On being careful to distinguish what you know from what you don’t:
Carl Caves (no one calls him “Carlton”) is the smartest person I know.
My wife laughs when I say that, pointing out that I often describe someone as “the smartest person I know.” She is right. As the Journal’s science writer, I have the privilege of talking to a lot of awfully smart people.
But only a few get the label “smartest person I know.” Caves is one.
They share an important characteristic. In addition to knowing a lot, understanding it deeply and explaining it well, they are especially careful about understanding what they don’t know.
Every person whom I consider really smart is straight forward and open about what they know and, more importantly, about what they don’t know. One of the stages in the development of a scientist seems to be admitting what you don’t know, not in a dismissive tone of ‘Oh, that is not important’ but as a simple statement.
Two recent areas in which my understanding was much less that what I needed were linear control systems for machines and embryology of neural development. Admitting that I did not know what I was talking about and having someone teach me was fun and useful.