I've read 289 books in the past four years. Some were awful. Others were incredible. But I took notes on all of them.
I've never known what to do with these notes. Then I got an idea: I'll dump some of the highlights into a weekly article.
Ignorance: How it Drives Science by Stuart Firestein is about how progress is driven by what we don't know, rather than what we already know. A lot of the book is counterintuitive, makes you think hard, and will change the way you view progress.
Here are six things I learned from the book.
1. All science starts with ignorance:
In other words, scientists don't concentrate on what they know, which is considerable but also minuscule, but rather on what they don't know. The one big fact is that science traffics in ignorance, cultivates it, and is driven by it. Mucking about in the unknown is an adventure; doing it for a living is something most scientists consider a privilege. One of the crucial ideas of this book is that ignorance of this sort need not be the province of scientists alone, although it must be admitted that the good ones are the world's experts in it. But they don't own it, and you can be ignorant, too. Want to be on the cutting edge? Well, it's all, or mostly, ignorance out there. Forget the answers, work on the questions.
2. Curiosity of the unknown is what drives progress:
Ask a softie question of a scientist and you'll just get an answer that's too technical to understand, even if the scientist tries to speak in layman's terms. Francis Crick, Nobel laureate and codiscoverer of DNA, admonished scientists to work on what they talk about at lunch, because that was what really interested them. That's often easier said than done for the practical reasons of funding and the like, especially if you don't happen to own one of those Nobel Prizes. But it is the basis of a good question. So ask the scientist you get hold of what he or she was talking about at lunch. That may generate a host of other questions: "What's the one thing you'd like to know about X?" "What is the most critical thing you have so far failed to understand?" "What things (calculations, experiments) aren't working?"
3. Being open-minded is hugely important:
One kind of ignorance is willful stupidity; worse than simple stupidity, it is a callow indifference to facts or logic. It shows itself as a stubborn devotion to uninformed opinions, ignoring (same root) contrary ideas, opinions, or data. The ignorant are unaware, unenlightened, uninformed, and surprisingly often occupy elected offices. We can all agree that none of this is good.
4. Questions are more important than answers:
Questions are more relevant than answers. Questions are bigger than answers. One good question can give rise to several layers of answers, can inspire decades-long searches for solutions, can generate whole new fields of inquiry, and can prompt changes in entrenched thinking. Answers, on the other hand, often end the process.
5. Science really doesn't like facts:
In reality, only false science reveres "facts," thinks of them as permanent and claims to be able to know everything and predict with unerring accuracy -- one might think here of astrology, for example. Indeed, when new evidence forces scientists to modify their theories, it is considered a triumph, not a defeat. Max Planck, the brilliant physicist who led the revolution in physics now known as quantum mechanics, was asked how often science changed. He replied: "with every funeral," a nod to the way science often changes on a generational time scale.
6. These are the most important questions you can ask people:
Do you think things are unknowable in your field? What? What are the current technological limits in your work? Can you see solutions? Where are you currently stuck? How do you talk about what you don't know? What was the main thrust of your last grant proposal? What will be the main thrust of your next grant proposal? Is there something you would like to work on knowing but can't? Because of technical limitations? Money, manpower? What was the state of ignorance in your field 10, 15, or 25 years ago, and how has that changed?
Go buy the book here. It's great.
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