The most important concept

Posted by Osvaldo

July 6, 2016

If we had to choose a single statement to pass to generations after an imaginary destruction of the whole scientific knowledge, what would you choose? Which idea would help the subsequent generations the most in recreating the lost body of knowledge and, ultimately, the civilization? Richard Feynman once stated that it is the atomic hypothesis,

that all things are made of atoms—little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another.

This struck me again a few days ago when a new coworker started here and I was asked to introduce her to (loosely speaking) data analysis and computation. Since years now, I’ve been working mainly with people without a strong mathematical background. I’ve always done my best to explain things from my side, and I’ve always been irritated by scientists who try to impress/humiliate others with some “theorem dropping”.

So, if you had to choose one single concept that a person absolutely needs to grasp before endeavouring in data analysis, what should this concept be?

This is a very different question from the one Feynman answered. I am now asking what is the concept that is absolutely needed to understand methods and results in data analysis explained by someone who knows it, not the single notion that would help the most a new civilization rebuilding science from scratch.

I cannot imagine a more pervasive and fundamental concept than that of function in mathematics. From plotting any kind of results, to writing even the simplest program, anything is hard or impossible to understand without this type of abstraction.

Header image from Flickr