Unpredictable Certainty

An interview with K. Barry Sharpless showed up in my newsfeed last week. I was acquainted with Barry from before he got his first Nobel Prize. This was from the morning his second was announced. This will be a short post because, as one of his colleagues noted in a tribute “When Barry starts to talk, by now, we should know we should listen.”

He’s amazingly present and talks about discovery in a very personal and engaging way. 10 minutes. Be sure not to miss starting at 2:18, 5:12, and 8:08


The Einstein quotation knocked me back because I hadn’t heard it before. This morning I did a search for it. There were only “attributed to” references. After a few pokes around, a site called quote investigator found the saying having made the rounds, but no direct association with Einstein.

I’m interested though that it attracted Barry. I was also knocked back by “I thought I was stupid.” How smart does one have to be before we don’t think we’re stupid. Another Nobel Prize winner, Ada Yonath, observed “I was described as a dreamer, a fabulist, even the village idiot.”

More than these though were his coruscating reflections on uncertainty, risk, curiosity, -- and a word he didn’t use but was inherent – courage.

Many of you have heard me talk about predictable randomness. That’s the winter blizzard in Norway; the hurricane in Florida, the earthquake in Japan; the tornado in Kansas. A lot of my work is helping people identify the predictable randomness in their lives, and to prepare for it.

What's most interesting for me are people who engage unpredictable certainty. They pick up whispers, hints, or scents of something out there. Now how to find it. No one else is picking up these clues, hence, I thought I was stupid; I was perceived as the village idiot.

At around 7:10 Sharpless talks about an idea “coming back.” That’s the repeat of the whisper, hint, or scent. If one dismisses it the first time around, one should pay closer attention the next time.

And taking nothing away from Sharpless, the Nobel Prize badass is still Marie Curie who got one in Physics and one in Chemistry.

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