On Paradoxes

When I go to lunch I make a sandwich and prepare a bowl of soup. All the while I am watched intently by Ziggy, the Office Dog, who drools gently in the hope that a morsel of cheese might escape my plate and that he will be able to get on the outside of it.


In 1950 Enrico Fermi, the 1938 Nobel Prize laureate in Physics went for lunch with, amongst others, Edward Teller. Teller invented the H Bomb so was likely more erudite company than Ziggy. The conversation turned to the ongoing American phenomenon of UFO’s being spotted by people who blamed them for everything from hair loss to trashcan abduction. There was a general chat about the likelihood of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe (there clearly being bugger all here on Earth) followed by silent sandwich eating punctuated by a sudden exclamation from Fermi, “Where are they?”*


To cut a very long story short, that question and the absence to date of a positive answer is known as the Fermi paradox.


In 1961 a young astrophysicist by the name of Frank Drake published a probabilistic argument to encourage debate about the variables that scientists have to consider when thinking about alien life that has developed the ability to communicate across interstellar distances. His idea quickly came to be known as the Drake equation. Although it was never really intended to, it has come to be inextricably linked to Fermi’s paradox and the fundamental question, “How common is intelligent life in the universe?”**


Once Drake had worked out the parameters he then guessed some reasonable looking values for all the variables. Although he shuffled the numbers around a bit the equation usually produced a result regarding the likelihood of intelligent life out there along the lines of, “it’s probably quite common really”.***


Now I like a good paradox. So on Monday and Tuesday last week, in between eating too much and wearing colourful socks, I attended the Medica trade show in Dusseldorf and did some thinking as I moved around the place.


As most of you know, Medica is a huge venue. 5,000 plus exhibitors and more than 130,000 attendees from pretty much every country on the planet over four days. The focus of the show is medtech and it has three whole halls on diagnostics, a particular favourite of mine, along with all you can cope with in orthopaedics, surgical equipment, wound care, physio etc etc.


As a medtech specialist headhunter, I have attended Medica almost every year since 2004 (2008 was my only no-show on account of me being in an intensive care unit). This year I thought that would be really cool and useful to attend 20 meetings in two days and go out on Monday night.


And it was, up until Tuesday around 17.00 when I caught my trousers on a piece of stand and ripped a hole in the backside. A story for another day perhaps.


Anyway, Medica is the richest environment in Europe for meeting senior people in the medtech industry under one roof in a short period of time. Better still, you can see their products on display along with expensively produced graphics explaining, in as much detail as you could really want, what their devices actually do.


The 17 sheds of Medica then are ground zero for any consultant who wants to see what their clients and the rest of the industry does. For a medtech specialist headhunter, it’s a sort of sweet shop.


Except, in 13 visits I have never either met another headhunter or been told by a client that I am the third one they have seen that day.


Not once.


Now, I used to think that the equation to estimate the number of specialist headhunters in medtech attending Medica would produce a pretty high number. After all, if you are going to provide a service, especially an expensive one like headhunting you really should be visiting your potential clients in their natural habitat, understanding what they do and, you know, er, meeting people. But, it would appear from my observations at any rate that they are simply not there.


What is the variable that I have missed that makes the equation produce such a low value, and more importantly perhaps, why is it so?


You know what? I am going to call this the Campbell Paradox until someone tells me not to.



* Leo Szilard, a Hungarian Physicist, is supposed to have quipped on hearing this, “They are already here among us – they just call themselves Hungarians.”


** If you are interested there is more here



*** Of course we now know that the answer is 42

Posted on: 19th November 2018 by Ivor Campbell

Into his fourth decade of search Ivor has a voice with stories to tell, observations to make and the odd picture to share. Mostly related to the day job.

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