DATA is to Life, as Math is to Science



The title I really wanted for this article was:

If math is the language of science, then DATA is now the language of life.  

Ken Black, 7/28/16, Roswell, GA.

I ended up shortening the title because I thought it was too long. However, I did use the double entendre in both titles. Do you know what that is? You should if you are fan of Tableau!


Sometimes articles just appear, nearly completely written in my brain. This is one of those articles. I cannot explain how it happens but somehow these thoughts just coalesce in a few frantic moments as I desperately try to capture them before they are gone. I was only partially successful in this case.

I captured most of what I wanted to say only to have a few months pass by before I could complete my thoughts. I wish that had not happened, but it did.

I found in the end that the story continued to grow into something bigger than I initially planned it to be. I couldn’t control it as interconnected thoughts kept occurring and pieces of the story kept interlocking as I felt like I was trying to complete a jigsaw puzzle that didn’t have a picture. In the end, I think a couple of articles merged before the complete story was written.

Fair Warning: The topic of this article is deep and the article is long. If you don’t like long articles, skip it. If you skip it, I’ll tell you that you will miss-out on some interesting stories.

I’m not sure I have completely captured the essence of why it is becoming necessary for us to understand the wide variety of data being collected around us. However, this topic has been present within me for over 40 years and I’m now moving rapidly to comprehend modern-day data. If you stick with this article, I promise that you will learn a few things and you will understand why I am motivated to write some upcoming articles that I have planned in this series of articles.

The Origin of This Article

It was late on the evening of July 31, 1974, when I had my first experience with the non-quantifiable. As I looked into the eyes of my uncle, I shook his hand goodbye. At this moment, I could see death in his eyes as I felt his life fading away in this handshake. My description of this moment is absolutely true.

I was right. He died later that night after he went home and sat in his rocking chair. I wondered, how did I know as an 11 year-old that he was going to die? How did I feel his life leaving his body through our hand-to-hand contact?

When I awoke the next morning and heard my Mom crying in the kitchen, I already knew why she was crying. I already knew that my uncle died that night.

With this being one of my first encounters with death at a young age, I also wondered what happened to the DATA stored in my uncle’s brain. The DATA I am referring to was his knowledge, experiences and memories that were stored in his brain. I wondered if his DATA went with him as he ascended to heaven, or if his DATA was simply lost. I believe this was the first time I comprehended that we do not live forever.

I remember feeling very sad when I realized that his experiences and knowledge were simply going to be lost to us at the time of his death. Once his brain was shut-off, we lost all that information. The family history, shared experiences, and his detailed memories were gone in an instant.  This feeling of sadness has lead me on a life-long journey to do some thing about this feeling of hopelessness. To a large degree, this is the reason I am writing this article.

This was the first time I wondered if it would be possible to capture someone’s DATA before they died so that some of that information would not be lost when they passed away.

I was 11 years old in 1974, and I was already thinking some deep thoughts about DATA. Little did I realize how profound these thoughts would be in my life, as I will explain.

About 12 years after this experience (1986), I invented (in my mind and my notebook) what I called a “super-cooled, super-conducting thinking jet helmet”. This helmet would have liquid nitrogen circulating around it to slowly cool our brains down towards absolute zero.

This was about the time that high-temperature super-conducting materials were being controlled in the lab setting. I imagined that if we put our brain into a really cold state, we could have really fast computations going on in our heads and we could rapidly download our data!

This was in the early days of computing, when floppy disks were the rage and files were small. I knew the brain held a lot of information so I had to invent a way to quickly export the data while the person was still alive. This was also before people started freezing their complete bodies in hopes of being resurrected at a future date (which includes, by the way, the hope of resurrecting their DATA).

I knew the helmet was going to be needed because I could see an immense amount of data starting to come our way. I also believed that there would be a machine that would allow us to send this data into a place where it can exist for all time. At least this part of the vision has now come true to some degree.

The Proliferation of Data

Now some 40 years later, as I move through space and time in my life, I am beginning to understand something that is happening so fast that it is hard to comprehend. Within my lifetime, a new form of communication has emerged. This communication is not really based on language, it is based on data. This is why I titled the article the way that I did.

I’m not just talking about the multitude of ways that data is being created, stored, and analyzed. What I am seeing in real-time is how life on earth and all the activities on earth are being quantified and recorded in every imaginable way. A nice article that attempts to summarize the proliferation of data can be viewed here.

Still photos, videos, dates, times, numerical data, categorical data, and every conceivable combination of these are being created every second we exist. Each one of us are digital data producers, whether we want to be or not. I believe that this is a very good thing as I will demonstrate below.

We are capturing our memories in many ways, and our DATA now has the chance to live beyond our physical bodies, like I first thought about in 1974.

Most of us are also becoming digital hoarders, whether we want to admit that or not. I can imagine the day coming when someone says: “You have collected 10 exabytes of data, which is beyond the upper limit allowed for any one person!”I hope that day never comes but the amount of data we are storing is growing very rapidly, person by person.

Luckily for me, Google now exists and has given me the capability of doing what I want to do with DATA. I can capture, store, and process as much data as I want to. Google has given me a brain outside of my own brain to store and do the processing of this data.

Governments, companies, and people are all craving data, so more and more devices are being created to automatically generate the desired data. I believe these data-creating devices are now being called the “Internet of Things” (IOT).

Personally, I don’t really care what the next wave of data generation is going to be called because it is already here. I have been practicing analog and digital data collection since 1974. The data I’ve been collecting is way more important to me than a data stream from some IOT device because my data characterizes people and their lifetimes.

Although I was only 11, I first recorded my brother Danny on a cassette tape that I still have to this day. This is the only surviving audio that I have of his voice, but I do have some pictures of him at various stages of his life. I also recorded my Mom in the weeks before she died, to preserve her voice, memories, and stories to go along with her pictures that span 80+ years.

These events prove that the ability to capture and store data has already been with us for a few decades and is now undergoing monumental expansion that is happening faster than we can comprehend it.

The DATA Recap

Data is flying everywhere we look. Data is buzzing by us everywhere we go. Packets of data, streams of data, mountains of data are being generated every second that we are alive. Many of us are personally responsible for generating this data.

We are living and breathing in an ecosystem that is quickly filling up with data. In fact, our data has already escaped our planet, our solar system, and has been flying through space for many decades.

Our data is moving everywhere across the earth, through the solar system and beyond. This is so profound and is happening so fast, that I believe that data is now becoming the language of life. To more completely explain what I mean, I have to go back in time to set the stage.

Early Thought Experiments

When I was a young and fell in love with math and science, I did many thought experiments as I rested in bed on those cold and rainy Saturday mornings in Chicago, IL. Looking back on these experiences, I can now see that they were an early form of meditation for me as I took my math and scientific comprehension to the limits.

One of my favorite thought experiments was to imagine that I could fly through space very fast, even faster than the speed of light, and that I could travel to the edge of the universe in a short amount of time. Everything was fine for me until I approached the edge of the universe.

As I approached the edge, my brain hit a singularity, or a region where I could no longer comprehend this boundary. I was not able to imagine what existed beyond the edge of the universe. Was the space empty, was it a deformable solid, or was it heaven? I could never decide what it must look like beyond the limits of the expanding universe, beyond the limits of the big bang. This zone was beyond the limits of existing data as we know it.

I could imagine the energy and particles within the universe (which themselves are forms of data), but I could not imagine what was beyond its limits. I wondered if it was a pure vacuum or something else, like other universes. I wondered if this is where our knowledge and experiences went to be stored for all time. To help answer this question, I decided to learn more about math.

Mathematics Training

As I continued my education, I learned how mathematics was developed to explain science. I kept being told that “Mathematics is the language of science”. Simply put, science is explained in mathematical terms. Since I loved science, I knew that I had to learn a lot of math. I also knew that I had to learn the other types of vocabulary for science beyond just mathematics.

To understand as much math as I could, I took a lot of undergraduate and graduate math courses. I took my math education to the point of failure. By the time I finished my graduate studies, I simply could not understand the theoretical basis and approaches used in the math courses I was studying.

My friend Cantian Lin (Figure 1) could approach a mathematical problem with such pure intuition that I knew he WAS a mathematician. I, on the other hand, had no idea how to even begin some of the problems. Such was the case one day when our teacher gave us a partial differential equation without boundary and initial conditions and told us to determine if a solution existed, and if so, was the solution unique?

This is when I knew I had found the natural limit of the mathematics that existed within me. I hit the theoretical mathematical wall, so to speak. The funny thing was that I was OK with it. I had given it my all. I suspected that I could continue to crawl my way up the mathematical mountain or to climb over that wall, but I discovered something else at that time that was much more appealing to me (other than girls, of course).


Figure 1 – Ken Black and Cantian Lin, circa 1985 or 1986. Cantian was one of the most naturally gifted theoretical mathematician I have ever worked with.

It was at this same time that I discovered was how much I loved using computers to do mathematics. I loved learning how to do numerical integrations and to use iterative methods to achieve approximate solutions. I loved seeing computer software being created that could produce generalized solutions to wide classes of problems and could even do symbolic algebra and calculus. I became fascinated with the concept of computer-based mathematics. Programs like Mathcad, Maple, Mathematica, and other products were being built at this time.

I still remember the happiness I felt when I successfully found the solution to a rapidly convergent series by writing a simple loop in a Fortran code. I was mesmerized by the computer’s ability to sum numbers. I remember the insights gained when I learned about initializing variables to zero outside of the loop and then letting them accumulate value within the loop. It was awesome for me to comprehend this capability.

I enjoyed finding approximate solutions to partial differential equations by using numerical methods like finite-differences and finite-elements and then I really had a great time trying to visualize the results. I loved learning about the boundary element method and using this technique to build structured triangular and quadrilateral grids. This was a magical time during my formative years.

For this reason, I left the realm of theoretical math behind and focused on studying computational math. This is also when my love of data visualization began. Looking back on it, I can easily see how funny it is when one thing leads to another.

Working With Data

For the past 30 years, I put that math training to good use. I have been working with a lot of different types of data very consistently throughout this time. I have also been working with many different forms of data visualization.

This use of data also happened to correlate in time to the development of powerful computers and some pretty great software. For these reasons,  I think I have a pretty good historical perspective on the nature of that data that is currently flying around us and the ways we have to visualize this data.

It was about 5 years ago, when my good friend Joe Mako made a statement to me that was so profound that it stopped me in my tracks and made me think critcially about my career path. He told me that when he looks at data, his brain just sees the data for what it is – nothing more, nothing less.

Joe explained to me that it doesn’t matter to him where it came from or how it was collected. It does not matter to him what the connotations are for that data. He leaves all that behind. He looks at the data for what it is, and how he can shape it and mold it to solve the problem for which the data was created to solve.

I think Joe developed this perspective by helping hundreds of people over many years learn to work with their data. A couple of thousand miles away, I was developing a similar vision by working with a wide range of data from many different companies as I worked as a process improvement consultant. With each new business case I threw at Tableau, I gained a deeper appreciation for Joe’s perspective.

Joe raised my awareness of how I was seeing data, too. He gave me a context and vocabulary to understand the relationship between data and problem solving. To some extent, this blog has been transformed over time because of this growing awareness within me and my relationships with countless others working in the field of data analytics.

To go even go one step deeper, somewhat into the philosophical realm, Joe views the relationship between DATA and the fantastic tools we have to work with it in this way:

I like to think tools like Tableau and Alteryx enable us to have a conversation with our DATA, and if we approach it with the desire to have empathy, and a growth mindset, we can gain a deeper understanding of the DATA. This allow us to make more informed choices and decisions.

What I have come to understand is that data is the natural material by which I now get to practice my craft. I used to use wood to build furniture with my hands, but now I build things out of bits and bytes of data. I no longer build custom cabinets and furniture, I build custom data solutions.

I can now combine data in ways that allow me to quantify life on earth, whether it be human interactions, athletic performance, business progress, or scientific evaluation. Data is simply the material by which I can produce things that are beautiful, useful and powerful. Alteryx allows me to craft the data sets that Tableau so expertly and beautifully allow me to visualize and explain.

The production of those custom data sets happen because of tools like Alteryx and Tableau, as well as a lot of practice in doing the work. It also happens because I can pull knowledge and experiences from math, natural sciences, statistics, programming, logic, quantitative experiences, photography, and a multitude of other subjects and combine this information to solve problems and relive memories.

By continuously working and learning, I have assembled an ability to work with data that has allowed me to accomplish some things that I first thought about when I was 11 years old.

Assembling These Thoughts To Finish This Story

Thanks for hanging with me in this story. I know it hasn’t been easy. It wasn’t easy for me to write these words, either. In this case, my brain kept trying to explode in a million directions and I kept trying to corral those impulses. Now I’ll get to the point of the story.

My most vivid early memory happened at age 4 or 5 on the day that I learned to ride a bike. The exhilaration I felt when I first pedaled on my own was overwhelming and it burned those feelings into my neural network. Although I don’t know who it was that ran along side me and held my seat until I had enough speed to stay upright, I can still hear his reassuring words as the fear of crashing was replaced with the freedom of movement on the bike. In fact, I still feel that way when I get on my bike.

Certain events like that one burn memories into our brains in such a way that they remain resident in the form of long-term memories throughout our lives. For me, the death of my brother, being robbed at gunpoint, nearly flying off a mountain on my bike, being in a car crash, nearly being crushed by a car crash that happened in front of me, seeing my beautiful wife for the first time, and many other events are forever seared in my brain.

I will have those memories forever. My brain recorded these events like a 1,000 frames per second camera would do and I can recall those memories at-will. The details are as vivid to me today as they were when the events first happened. For this reason, I know that I’ll never lose these memories unless my brain malfunctions or I die.

It is the other beautiful things in life that happen every day that I struggle with remembering. I don’t have hyperthymesia, so many of my early memories are lost except for what I have captured in audio or photographic form.

As I watch my 5 year old son grow day by day, I have made a promise to myself to record his life so that he will get to experience many aspects of his life whenever he wants to during his older years. I have already done that for Sarah and Colton, too.

I’m going to help all of them recall more memories by making them available to them whenever they want. They can go back to those points in space and time in their lives to see how their lives unfolded. This is one way that DATA has become the language of life.

By collecting data in the form of pictures and videos and storing them on the Google neural network (via Google Photos, err Google Memories), we can relive Jett’s birth, his birthdays, and all the other things he has done. I can go back to see Colton nail 8 three-pointers in a row, or watch Sarah make such unbelievable volleyball plays that they still make me proud and make me cheer, if only in my head. By understanding math, computer science, data and how to problem solve, I have begun to achieve a lifetime goal.

I’ve been involved in uploading my lifetime of memories in the form of pictures and videos for the past decade or so, and I have Google to thank for this. Although the process has taken a long time to conduct, the results are blowing my mind every single day.

In one sense, Google has now made the dream of an 11-year old boy a reality. I can store my memories and those of my other family members and friends. I can make their lifetime of DATA exist beyond their lifetimes. I can give everyone that I have on my neural network access to this information by sending them a hyperlink. How incredible is that? I can’t wait until I finish this project because I guarantee you it will inspire you to get to work to organize your own memories and your DATA.

If you want to know more about what this all means, start following this blog by subscribing to it via email. I am going to be unleashing some outlandish capabilities via Tableau, Alteryx, and Google in the coming months.

If you are new to the blog, go back and read the Google photo articles from Sept 13 and 14th, 2016. They will help prepare you for what is to come. I will be proving to you that DATA has become the language of life.

Final Thoughts

I recently gave a preview of the upcoming work to a friend.  The response I received is shown below:

Haha!! Thank you! That is amazing the search got done in seconds and let alone by just a word! Pretty motivated to start the same process of uploading photos….

Wow, I might like data more than I think I do. 😉

I really love the last part. “I might like data more than I think I do.”  Yes, that is me. I love data and I love the capabilities that companies like Alteryx, Tableau and Google give us to work with this data.

There is more to come as I continue my life-long research project…

Now From The Realm of “There is no way to explain this one!”

One minute after publishing this article, I looked at my email to see this article announcement from Scientific American. To say that it blew my mind would be an understatement. Take a look at the figure or click this link! I haven’t read it yet but wonder if they talk about my super-cooled, super-conducting thinking jet helmet!


One thought on “DATA is to Life, as Math is to Science

  1. Pingback: 3danim8's Blog - How To Achieve Better Data Comprehension, Part 1

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