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Learning science …

It is my own fault for not contacting more old Collegemen, but since a blog needs an entry a week as a bare minimum, I need to post another article. This one is designed to be sufficiently irritating to provoke some comment (which should not deter you from commenting)!

I have been fortunate enough to have been able to devote a few tens of thousand of hours over the last decade to learning science. That is a privilege granted to few. When I worked in the Treasury, some of us used to sneer at officials we met in the Bank of England who seemed to have nothing better to do than to keep themselves “well-briefed”. So have I fallen into the same trap? I like to think not. My objective over the next decade is to give (either live or published over the internet or both) a set of lectures (low hundreds, ideally no more than a hundred) covering essentially the whole of science up to research level.

This may seem a ludicrous ambition. But it is not quite as stupid as it looks. Certainly, in Leibniz’ day (1646-1716) a scientist could hope to keep up-to-date in all areas of science. Today, the typical academic expects to keep up-to-date in a tiny corner of a specialist field (perhaps galaxy collisions in astrophysics) and to know essentially nothing even about specialisms in the same broad scientific area (perhaps high-powered lasers), let alone about different sciences (eg parasitology). There are several reasons for this, which I may discuss in a later article, but the amount you need to know to be fluent in a thousand different specialist areas is far, far less than a thousand times the amount required for just one.

The major problem I have encountered is the immense quantity of published trivia and drivel. The entire useful content of many academic journals seems to be almost nil. That is perhaps to be expected given the pressure on academics to publish. The awkward part is that it can take a long time to establish that an article is free of useful content, much longer than to absorb the content in a really first-rate article. Partly, you need immense self-confidence. It took me decades to grasp that when I could not understand what someone was saying (after reasonable attempts) it was almost always because they did not understand the area properly, not because I was stupid. The genius, operating in an area he or she knows well, can almost always communicate the key ideas quickly even to the intelligent layman.

Certainly, I find I usually need a certain amount of time mulling over new ideas or doing exercises or whatever to absorb them properly. But I have undoubtedly spent the most time on books, articles, lectures etc that have taught me the least. The whole skill seems to be identifying the really good people and materials.

I should have devoted more effort to making money, because there turns out to be a hidden cost to books. First, you need bookshelves, but after a time the available wall-space is full, even after ruthless culls. At that point, you have to start storing some of your books elsewhere. That becomes a considerable nuisance, because you are never quite sure where a given book is when you want to refer to it. Clearly, the better solution would be a much larger house with a substantial library (at least two thousand square feet, preferably more). The cost of that in London (whence I am reluctant to move) is way beyond my budget.

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