My recent post “How to Understand Everything (and Why)” discussed an untaught, integrative kind of knowledge, and why it is so important in science and engineering — how it can leverage specialized knowledge and improve the trade-off between bold innovation and costly blunders. I discussed the nature of this knowledge and how it can be applied, but not how to learn it.
Note that the title above isn’t “how to learn everything”, but “how to learn about everything”. The distinction I have in mind is between knowing the inside of a topic in deep detail — many facts and problem-solving skills — and knowing the structure and context of a topic: essential facts, what problems can be solved by the skilled, and how the topic fits with others.
This knowledge isn’t superficial in a survey-course sense: It is about both deep structure and practical applications. Knowing about, in this sense, is crucial to understanding a new problem and what must be learned in more depth in order to solve it. The cross-disciplinary reach of nanotechnology almost demands this as a condition of competence.
Studying to learn about everything
To intellectually ambitious students I recommend investing a lot of time in a mode of study that may feel wrong. An implicit lesson of classroom education is that successful study leads to good test scores, but this pattern of study is radically different. It cultivates understanding of a kind that won’t help pass tests — the classroom kind, that is.
- Read and skim journals and textbooks that (at the moment) you only half understand. Include Science and Nature.
- Don’t halt, dig a hole, and study a particular subject as if you had to pass a test on it.
- Don’t avoid a subject because it seems beyond you — instead, read other half-understandable journals and textbooks to absorb more vocabulary, perspective, and context, then circle back.
- Notice that concepts make more sense when you revisit a topic.
- Notice which topics link in all directions, and provide keys to many others. Consider taking a class.
- Continue until almost everything you encounter in Science and Nature makes sense as a contribution to a field you know something about.
Why is this effective?
You learned your native language by immersion, not by swallowing and regurgitating spoonfuls of grammar and vocabulary. With comprehension of words and the unstructured curriculum of life came what we call “common sense”.
The aim of what I’ve described is to learn an expanded language and to develop what amounts to common sense, but about an uncommonly broad slice of the world. Immersion and gradual comprehension work, and I don’t know of any other way.
This process led me to explore the potential of molecular nanotechnology as a basis for high-throughput atomically precise manufacturing. If broad-spectrum common sense were more widespread among scientists, there would be no air of controversy around the subject, milestones like the U.S. National Academies report on molecular manufacturing would have been reached a decade earlier, and today’s research agenda and perception of global problems would be very different.
(Revised 9 Feb 2010)
(Belorussian translation provided by Patricia Clausnitzer, 25 Aug 2010)
- How to Understand Everything (and Why)
- 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