10 August 2007

links for 10 August

Why Stuff Is Hard, at the Everything Seminar. I asked this in physics class in high school and never got a satisfactory answer. I suspect I'm not alone here. I was told it was some sort of electromagnetic repulsion between the outermost electrons, but apparently the Pauli exclusion principle is really doing most of the heavy lifting.

Mark Chu-Carroll at Good Math, Bad Math comments on the way math is taught at certain religious schools. If you don't want to bother reading the post, check out the course descriptions at one such school. They all start out "Students will examine the nature of God as they progress in their understanding of mathematics". The descriptions of the non-mathematics courses begin similarly. Today I was reading parts of Laplace's A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities (available in Hawking's anthology God Created the Integers: The Mathematical Breakthroughs That Changed History); among other things, Laplace mocks the idea of Pascal's wager. I couldn't help but thinking of what Laplace is said to have said to Napoleon when asked why he didn't mention God in his work on celestial mechanics: "I had no need of that hypothesis."

Compound interest isn't intuitive, from Adventures of BruteForce; if you invest a little money now that's like investing a lot of money later. People just aren't set up to understand exponential growth, which isn't surprising; unrestrained exponential growth isn't common in the situations for which we evolved. A population can't keep doubling every ten years without pretty quickly running out of space; a sum of money can. There's a persistent rumor that Ashkenazi Jews are actually better equipped for understanding this particular sort of abstraction than other classes of people, because of certain unique historical circumstances -- for quite some time they lived among Christians, who were forbidden to lend money for religious reasons, but these same Christians wanted to borrow money, and therefore turned to the Jews, who were not subject to those same religious laws. The Jews who were better at understanding this fact ended up with more money themselves, their kids didn't starve, and supposedly this explains why about a quarter of Nobel laureates are Jewish. I can't find exact numbers overall. One thing I can find is in this Wikipedia article which says that "Of American Nobel Prize winners, 37% have been Jewish Americans (19 times the percentage of Jews in the population) [...]" But I'm not sure who they count as "American". (Wikipedia used to have a list of Jewish Nobel laureates, but it's been deleted.)

It would be interesting if this were true, because it seems to imply that evolution can work ono the scale of a few hundred years. As humanity heads more and more towards working with its brains instead of its hands, will we get smarter? (On the other hand, at least at the present time in the United States, intelligence and number of children seem to be inversely correlated; it seems difficult for Darwinian evolution to work in a population when almost everyone survives long enough to have children.)


Blake Stacey said...

I bet there are huge cultural factors at work in explaining any putative datum along the lines of "the Jews are better intellectuals". If you read the biographies of intellectuals from Jewish backgrounds — Asimov, Feynman, Sagan, etc., etc. — certain cultural motifs continually shine out: the idea of education as a way forward, for example.

Isabel said...


you're almost certainly right. I wonder if there have any studies of the intelligence of Jews raised by non-Jews, or non-Jews raised by Jews, which would help to clear this up. The problem with any research like this is, of course, that the results have the potential to be offensive.

Blake Stacey said...

Hmmm. I don't know of any studies on the subject, and since the methodology of "intelligence" research usually underwhelms me anyway. . . .

Another thought struck me while walking to work this morning: in this situation, we have to be careful to distinguish means and extremes. Most Ashkenazim have not been either bankers or Nobel laureates; if financial aptitude were a broadly distributed trait, why would Tevye sing "If I Were a Rich Man"?

During women-in-science debates, one occasionally hears an idea proffered along these lines: "The mean intelligence of women is the same as that for men, but the variance is larger for men, so there will naturally be more men in science and math." In that debate, this idea is almost certain to be wrong. I wonder if anyone has tested the "variance hypothesis" with regard to the Ashkenazim: perhaps all those brainy bankers are balanced out by an increased proportion of klutzes and schlemiels?

I remember once a fellow Jew remarking with satisfaction on the high percentage of Nobel prize winners who were Jewish.

I said, "Does that make you feel superior?"

"Of course," he said.

"What if I told you that sixty percent of the pornographers and eighty percent of the crooked Wall Street manipulators were Jewish?"

He was startled. "Is that true?"

"I don't know. I made up the numbers. But what if it were true? Would it make you feel inferior?"

— Isaac Asimov, in I. Asimov: A Memoir (1994)

Ben said...

of course, you also have to figure in sexual selection: my understanding is that intellectuals (a term that must be interpreted loosely in pre-industrial times) were highly respected in most Jewish communities, whereas in Christian ones, they were mostly priests, and thus forbidden to reproduce.

Anonymous said...

Rabbis were encouraged to have large families.

All diasporic ethnic groups have focused on education, a "portable" skill.

Michael cassidy said...

Ah Ben you dont really believe priests didn't have sex, do you?

Actually I think the difference between Jews and non-Jews is cultural.
I am the first college graduate and 5th high school graduate in my family.
Everyone left school after 6th grade and went to work EXCEPT the boy or girl chosen to be a priest or nun.
Everyone else went into the trades and got union cards.

I wonder is more Jews coming to the US were 'middle class' than Irish and Italians.

Michael cassidy said...

"I wonder is more Jews coming to the US were 'middle class' than Irish and Italians."

Should be I wonder if


Michael Cassidy said...

Is there a difference between Sephardic Jews and Ashkenazi Jews?

A friend of a millions of years is very good with languages; her sons each speak 4-5 languages, and she has a niece who speaks several languages. She's Sephardic; her father was born in Turkey.

My uncle was Ashkenazi, and he was bookie, so I assume very good with numbers.

"I wonder if anyone has tested the "variance hypothesis" with regard to the Ashkenazim: perhaps all those brainy bankers are balanced out by an increased proportion of klutzes and schlemiels?" I love this statement; though I think it applies to families; one of the great schlemiels is in Pynchon's novel "V."