Student of the stars: How do you become an astronomer?

NASA astronomer Michelle Thaller explains what astronomers actually do, and how can you become one.

  • What's the difference between an astronomer and an astrophysicist? NASA's Michelle Thaller explains that these terms are used interchangeably: both are physicists who study objects and phenomena in the sky.
  • How can you become an astronomer? There is a defined path to take: Do an undergrad degree in astrophysics, physics, mathematics or computer science, then complete a doctorate in astrophysics. You could also work with astronomers by studying engineering and building telescopes.
  • In this fascinating explanation of what an astronomer's day-to-day job actually looks like, Thaller shines a light on the unexpected skills you might need and answers the question on every ambitious astronomer-to-be's mind: How will I know what to discover?

How academic freedom strengthens the bonds of accumulated knowledge

As humans, we teach each other. But do we take for granted our freedom to do so?

Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Humans are unique in that we learn socially and actively teach each other lessons of survival.
  • Freedom of expression allows accumulated knowledge, that which is passed down through generations and across cultures, to flourish within and benefit society.
  • The opinions expressed in this video do not necessarily reflect the views of the Charles Koch Foundation, which encourages the expression of diverse viewpoints within a culture of civil discourse and mutual respect.
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The most undervalued skill? Lateral thinking.

Our society mostly emphasizes developing logical, procedural thinking skills, but this isn't the only way to come up with great ideas. Forgetting to develop our lateral thinking skills may mean missing out on unexpected innovations.

  • Lateral thinking is a way of approaching problems. It deliberately forgoes obvious approaches in favor of oblique or unexpected ones.
  • Deliberately ignoring perfectly good but straightforward solutions enables us to find hidden innovations we would otherwise miss.
  • Edward de Bono, who developed the concept of lateral thinking, lays out 4 specific lateral thinking techniques: awareness, random stimulation, alternatives, and alteration.

Here's a puzzle: A man walks into a bar and asks the bartender for a glass of water, who instead pulls out a gun, cocks it, and points it at the man. The man thanks the bartender and walks out. Why did the man thank the bartender?

There's no way to arrive at the answer (which appears at the end* of this article) without asking questions, testing the different elements of the story to see what missing information hasn't been provided. It's an example of a lateral thinking puzzle, a type of puzzle that requires creative, sometimes oblique thinking to arrive at the answer. In essence, lateral thinking is a method of approaching a problem by deliberately forgoing obvious methods of reasoning. It requires one to consider a given issue from unlikely angles, uncovering innovative solutions as a result.

Traditional thinking is vertical, moving step-by-step to a logical conclusion based off of the available data. Lateral thinking, however, is horizontal, putting the emphasis on generating many ideas while de-emphasizing the details of how those ideas could be implemented. Both vertical and lateral thinking are complementary: Without lateral thinking, vertical thinking would be too narrow-minded; without vertical thinking, lateral thinking would produce many possible solutions but no plans to implement them.

Despite their complementary nature, our society really values and focuses on improving vertical thinking. We believe that adequate training on specific techniques and systems will produce a talented engineer, lawyer, or doctor. But when it comes to professions that rely on creative, generative, lateral skills, we tend to assume that only those born with innate talent can excel in them. Even when it comes to the more vertically minded professions like engineering, creativity is seen as a desirable bonus that great engineers are born with.

Two stages of thinking

Psychologist Edward de Bono, who developed the concept of lateral thinking, argued that the brain thinks in two stages: The first is a perceiving stage, where the brain chooses to frame its environment in a certain way, identifying a particular pattern. The second stage uses that pattern, that particular way of looking at the environment, and builds upon it to reach a conclusion. No matter how effective we are at the vertical thinking of the second stage, better vertical thinking can never correct errors that have arisen in the first stage. In order to more accurately perceive patterns in our environment, we have to develop our lateral thinking skills.

In the video below, author David Epstein illustrates this principal through the case of Japanese repairman Gunpei Yokoi. Yokoi wasn't a particularly gifted engineer, but he perceived his environment in a way that his more talented and specialized peers were not able to. Because they had specialized so much, these more traditionally talented engineers could only frame their environment in terms of the specific technologies they specialized in. Yokoi, on the other hand, saw how various older — and therefore overlooked — pieces of technology could work together. The result was the Nintendo Game Boy.

Lateral thinking: The reason you’ve heard of Nintendo and Marvel

Learning to think laterally is, almost by definition, counterintuitive. Fortunately, de Bono developed some practical techniques for developing this overlooked capability. In his paper, "Information Processing and New Ideas — Lateral and Vertical Thinking," de Bono described four such techniques. Here they are:

  1. Awareness: Being aware of the way the brain processes information is the first step to improving the lateral thinking process. It's important to recognize the brain's tendency to rely on established patterns of thinking before starting to work on a new problem.
  2. Random stimulation: Often when we're trying to think about some issue, we shut out all outside stimuli so we can focus. However, allowing unplanned, outside stimuli can disrupt our reliance on imperfect frameworks. Paying attention to randomness can propel our thinking to new insights.
  3. Alternatives: de Bono argued that even if there is an apparently suitable solution to a problem, it can be useful to set it aside and deliberately consider alternative approaches, regardless of how ridiculous they might seem. Doing so will help you to consider a problem from all possible angles.
  4. Alteration: This technique consists of the deliberate alteration of available options, like doing the opposite of an implied direction or reversing any relationship between elements of the problem. This can include denying elements that are taken for granted, breaking large patterns down into tiny fragments, or translating a relationship to an analogy and then translating it back again just to see what changed. Arbitrarily altering elements of the problem space can produce novel tools to build a solution with.

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*The man has the hiccups and was hoping to cure it with a glass of water. Seeing this, the bartender decided to scare the man to cure his hiccups. Realizing he no longer had the hiccups, the man thanked the bartender and left.

Testing, testing: How will measurement change in the future of education?

When measuring for the future, there is much to consider.

  • We need to embrace a plethora of schooling options as necessary to help different types of learners get to success.
  • On top of testing for literacy and math competence, we should also test for other things that are clearly important to parents, such as whether kids feel safe and cared for. These things are softer but more difficult to assess.
  • To improve our education system, we need to understand we currently only have answers to some huge open questions right now. We are still figuring things out on how to enrich different people's lives as they find their positions in the economy — and society at large.
  • This video is supported by yes. every kid., an initiative that aims to rethink education from the ground up by connecting innovators in a shared mission to conquer "one size fits all" education reform.
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How to deal when things fall apart

Glenn Albrecht has ideas about how to cope with the effects of a changing world: Invent a new language.

Photo by Horacio Villalobos, Corbis via Getty Images
Personal Growth
  • In Earth Emotions, Australia philosopher Glenn Albrecht provides a blueprint for dealing with emotional turmoil resulting from climate change.
  • Technology has many wonderful applications, but distraction and entertainment cannot be the foundation of our devices.
  • Time remains for preparing to deal with the consequences of climate change, if we act now.
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How can we best help students? Cultivate their love for learning.

So much has changed since 1893. Why not the education system?

Sponsored by yes. every kid.
  • In 1893, a committee of ten leaders in education chaired by Charles Eliot, the president of Harvard University, produced a report that aimed to unify the various education systems and philosophies across America, with the goal of giving the same education to everyone.
  • That framework is still operating in the U.S. today—but should it be? John Hardin, vice president of Stand Together Ventures, points out that this uniform approach does not take into account the unique interests and skills of each kid. It might even squash children's love of learning, rather than cultivating it.
  • This video is supported by yes. every kid., an initiative that aims to rethink education from the ground up by connecting innovators in a shared mission to conquer "one size fits all" education reform.
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Parents who lie to their kids raise adult liars

A new study finds that casually fibbing to children results in lifelong issues.

Image source: PR Image Factory/Shutterstock
Personal Growth
  • For simplicity and speed, parents may employ untruths as conversation-enders and to coerce desirable behavior using empty threats.
  • Telling kids not to lie while modeling contrary behavior is, not surprisingly, a problem.
  • Lying as an adult is just one of the issues lied-to children exhibit as grownups.
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