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While I’ve never seen any good research on the topic, anecdotally I’ve met many investment advisors who have hard-science backgrounds, at least on the undergraduate level, and areas like economics and mathematics are at least sciences (our own Ben Warwick has undergraduate degrees in chemical engineering, physics and chemistry, in addition to an MBA).

Yet at advisor conferences like Envestnet’s recent Advisor Summit, you don’t expect to see on the agenda a keynote presentation by a theoretical physicist and string theorist. But when the physicist is Dr. Brian Greene, professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia University, best-selling author of books like “The Elegant Universe” and star of several series about the cosmos and science on public television, he is welcome, as he was by a mostly rapt audience at the Summit meeting in Chicago in early May.

In a session titled “The Drive to Innovate: Stories From the Frontiers of Discovery,” Greene spoke first of innovation. As children, “we start as little engines of innovation,” he said, but then lose our innovative edge as we learn to accept the status quo.

Throughout his hour-long presentation, Greene prompted laughter as he asked the audience to recite equations “you all remember” along with him, such as Newton’s on gravity or Einstein’s general theory of relativity as he told funny stories that lightened the talk about Big Bangs and black holes.

In his introduction, he told a story about what we are capable of before we learn to comply with received wisdom. A little kid in a classroom was drawing something during art class, he said, and the teacher asks the child “What are you drawing?” The child responds “God’s face,” to which the teacher responds in an adult way, “But nobody knows what God looks like!” The child’s simple response: “They will in a minute!”

So what are the qualities necessary to innovate? Greene argued that more than genius is necessary to innovate, and in fact, even the findings of admitted geniuses like, say, Albert Einstein, always are subject to correction. That’s what happened when physicists starting in the 1930s discovered quantum mechanics, which challenged Einstein’s general theory of relativity, and which eventually morphed into string theory in the 1980s (and yes, I’m simplifying here), which harmonized general relativity and quantum mechanics. As Greene wrote in an article for Smithsonian magazine, the history of science has “convinced us to not dismiss ideas merely because they run counter to expectation,” and that “science is constantly self-correcting.”


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