Monday, 27 August 2012

The Sweet Mystery of Science

I guess I must have gone to a fundamentally different kind of college. Nearly every single professor I encountered wasn't excited about what was already known in their respective field but got disturbingly excited about untestable theories, suspected areas of interest and tantalizingly unknowable facts. My computer science professors would treat P=NP in an almost religious fashion -- treating that solution like the face of god. Sometimes it was just a numbers game like natural language parsing and parts of speech tagging. Here's the best-to-date accuracy, can you beat it? Ask my physics professors about entropy in space or, worse, string theory and they'd shortly be speaking in tongues. My philosophy instructors, even, loved to ask questions that had no clear answer: would you murder one person to save thousands? Why did Charles-Henri Sanson, the executioner of 3,000 lives in Paris, survive the revolution and what moral implications entailed him executing his former boss the king?

And that sort of makes sense to me because what are you going to publish about if your field is dead? What is going to drive you to keep studying your field if it's a dead field. I will say I don't remember many exciting things coming out of my advanced math courses. I know that field isn't dead but my instructors were abysmal in that field. Even the statistics professor had more fire. And I think the reason behind that is that math is a very deep field with so many before us that have pushed that field so far. In order to make original progress in that field, it appears to me that you almost have to become a hermit. You've got to become some sort of phantasmal waif like the great Grigori Perelman.

And I think that's the essence of where this article becomes misaligned. The author is complaining about learning by rote but there's few other ways to accelerate young minds quickly up to the point of modern positions of each field. I feel polymaths become much more rare as each field deepens in knowledge and that's because they are all rapidly becoming very deep rabbit holes (like mathematics). For me, grade school and high school contained the teachers that this guy is complaining about and that's because they had no choice. I wasn't ready for the real questions that remain when I was learning about derivatives and integrals in high school. I probably would not have comprehended P=NP very well at that time let alone the proof to the Poincar? conjecture.

It is time, therefore, to start teaching courses, giving lectures and writing books about what we don't know about biology, chemistry, geology, physics, mathematics.

I think there's a healthy balance, if you're teaching about what you don't know about then what could the students possibly be learning? Instead, I think teaching by rote and example of what we do know while using what we don't know as a carrot is the best methodology. If you can make your students excited about the unknown possibilities while at the same time conveying the boring and known but pragmatic information then you hit that sweet spot of teaching at a college level.

As to the particular field discussed in the article: Yeah, evolutionary biology is a relatively young field with a lot to be learned yet. I realized only a fraction of what I don't know when I read and reviewed The Logic of Chance [].


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