Seth Roberts: The Best Way To Learn Is To Do

April 28, 2014

My friend Seth Roberts, pioneering self-experimenter and personal scientist, died last Saturday. Seth’s sister Amy, made the announcement yesterday on his blog. The news was unexpected and very sad. A few things Seth taught me:

  • Doing lots of experiments keeps you supplied with new ideas.
  • With sensitive and reliable measurements, tiny experimental effects can yield surprising clues.
  • The people who care about a problem most have the best chance of solving it, if they have access to tools.

Seth’s contributions as a colleague and teacher had many dimensions, but in thinking about him nonstop this morning what I find myself marveling at most is the unusual style he had in nearly every conversation. Seth became interested when he saw somebody thinking independently and, like the best teachers, he wanted to understand the process by which students and collaborators developed confidence their conjectures. Countless times, I heard Seth ask somebody “Why do you think that?” His challenge was direct and generous, for if you were willing to expose your reasons you could count on him to apply himself alongside you, thinking up ways to improve your investigation, make your measurements more practical, or give your analysis more logical or mathematical power. Seth was acutely aware that confidence in experimental results requires investment. More than any other experimentalist I’ve known, Seth respected the incremental nature of building confidence in our ideas and finding new ideas worthy of confidence. He encouraged us to do small experiments first, to find easier ways to collect data, and to avoid being tripped up at the outset by grandiose schemes of irrefutability.

We’ll collect and share some more impressions and memories of our friend and collaborator when the shock of this news lessens, but in the meantime I want to post a video of one of the talks he gave a few years ago about how to design personal experiments.

For further reading:

In Richard Sprague’s post from today, linked directly above, there is this passage:

 I found his blog, and discovered that he was living near me in Beijing. A famous professor like him – a New York Times bestselling author and all that – might be hard to get ahold of, but one day out of the blue I sent Seth an email, wondering if he’d like to get together for lunch. He replied in minutes and said sure, how about tomorrow?

That’s Seth exactly.

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