The Scottie Pinwheel or How to Explain Difficult Concepts

published by Susana Paço - 15 May, 2019

Many who know me know that I take every opportunity to just be silly and have fun. I am a clown, what more can I say?

One very good thing that comes from my clownish tendencies is my disdain for overcomplicating concepts and intentionally boring classes or talks. Seriously, if you want to keep my attention in a class, you better crack a joke sometimes.

As much as I don’t like to be bored to death by “professional” talks or classes I try to not do the same on my own. And I got quite good at it.

It all started on my times at the botanical gardens here in Lisbon as a tour guide. There were no “how to talk in public” classes, you were taught what to explain and basically put in front of the public. Make kids interested in a 1 hour tour about botanics comes with no book guide, it takes practice.

One thing always came to my mind, a saying by a former teacher “You can teach evolution to an 8 year old and an 80 year old, you just need to change the way you explain it”.

That sparked a light on my mind and my methods became unusual. It was not about the kids needing to reach to me but about me reaching out to them. Want examples? How about pollination and co-evolution of insects and plants taught with orchids? Pollinators taught with smelly stapelias? The kids loved it!

I brought this kind of strategy to every part of my life, including data science.

Often I find myself needing to explain the basic concepts of Complexity Sciences, the mother science of Data Science: Complex System, Emergent Behaviour, Disturbance, Sensitivity to Initial Conditions  and Adaptation.

Bored already? Fear not. All can be explained by a simple video with a group of puppies.

This group of puppies are a simple form to understand complexity. Yep, no maths, just puppies.

These puppies display a typical puppy behaviour, a pinwheel when eating.  Do they know how to do it? Nope. Let’s analyze the situation:

The puppies constitute a typical complex system, where each puppy is a unit of the system ruled by simple rules: eat, sleep, play, grow.

At the beginning of the movie the system is disorganized until a disturbance appears, a delicious bowl of milk provided by the owners. The puppies, motivated by their basic need to eat, rush to the bowl, showing that this system is sensitive to the initial conditions. If food appears, the system completely changes.

As all the puppies do not fit perfectly around the bowl, they start to adapt trying to push their siblings to access more food, displaying a pinwheel, something not easily identifiable in each puppy thus an emergent behaviour, a behaviour that cannot be deducted by studying the units of the system.

When the milk disappears, the system returns the its original disorganized state being a system able to recover.

Now all the weird concepts sound much easier, don’t they?

The golden rule should be :”Never overcomplicate a concept and reach your audience and the message shall pass”

And as I’ve been said multiple times: I’ve conquered more people to data science and complexity sciences with puppies than many with math. =)