Is your brain lying to you?

What magicians can teach scientists about observation


February 14, 2019

Observation is one of the most powerful tools that scientists use. They meticulously perform experiments, analyze data and interpret the results, then repeat that process hundreds of times.

But what if our brains are lying to us? Can scientists trust their observations? Parag Mallick is a computer scientist and researcher at Stanford Medicine and a world-renowned magician. Download Full Image

Parag Mallick, a computer scientist and researcher at Stanford Medicine and a world-renowned magician, explored these questions during a recent visit to Arizona State University. In “An Evening of Science and Magic,” sponsored by ASU’s Biodesign Institute, Mallick explained the concept of inattentional blindness to a full house at the Marston Exploration Theater.

What is inattentional blindness, and what can magicians teach us about science? Plenty, according to Mallick.

Inattentional blindness occurs when an individual fails to perceive objects or events because their attention is focused somewhere else. Magicians are experts at taking advantage of this gap in perception. Sometimes scientists may fall victim to this, researching the wrong thing at the wrong time because it made sense at the time to look at it.

“By being extremely cognizant of these gaps in perception, we might do a better job of avoiding them and interpreting our observations,” he said. “We then can do a better job of designing better experiments by becoming aware of these holes in our perceptions.”

Parag Mallick and Joshua LaBaer

Biodesign Institute Executive Director Joshua LaBaer (left) participates in a trick during Parag Mallick's "An Evening of Science and Magic" event. Photo by Andy DeLisle/ASU

Mallick became enamored with magic as a child when he was gifted a magic kit. His childhood hobby transformed into something more serious during college and graduate school when he formed a juggling group called Students Against Gravity. He also began taking classes at the Magic Castle in Hollywood, a clubhouse for the Academy of Magical Arts. He spent years perfecting his craft and started doing magic all over the city and eventually all over the world.

Mallick, now an associate professor who heads a cancer research lab at Stanford University, believes in tackling the impossible. He said magicians have long been willing to embrace the ludicrous in their performances, and this frees up their mind to explore more possibilities. Scientists should do the same.

“Scientists are in the habit of taking things that are impossible and making them possible,” Mallick said. He said a very good magician is meticulous. Just like a scientist will perform an experiment over and over again, a magician will repeatedly practice a trick until he or she perfects it. The extreme attention to detail for both professions results in the greatest successes of today.

“When you embrace the completely ludicrous to find inspiration, it frees your mind and you’re allowed to explore a much wider swath of possibilities,” Mallick said.

Joshua LaBaer, executive director of the Biodesign Institute, was excited to have the Science and Magic event come to ASU because it forces scientists and others to think outside of the box.

Parag Mallick and Joshua LaBaer

Joshua LaBaer volunteers for a trick during Parag Mallick's "An Evening of Science and Magic" lecture show. Mallick is a computer scientist and researcher at Stanford Medicine and a world-renowned magician. Photo by Andy DeLisle/ASU

“Research is all about discovering new things, including new patterns,” he said. “For scientists and researchers, we need to always remember that we cannot take the mental shortcut of assuming that what we see must be part of the previous pattern.”

LaBaer said science and magic are two places where we need to break the pattern-recognition process.

“We like to think of our brain as an open, unbiased instrument that collects data from our senses and then fully analyzes and interprets them. But, in fact, in order to reduce work and enhance response time, our brain cheats a little,” he said.

As a scientist, even if the data suggests the previous pattern, he said, it’s lazy to accept this without proving it.

“It is the magician’s job to trick us into believing the impossible explanation,” LaBaer said. “It is the scientist’s job to determine which explanation is correct.”

Throughout the evening, Mallick performed magic tracks that included holding a glass of water upside down without spilling any water, and solicited volunteers from the audience for a game of three-card monte and other card tricks. He closed his show by addressing some of the gaps in perception that the audience may have missed, which was met with wonder and applause by young and old alike.

Lastly, he reminded the audience that scientists are indeed making tremendous progress and saving many, many lives from cancer and other illnesses.

“I dare anyone to prove me wrong,” he said.

Jean Clare Sarmiento

Communications Specialist , Biodesign Institute

480-965-6919

Student group creates module to teach non-majors how to code

INFORMS chapter has been active across multiple objectives


February 14, 2019

Sometimes the best teachers are our peers. It was that mentality that inspired students from Arizona State University’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering to team up with students from the W. P. Carey School of Business to develop a software-development learning module that teaches non-computer science and engineering students how to code.

The Fulton Schools students are members of ASU’s Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences student chapter, better known as INFORMS. Three students standing in an atrium INFORMS students Logan Mathesen, Nathan Gaw and Daniel Tran presented their work to the Principal Financial Group after a second-place finish at the Principal Cup. Photo courtesy of ASU INFORMS student chapter Download Full Image

INFORMS is an international society established to improve operational processes, decision-making and management. At ASU, the student chapter has several different focuses, including service and making academic connections through seminars, networking events and fun activities.

Jorge Sefair, an industrial engineering assistant professor, guides the INFORMS student chapter by helping them brainstorm ideas for activities and connecting them with the resources they need.

Students becoming teachers

The idea of creating a learning module began in the spring of 2018 when graduate students in INFORMS and undergraduate students from ASU’s Institute of Industrial and Systems Engineers student chapter hosted the Python Seminars, a two-session introduction to the Python programming language.

“Back then we were experimenting with different kinds of activities to see which ones our members are mostly involved with,” said Dorukhan Sergin, an industrial engineering doctoral student and vice president of academics for the ASU INFORMS student chapter. “The Python Seminars were professional development activities. We chose to teach Python because it is in unusually high demand both in academia and in industry.”

The INFORMS chapter also wanted to form stronger ties with the IISE chapter so they decided to make the seminars a joint effort. Their collaboration was awarded the Best Community Builder award at the Fulton Schools Student Organization Awards and Recognition ceremony in April 2018.

“We surveyed our members, and the results showed that they wanted to see more of that kind of professional development activity,” Sergin said.

The success of the Python seminars compelled the group to do more. Over the summer they created a new software-development course for students to improve their coding skills. This time the seven-lecture course was jointly developed with the Data Science Society from ASU’s W. P. Carey School of Business and ran throughout the fall 2018 semester.

The group emailed students they felt would benefit the most from the course and maxed out the enrollment with 30 participating students.

INFORMS class

INFORMS student Dorukhan Sergin led the creation of a learning module to teach students coding skills. Photo courtesy of ASU INFORMS student chapter

Sergin was the face of the course as he delivered the lectures and created the course content, including presentations, notes and lab projects. Logan Mathesen, who is now an industrial engineering doctoral student, helped take care of the logistics of running the course.

“We believe this to be the only structured attempt to teach software-development fundamentals to a group of students who wouldn’t learn them as part of their curriculum,” said Sergin. “We believe that it is way past the time to share these skills to other departments in a world where children are being taught coding in the very early stages of their K-12 education.”

Sergin believes coding skills are necessary to keep up with the fast pace of technology.

“We wanted to make our case strong by demonstrating the feasibility of our idea and the demand for these skills,” said Sergin.

The majority of the participating students in the module were female and the number of participating students from the Fulton Schools and W. P. Carey were evenly distributed, highlighting the demand for the module across disciplines. Most of the students will be graduating in 2019, signaling the need for coding skills as they enter the job market. Now with some experience teaching the material, the team hopes to expand the lectures in the future.

“Our aim is to get more support from the faculty, the dean and anyone who can support us,” said Sergin. “This cannot stay as just a grassroots movement, we need to democratize it to even more people.”

Showcasing skills in competition

The student members of INFORMS also put their skills to the test in industry competitions in the operations research, management sciences and analytics fields. One of those competitions was the Principal Cup hosted by the University of Michigan INFORMS student chapter in September 2018 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Nathan Gaw, the 2017-18 ASU INFORMS chapter president; Logan Mathesen, the current INFORMS chapter president; and ASU INFORMS student chapter members Anson Park and Daniel Tran, both industrial engineering graduate students, placed second in the competition, which challenged teams to develop an objective decision-making process to buy, sell or hold stocks using historic data and operations research tools.

The four students created a decision framework called kNN-Stock that fuses machine learning and conventional stock-trading expertise to make optimal trade decisions. The team went on to present their results at the headquarters of the Principal Financial Group, the co-partner of the challenge, in Des Moines, Iowa.

INFORMS event

The first-of-its-kind INFORMS student mixer featured games and prizes at Sparky’s Den during the 2018 INFORMS Annual Meeting. Photo courtesy of ASU INFORMS student chapter

“I really enjoyed going to the headquarters (of Principal) to present our results and get objective feedback on our model,” said Nathan Gaw. “They have a lot of experience in industry, and I felt their feedback was really useful in how we can improve the model in the future.”

According to Gaw, the chief data scientist of Principal was impressed with their ideas and may implement some of them into their research.

Recognition for a job well done

The ASU chapter was one of 11 INFORMS student chapters to receive a 2018 Student Chapter Annual Award at the cum laude level and one of just 19 honored in total. The award, given out by the International INFORMS organization at the annual meeting held in November, is based on multiple criteria the chapter submitted about their activities and goals in a yearly report.

Chapters are graded on the communications, such as newsletters and websites, as well as the content of their meetings and networking events, including special events and service initiatives the chapter hosts during the academic year.

Showing their ASU pride

Last November, the 2018 INFORMS annual meeting was held in Phoenix. Mathesen and Gaw decided to use the meeting as an opportunity to showcase the ASU INFORMS student chapter and ASU’s Tempe campus. As a result, the chapter hosted the first-ever student mixer held in conjunction with an INFORMS meeting.

“We thought it would be a great opportunity for students to get to meet each other in a more informal setting and potentially make some connections for the future,” said Gaw.

The mixer event featured a hike up “A” Mountain and tours around campus led by the student chapter members. The event proceeded to the Memorial Union and featured a dinner, live music, a raffle and games inside Sparky’s Den.

“They coordinated everything with the conference staff,” said Sefair. “They engaged many students from around the world and showed them what it means to be a Sun Devil!”

Erik Wirtanen

Web content comm administrator, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering

480-727-1957