In discussing scientific shortcuts, du Sautoy and Franklin agreed that Richard Feynman’s Standard Model diagrams, which explain key forces in the universe, are effective stand-ins for complicated equations that are hard to keep straight. The author cited the drawing of the DNA double helix by Francis Crick’s wife, Odile, as another example of the power of diagrams. Even so, he cautioned, diagrams do come “close to cutting corners.”

According to du Sautoy, shortcuts can be found in a range of surprising places, including cognitive behavioral therapy and high finance. He compared a thought process in the brain that keeps taking someone to “a bad place” to an algorithm, and said eight weeks of cognitive behavioral therapy is a kind of shortcut that can help some people rewire negative patterns. A financial advisor he spoke with told him that her degree in history helped her identify patterns of corporate behavior and inform her investment choices.

“She knows what the ending is because she’s seen it in other stories. That’s about recognizing ‘This company is falling into a pattern of behavior that I’ve seen somewhere else,’” said du Sautoy. “For me, that’s a very powerful shortcut in mathematics, the power of finding a pattern in, whether it’s data, or numbers, or in the behavior of something, such that you can then take that and then predict what something is going to do in the future.”

Perhaps one of the biggest shortcuts of all, he added, involves collaboration. “If you don’t have all the tools, find somebody who has different tools,” he said, “and together, you can make progress.”

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