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The (New) New Einsteins: David Shaw

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For the current issue of mental_floss magazine, Erik Vance profiled nine "New Einsteins" "“ visionaries who are discovering how to grow organs, peer into black holes, levitate food, cure plagues, and let blind men see. This week on mentalfloss.com, Mr. Vance will be anointing five additional New Einsteins, one per day. Today, it's David Shaw's turn.


Who He Is: David Shaw Chief Scientist at D. E. Shaw Research, LLC. Founder of D. E. Shaw & Co. Professor of computational biology and bioinformatics at Columbia University.


What He Did: If you were to write David Shaw's life in 18 words, it would be "Computer nerd becomes professor, professor becomes hedge fund trader, hedge fund trader becomes billionaire, billionaire becomes computer nerd." In the 1990s, Shaw was one of the most successful "quants" (quantitative analyst) in the country. Quants use statistical tools and high-level calculus to compile huge numbers of small investment opportunities. Think of it like scraping the bowl for that spoonful of cookie batter.


Unlike other investors, quants usually come from backgrounds in physics or engineering. Shaw was a computer scientist at Columbia when he decided to start D. E. Shaw & Co (and become a billionaire). A few years ago, he returned to research and academia, modeling proteins.


Why You Should Start Idolizing Him Immediately:

Ignore for a moment his $2.5 billion, which puts him at number 165 on the Forbes list of the 400 richest people. His whole life, Shaw has been that guy you should have listened to way back when. He was into parallel computing (running numerous algorithms simultaneously to increase power) as a grad student before supercomputers were cool. He joined a hedge fund before everyone was talking about them. And by the time quantitative analysis got crowded and passé, he had already made his fortune.

But apparently gaming the financial system and making oodles of cash wasn't interesting enough for him. These days, he works on protein folding. Proteins are the building blocks of life (don't let anyone tell you it's DNA, that's just the blueprint). They control almost everything the cell does and so understanding them means understanding what the body is doing. Each one's job is defined by the chemicals that make up their chain-like structure as well as the shape that structure takes. That means two identically composed proteins with different shapes may do totally different things. Oh, and by the way, some of these protein molecules are tens of thousands of atoms long. So between the contents and the shape, proteins come in an almost infinite variety.

Of course, massive data and infinite numbers of combinations are what Shaw does best. After leaving the business world he created Desmond, arguably the fastest software in the world at the time. Take the protein dehydrofolate reductase "“ Desmond could model its 23,558 atoms in just a thousandth of a second, a full 10 times faster than NAMD, the former fastest program in the world. Now he is working on a program called Anton, that will model protein behavior and essentially allow scientists to do their experiments on the screen.

Previous (New) New Einsteins: Marin Soljačić , Roland Fryer, Nathalie Cabrol

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While you’re browsing the ice cream aisle, you may find yourself wondering, “What’s so French about French vanilla?” The name may sound a little fancier than just plain ol’ “vanilla,” but it has nothing to do with the origin of the vanilla itself. (Vanilla is a tropical plant that grows near the equator.)

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In an interview with NPR’s All Things Considered in 2010—when Baskin-Robbins decided to eliminate French Vanilla from its ice cream lineup—ice cream industry consultant Bruce Tharp noted that French vanilla ice cream may date back to at least colonial times, when Thomas Jefferson and George Washington both used ice cream recipes that included egg yolks.

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Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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