Thursday, December 3, 2009


In a recent read of a random blog entry, I came across one guy's definition of smart. Or at least, his definition of what makes someone "seem smart." Apparently he's a guy who hires computer programmers, and according to him, a person seems smart if they know stuff, if they are curious, and if they learn.

So, I started thinking about my own definition of smart. And of course, I realized it would by highly colored by my being a scientist. In fact, I'm going to completely base it on my being a scientist and say my definition of smart is the mental capabilities that would make someone a kick-ass scientific researcher. And being a physicist by background, I want to break it down into the most basic components.

Memory would be one component. Short term, long term. Memory of procedures and facts.

Analytical skills would be a component. Ability to separate something into components and cause and effect. Ability to use logic and reason to take this set of components, causes and effects and reason out possible outcomes. Tests of analytical skills (like the LSAT and the analytical section of the GRE when I took it) describe some situation, give the rules and ask you to reason out the outcome. For example, Sally started grad school before Jimmy; Jimmy started before Angelica. Sally, Jimmy, and Angelica are all equally smart. Who will finish grad school first? That's a simple one, right? Haha.

Creativity. Ability to come up with new ideas.

Awareness. Ability to actively observe the world around you. Filtering is an important aspect of this one. Ability to filter enough stimuli to focus on the important information rolling in.

Abstract thinking skills. Ability to understand complex ideas and relationships, and make analogies between seemingly unrelated ideas.

Spatial visualization. I almost didn't list this one, but it really does seem to be separate from the others, and I do think researchers in almost any scientific discipline would benefit from this ability.

Quickness would be part of the scale on each of the above components. That is, the more quickly a person could remember, analyze, create, observe, understand, and visualize would define how well highly they rank on that component.

Experience. Having excellent memory is useless if you've never encountered anything to remember. Also, a person could fake excellent analytical skills if they are encountering situations they've seen before. Creativity can be much more effective if rooted in known facts and/or if it combines knowledge from varied experiences that have never been combined before.

Summary: Smartness components for being an excellent scientific researcher
Can you remember stuff?
Can you reason stuff out?
Can you think of new stuff?
Are you aware of stuff?
Can you understand and relate stuff?
Can you visualize stuff?
Can you do this stuff quickly?
Have you experienced stuff?

Okay, so maybe I've come up with an extermely esoteric definition of the components of "smartness." But, I like it.

You might be thinking there are some components missing. What about problem solving skills? Or communication skills, you say? So that's the final test. Can the other key skills necessary for kick-ass scientific researchers be broken down into components from my list?

Problem solving? This skill has to be made up of all the components listed. To problem solve quickly and efficiently, a person would be best served by excellent ratings in all components. Math would fall into the problem solving category, with a focus on having memory, understanding, and experience with mathematical concepts.

Communication skills? Isn't communicating just problem solving with the problem being how to get someone else to understand your ideas? For communicating, the focus would be on memory, understanding, and experience with vocabulary and the rules of the written and spoken roads. And some people skills (see below).

People skills? Do researchers need people skills? YES! Do researchers have people skills? Sometimes. In any case, this skill could again be broken down into the other components, I think. Awareness, understanding, and experience with other people should enable a person to read and predict other people's reactions.

Ability to learn? This skill is all about learning, remembering, and understanding.

What's missing? What else does a scientific researcher need?

Fine motor skills (aka "Good hands"). At least, this one is key for the experimentalists, maybe not so much the theorists. But I was trying to stick to mental capabilities in my definition, and this is more of a physical capability.



Man, you sure do need a lot of those last two.

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