gets at some of the universal aspects of human nature, of societies, of why we get into conflicts and why we fight these wars.
RITHOLTZ: So if a millennial or recent college grad came up to you and said they were thinking about a career in either science or math journalism, what sort of advice might you give them?
LIN: You know, I would say find a place and — and people to work for and with that represent your values, that are the kind of work that you want, that you see yourself doing and, at the same time, be open to learning, right? I think this is not about millennials or any particular generation. I think all young people starting out come in, you know, sometimes thinking that — that they have a lot of things figured out, and yet the people around you often have a lot of experience and especially the ones who are looking out for you and have your back. You know, it’s good to work with them and listen to them and — and try to pick up a few things because ultimately you will be that person down the road who will hopefully be giving a lending hand to the next generation.
RITHOLTZ: And our final question, what is it that you know about the world of — of physics, and science, and mathematics and journalism today that you wish you knew 20 years or so ago when you were really exploring this — this area?
LIN: Wow. You know, I think I would say that I was just so new to it back, you know, in a 20 years ago. I wasn’t even thinking about journalism yet as a career, right? I think I was probably teaching at the time. But I think that having gone through what I have and — and having started this magazine and — and published these two books, I think that it — it feels very liberating in terms of knowing what you can build and the impact that you can create even when something doesn’t currently exist that you want to exist, right? And so sort of thinking big and thinking, well, maybe we don’t have this thing yet that — in society or this publication doesn’t yet exist or this company that you might want to start and just having a little bit of that confidence and — and putting in the elbow grease and — and learning as much you can, but having the willingness to go out and make the things that you think the world deserves.
RITHOLTZ: Quite fascinating. We have been speaking with Thomas Lin. He is the Editor-in-Chief and Founder of Quanta Magazine as well as the editor of two recent publications. The first is “The Prime Number Conspiracy” and the second is “Alice and Bob Meet the Wall of Fire,” both of which are discussing the biggest ideas in science and mathematics.
If you’ve enjoyed this conversation, well, be sure look up an inch or down an inch on Apple iTunes, and you can see any of the other 250 or so such conversations we’ve had with people over the past five years. You can also find the rest of our archives at Stitcher, Overcast, SoundCloud, bloomberg.com, wherever you find your favorite podcasts.
We love your comments, feedback and suggestions. Write to us at [email protected] If you’ve enjoyed this conversation, go to Apple iTunes. Give us a five-star review and tell us why you like this. If you don’t like this, well, send me an email and I’ll — I’ll respond personally.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the crack staff that helps put together this conversation each week. Madena Parwana is my Engineer/Producer as well as a conscience of generation. Taylor Riggs is our Booker. Atika Valbrun is our Project Manager. Michael Batnick is my Head of Research.
I’m Barry Ritholtz. You’ve been listening to Masters in Business on Bloomberg Radio.