One might call David Orrell a professional predictor.
His resume may sound intimidating—before earning his PhD (his doctoral thesis focused on the predictability of nonlinear systems), he had worked on the design of particle accelerator projects in four different countries. He’s been employed by such prestigious institutions as University College London and the Institute of Biology in Seattle. Now, living in Toronto, he runs a mathematical consultancy and serves on the Scientific Advisory Board at the Oxford-based company Physiomics. And he’s a writer, too—he’s published seven books, one of which, The Other Side of the Coin: The Emerging Vision of Economics and Our Place in the World, was an Edmonton Journal best-seller.
He somehow finds time to write a blog called The Future of Everything, where he writes about the real estate market, pharmaceutical developments, and other wide-ranging interests. As hard as it may be to make predictions on these topics, Orrell says, in the most cavalier manner, that it is fun to try.
At Catalysta, we think it’s important to remember that even the most accomplished career-persons had to start somewhere and face challenges along their path. So we asked Orrell to go back to basics, and found his story, passion and commitment quite inspiring.
How did you get your start?
David Orrell: One of the things that attracted me to mathematics was that it is useful in many different areas. I trained as an applied mathematician. I worked for several years in particle accelerator design, went back to university to do a PhD in weather prediction, then switched fields to computational biology. I also write books and articles, mostly about science and economics.
What is the common thread in all your work?
It’s all about how we use mathematical models (sets of equations) to simulate complex systems. Models can be used in positive ways but they can also be dangerous when misapplied, as in mainstream economics where they are often used to support an ideology.
How does you make sure to use your work positively?
The first principle is to do no harm. In science, it’s easy to get drawn into socially unproductive ideas. In the 1960s the growth nuclear area was nuclear weapon research. In the 1990s when I did my Ph.D., it was complex derivatives which Warren Buffett called financial weapons of mass destruction. For the last several years, I have worked—most recently as a consultant—for a UK company that has developed a mathematical model to predict the effect of anti-cancer drugs and optimize drug schedules. One of the aims of the model is to reduce the need for animal experiments. I’m not sure if my books make much difference to society but I feel that they are sometimes in tune with developments such as the recent, very broad criticism of economics from students around the world.
Was there ever a time you felt unfulfilled or disconnected in your work life?
Sure. I worked, with a couple of thousand other people, on a multi-billion dollar physics project called the Superconducting Super Collider, which got cancelled part-way through. It was a demoralizing experience but gave me a push to go back and get my Ph.D. There have also been times when I have worked on other projects that I didn’t believe in but I have tried to minimize that!
What makes you happy at work?
The craft. I enjoy the process of building a good mathematical model, a good piece of code, or a good paragraph. I also enjoy working as part of a team on a shared goal.
How did you find the balance between financial stability and a career that makes a difference?
Mathematics is much better pay than writing, so my solution has been to try to combine the two. This was hard when I was working in science full time, but now I work part time as a consultant. That leaves more time for writing.
What other challenges have you faced in your career?
I have had a number of spells where I was out of work for months or more while I figured out what to do next. Striving for a purposeful career certainly narrows your options in some respects but it is worth the effort.