How to Understand Everything (and why)

by Eric Drexler on 2009/05/17

Long library shelves
Too much to know,
lots to know about

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)


See also:


Evil Rocks May 17, 2009 at 4:48 am UTC

The question then becomes: how do you base a career on the transect instead of the specialization?

stephen May 17, 2009 at 7:53 am UTC

@evil – consulting. ;-)

exapted May 17, 2009 at 8:07 am UTC

Maybe integrative knowledge should be identified, valued and rewarded more in undergraduate and high school science & engineering courses. Maybe it should be considered an important piece of a specialized set of knowledge. The problem is how to do that effectively.

I have a visualization poster titled “Topic Map: How Scientific Paradigms Relate” which seems like one sort of proof of concept for what you are saying. At least it proves how interdisciplinary scientific research is.

Scott Jensen May 17, 2009 at 5:31 pm UTC

I think a simple way would be to require undergraduate college students to essentially take all freshman-level introductory courses for all academic fields. You know you want to be a mechanical engineer? That’s fine, but you’re still required to take the introductory courses in chemical, electrical, and electronic engineerings as well as physics, psychology, and more. Personally, if I was the chancellor of a university, I would prohibit freshmen and sophomores from taking anything but introductory courses their first two years of college. That would require them to take at least sixteen introductory courses. Get them to see the world from a broader perspective.

Eric Drexler May 17, 2009 at 10:29 pm UTC

@ exapted — The map of science poster you mention is amazing. As you know, it’s based on clustering algorithms applied to hundreds of thousands of scientific papers and their citations. The ribbons of discipline-specific terms make the information is so dense that it should be shipped with a magnifying glass. I’ve been meaning to write about it. [Update: see post with high-resolution image]

Eric Drexler May 17, 2009 at 10:38 pm UTC

@ Scott Jensen — More introductory courses could be helpful, but they wouldn’t (for example) make a majority of the discipline-specific terms distributed across the Topic Map (above) become familiar and meaningful.

Eric Drexler May 17, 2009 at 11:23 pm UTC

@ stephen & Mr. Rocks — Yes, consulting, and in my case, speaking, writing, and providing technical leadership for projects like roadmaps and design software for nanotechnology. (Consider this an advertisement for available services.)

Nanotechnology, of course, is inherently cross-disciplinary, and much of the value of a developing a broad understanding is to provide context and guidance when selecting, digging deeper, and working in more specialized areas.

Shalev May 18, 2009 at 5:02 am UTC

This is exactly how I go about learning new things. I visualize the various fields of knowledge as a giant (spider) web. Initially (when I approach a new topic,) the web is very sparse and contains only a few strands/connections. As I learn, I see pieces of information fly at the web and either sail through a hole, or get stuck to an existing strand and become incorporated into the framework , thereby increasing the area that new facts can get stuck to.

I’ve found that the more I learn in seemingly unrelated areas, the more the underlying connections between disciplines are exposed and the easier it becomes to process, integrate, and retain new pieces of information related to either field.

Chris Phoenix May 18, 2009 at 11:23 pm UTC

I’m really looking forward to the subsequent posts on this topic.

I view scientific knowledge as a nested set of boxes and girders, a framework for putting new information in. Whenever I read an article, I make sure to connect every fact to my existing framework. In this way, bridges can be built between seemingly distant disciplines, and inconsistencies can be spotted quickly. It’s even possible to build intuitions, by visualizing and mulling over several related pieces of information (which is a process of generalizing).

If a fact refuses to fit, then I’ll figure out why. Sometimes I find out that an area of my framework is wrong – and then I fix it. Sometimes I find out that my basic framework is right, but an intuition or generalization should be limited. And sometimes I find out that an expert is wrong.

If a fact simply has nowhere to connect, I’ll often google until I find a way to make it connect. But this happens pretty rarely.

I have often had the experience of talking with grad students in random fields, understanding their work quickly, and within 20 minutes asking a question that they couldn’t answer and found interesting.

The amazing thing about modern science is that there is so much consistency between different fields, and the underlying mechanisms are so elegant, that it seems to take surprisingly little work to build a surprisingly general-purpose framework of scientific understanding. Simply expect yourself to be capable of resolving any contradiction and making any necessary connection… then, do that for everything scientific you read – and I mean every sentence (it may sound onerous, but curiosity makes it fun)… and the framework appears.

Of course, there are still gaping holes in my scientific knowledge, which wouldn’t be there if I’d undertaken a more structured learning project. There is still research that profoundly surprises me. There’s still lots to be curious about. But I reached the point long ago where most of the popular science articles I read are fully comprehensible, as easy to understand as USA Today.

It’s also a great place to tutor people from – any statement they make can be easily understood as either true, false, or interesting, and the truth corresponding to the false statements can be explained in a well-structured, easy to follow way.

I wonder whether my computer science training and software engineering experience has given me some of the habits I use in reading science. In computers, every effect has a cause – the computer, in the end, does *exactly* what you tell it to, and it’s frequently possible to figure out *exactly* why it didn’t act as you expect. Also, computer documentation is a model of conciseness and precision. Every fact is important; everything necessary is said exactly once; every necessary connection and mechanism can be comprehended. But most computer systems are so complex that you can’t understand them – can’t even learn about them – unless you’re willing and able to hold a consistent but incomplete structure in your head, and add pieces to your mental model as you encounter them.

Chris May 19, 2009 at 5:15 am UTC

@Eric

http://www.wolframalpha.com/

Have you guys tried this website yet? I’ve tested it out and it can do some pretty nifty tricks. Take a look.

Brian VanLeeuwen May 19, 2009 at 1:36 pm UTC

Wow, that poster linking the disciplines of science is incredible!

As far as interdisciplinary science, I’d like to brag about my own major: materials science and engineering. It pretty much encompasses all of the topics and questions described in the post. We take classes in a broad range of engineering and science and have lots of lectures about nanotechnology application and research.

One of my professors is always going on about how materials scientists have been doing nanoscience for the better part of the century (although not calling it that) with the example of using x-ray diffraction to measure the size of precipitates in aged aluminum on the order of 1 to 100 nm.

Chris Phoenix May 19, 2009 at 8:56 pm UTC

I just tried Wolfram Alpha. The first five queries I tried gave nothing useful.
“NYC to Harvard by public transit”
“amber suppressor”
“stop codon”
“strength of buckytubes”
“brewer’s yeast virus”

These are things I actually think about and want to know about. At least three of the queries would have given me useful information in the top 10 hits on Google.

Z. M. Davis May 20, 2009 at 5:58 pm UTC

Scott Jensen–re “if I was the chancellor of a university, I would prohibit freshmen and sophomores from taking anything but introductory courses their first two years of college. [...] Get them to see the world from a broader perspective.”

It could very well be that my own emotional biases prevent me from seeing clearly on this issue, but I strongly suspect that those who truly see the world from a broader perspective didn’t get it from being forced to take a lot of introductory courses as an undergrad. They got it from a desperate and relentless curiosity that feeds upon hundreds of books and thousands of websites in a furious and unsupervised quest to eradicate one’s ignorance. Much if not most undergraduate work is just bullshit tapped out at the last minute in exchange for a grade—do we really want more of that? Why burden down specialists with busywork unrelated to their passion, and generalists with busywork on stuff they mostly already know from their voluminous private readings?

J. Daniel May 27, 2009 at 3:50 am UTC

“In a follow-on post, I plan to say more about the method of study that I’ve found effective.”

I’m anxious to read about that…hope to see it soon!

Dan Sickles May 27, 2009 at 3:12 pm UTC

Steve Yegge’s advice on Math For Programmers applies:

The right way to learn math is breadth-first, not depth-first. You need to survey the space, learn the names of things, figure out what’s what.

Eric Drexler May 28, 2009 at 4:38 am UTC

@ J. Daniel — The post is up. See How to Learn About Everything.

Laure Paquette May 31, 2009 at 10:56 am UTC

I have been working on these sorts of issues for about fifteen years. I’ve developed some simple guides to this sort of thinking about thinking (metacognition) that can be used by individuals or groups, in any discipline from health to social sciences. I’ve also got some exercises that can be used for groups or individuals for problem-solving and problem-selecting as well. You can email me and I’ll send the material along. I can be reached at laure.paquette at lakeheadu.ca

Doug Treadwell September 30, 2009 at 9:51 pm UTC

Eric, do you have any more specific recommendations on courses to take or degrees to pursue for nanotechnology (specifically for developing software to be used in developing biomedical nanotechnology)?

I’m having a difficult time finding a single degree that includes all the relevant knowledge and none of the irrelevant knowledge. I’m currently pursuing a computer science degree to be followed by a couple years of additional chemistry and physics.

Thanks.

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