Jordan Ellenberg sees math everywhere. Behind each of our decisions are unseen forces, equations with tangible, real-world outcomes, and Ellenberg lays them bare in fascinating keynotes. His book How Not to Be Wrong (named to Bill Gates’s summer 2016 reading list) unearths the mathematical underpinnings of some unlikely subjects—everything from the obesity epidemic to the Massachusetts lottery to what Facebook can (and can’t) figure out about you. And in our newest set of videos, Ellenberg proves just as engaging live, on stage.
In our first clip, Ellenberg tells the story of Hungarian mathematician Abraham Wald. During WWII, Wald was employed by the US air force to help minimize bomber losses. Specifically, he was charged with determining where to allocate planes’ armor, keeping them light enough to fly yet still adequately reinforced. His strange recommendation—which seemed counterintuitive and baffling to his superiors—in all likelihood saved many lives. To Ellenberg, this illustrates that in math, asking the right question is just as important as knowing how to solve it.
Here, Ellenberg is more theoretical. “When you’re trying to prove something,” an academic advisor once told him, “you should try to prove it all day, but disprove it all night.” That is to say, don’t become blinded by your own biases or assumptions. The theory or concept you’re trying to prove may not, in fact, exist. Remain neutral, examine both sides, and always question your assumptions—excellent advice for all of us, regardless of whether we’re working with numbers, language, ideas, or people.
What does predicting the weather have to do with predicting human behavior? If we accept that there are certain unknowns in anticipating rain or shine, we must extend this assumption to our own behaviors, decisions, and actions. What does this mean for politics? For sales? Marketing? Ellenberg’s insights span myriad industries.