In science and technology, there is a broad and integrative kind of knowledge that can be learned, but isn’t taught. It’s important, though, because it makes creative work more productive and makes costly blunders less likely.
Formal education in science and engineering centers on teaching facts and problem-solving skills in a series of narrow topics. It is true that a few topics, although narrow in content, have such broad application that they are themselves integrative: These include (at a bare minimum) substantial chunks of mathematics and the basics of classical mechanics and electromagnetism, with the basics of thermodynamics and quantum mechanics close behind.
Most subjects in science and engineering, however, are narrower than these, and advanced education means deeper and narrower education. What this kind of education omits is knowledge of extent and structure of human knowledge on a trans-disciplinary scale. This means understanding — in a particular, limited sense — everything.
To avoid blunders and absurdities, to recognize cross-disciplinary opportunities, and to make sense of new ideas, requires knowledge of at least the outlines of every field that might be relevant to the topics of interest. By knowing the outlines of a field, I mean knowing the answers, to some reasonable approximation, to questions like these:
What are the physical phenomena?
What causes them?
What are their magnitudes?
When might they be important?
How well are they understood?
How well can they be modeled?
What do they make possible?
What do they forbid?
And even more fundamental than these are questions of knowledge about knowledge:
What is known today?
What are the gaps in what I know?
When would I need to know more to solve a problem?
How could I find what I need?
It takes far less knowledge to recognize a problem than to solve it, yet in key respects, that bit of knowledge is more important: With recognition, a problem may be avoided, or solved, or an idea abandoned. Without recognition, a hidden problem may invalidate the labor of an hour, or a lifetime. Lack of a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.
Looking back over the last few decades, I can see that I’ve invested considerably more than 10,000 hours in learning about the structures, relationships, contents, controversies, open problems, limitations, capabilities, developing an understanding of how the fields covered in the major journals fit together to constitute the current state of science and technology. In some areas, of course, I’ve dug deeper into the contents and tools of a field, driven by the needs of problem solving; in others, I know only the shape of the box and where it sits.
This sort of knowledge is a kind of specialty, really — a limited slice of learning, but oriented crosswise. Because of this orientation, though, it provides leverage in integrating knowledge from diverse sources. I am surprised by the range of fields in which I can converse with scientists and engineers at about the level of a colleague in an adjacent field. I often know what to ask about their research, and sometimes make suggestions that light their eyes.
In a follow-on post, I plan to say more about the method of study that I’ve found effective. I got rolling with the new journal sections of the MIT libraries, but today, the internet should serve even better.
(Here’s the follow-on: How to Learn About Everything)
- How to Learn About Everything
- A Map of Science
- The Antiparallel Structures of Science and Engineering
- Science and Engineering: A Layer-Cake of Inquiry and Design
- A Telescope Aimed at the Future
- Exploratory Engineering:
Applying the predictive power of science
to future technologies