9.23.2010

Introduction (or how to learn new things and/or leave an impression on the world)

"Dripping water hollows a stone."
    -Titus Lucretius Carus (On the Nature of Things)

How to Learn New Things

Most of the time, when we learn something new, we generally learn it through popular media, educational resources like textbooks, or chatter (newspapers and magazines, TV news, textbooks, word of mouth, etc.) and we take it for granted that the distributor of the information--the magazine author, the news anchorman, the committee that wrote the textbook, or that annoying guy who thinks he knows a lot but often gets the details wrong, did the hard part of verifying the information. Some people, and most people under certain circumstances, have stricter standards.

Doctors, lawyers, scientists, historians and other similar highly neurotic types spend a great deal of time looking things up in what are known as primary sources. They try to get the information directly from the people who observed an historical event (or made it up), for example, or the person who conducted the controlled experiment that proved X causes Y, as another example. That person may be dead, but he or she did leave behind a book, or at least an article.

Doctors and sick people have at their disposal, an online tool known as PubMed. PubMed is a database with abstracts of millions of primary sources (mostly experiments that prove X causes Y) along with some secondary and tertiary sources. So if anyone wanted to know what causes meningitis or if acupuncture induces fertility, you could Google it, but you are likely to get your answer through unorthodox, secondary or tertiary sources and trust that that source did the hard part of verifying the information. If you are slightly neurotic and don't trust people (sometimes you shouldn't, by the way), you can do a search in PubMed.

Now, if you are really neurotic, you may not have enough sense to stop there. Say you found the person (or people) who discovered the cause of meningitis. That person (or people) learned about meningitis and the meninges when he/she/they were in college or med school. They may have read in a textbook or have been told by their professor. Who was the person who discovered the meninges and how did they find it? You may have to go further and further back to a time when people did not submit articles to journals that make it into PubMed.

To get you started, here are some very general primary source sites:

After PubMed, the next best resource would be any library that have subscriptions to databases that allow you to access primary sources in a wider variety of subjects. If you can't get to a library, Google Scholar is an adequate gateway to primary sources.

Now if you are looking for sources that were published before the 1920s, you have the luxury of not having pay for access to them, since they are no longer in copyright (that is, if someone has taking the time post it online). Here is brief list of gateways for free sources:


How to Make an Impression on the World


Step 1: Start with an idea

Much like the carbon cycle or water cycle, there is also something called the information cycle. New ideas may originate in a laboratory or in the mind of genius, but they don't appear out of nowhere. The lab scientist or genius does 'background' research which help shape the direction of the research. She or he may get ideas from colleagues or read about some unanswered question in a trade or academic journal or textbook, for example.

Step 2: Do an experiment or some other method to gather information

She or he uses the background information to devise an experiment or other method to generate more information. The grand-daddy of experimental designs is something called the randomized controlled experiment. For example, you want to find out if acupuncture helps women struggling to get pregnant, so you find two random sample groups of women, you treat one group with acupuncture and you leave the other group alone. If the treated group (the group that got acupuncture) has higher fertility rates than the untreated (or control) group, you can claim that acupuncture helps women get pregnant. This is an overly simplistic explanation, by the way. There are some complicated statistics involved and other factors to consider (liked getting permission from your subjects).

In a perfect world, all information would be gathered in such a fashion, but we don't live in a perfect world, and it is not always possible to do such experiments for every type of new knowledge. Sometimes, researchers use less than perfect methods. Social sciences use a lot of surveys where they ask people questions about their behavior or attitudes, for example. Historians and archaeologists look at documents and artifacts from the past, study their relationships with other documents and artifacts, and interpret and re-interpret discrepancies.  Geologists, physical anthropologists, and natural historians relay on observational evidence gathered from rocks, fossils, and nature. Lawyers looks at court decisions made in the past, and even much of medical science relays on 'case studies.'

Step 3: Spread the word : conference presentations

There used to be time when the first thing you did when you discovered something new was you wrote a book about it. The Polish priest Nicolaus Copernicus, for example, wrote a book in 1543 when he figured out an easier method to predict the motion of planets by assuming the earth revolves around the sun (he actually arranged to have it published after he died to avoid the criticism and ridicule he was afraid he might get). The Italian art historian (who dabbled in math and astronomy on occasion) Galileo Galilei wrote a book when he looked at Jupiter through a telescope and found moons revolving around it. But sometime in the late 1600s in England, people started scientific (or professional) societies. These societies were a way to get people working on similar problems to get together and share their discoveries. These societies grew in number, especially in the 19th century, and held annual conferences or symposia.

At these conferences people submit their experiments or findings and they were originally read out to everyone present, but now-a-days people tend to divide into separate rooms and give PowerPoint presentations to select groups, or they create huge colorful posters with lots of charts and graphs to present in massive halls. If you submit a research idea to the conference, but a panel of judges doesn't think it's good enough, you may get to prepare a summary of your research and put it up on cork-board. A few hours of the convention are set aside for people who did posters to stand beside them and explain their work to interested viewers. It's sort of a grown-up version of Science Fair.

Step 4: Preserve the word: Publish

Now if your discovery is groundbreaking and worthy of some permanent validation, you can publish it in an academic, or scholarly, journal. Most of the time (but not always), your discovery is peer-reviewed, or peer referred, which means two or three of your colleagues in the same field look over your discovery, the experiment or other method you used, and determine if it's good enough for publication. Most of these journals don't pay authors for their submissions, have very low circulation, and are not well-known outside the profession (although there are few that are, like Science, Nature, and the New England Journal of Medicine), but if the new discovery really catches on, it will find it's way into textbooks and enlighten the next generation of researchers who will use your discovery to make more discoveries.

As an example of how the cycle works, lets look at a famous case. In the 1820s, an unambitious but curious son of a physician by the name of Charles Darwin took a boat trip around the world, bringing with him lots of books on geology and natural history. On this trip he collected and compared hundreds of different plants and animals in different parts of the world (he was particularly fond of barnacles). Through the course of several years, by getting ideas from his books and observing nature, he discovered how plants and animals morph into other plants and animals through a process he called 'natural selection.' He had originally planned to write a big book to first present his discovery to the world (some people believe that he was waiting until after he died to avoid the criticism and ridicule he was afraid he might get). However, one day he received a letter from a crazy land surveyor named Alfred Russell Wallace. Mr. Wallace came up with a very similar discovery, so the two of them came to an agreement to jointly submit their discovery to the 1858 meeting of the Linnean Society of London, a society of taxonomists (people who name and classify animals and plants). The Linnean Society published a journal and their discovery was published there soon after. The following year, Darwin published the first edition of his big book, On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life (they liked long title back then).

Variations

There are plenty of people in the world crazy enough to put themselves through this process multiple times in their lifetime for the shear joy of learning and contributing to new knowledge, but other people have a goal in mind: to create something useful, perhaps a new drug, a device, or even an intangible process. If you wanted to avoid the long and tedious cycle of research, presenting and publishing, there is another way for you to leave an impression on the world. You can invent something useful, try to market and sell it, and hope nobody else steals it from you. You may still probably have to do background research and some experimentation to get the thing to work. If you don't mind a little writing and bureaucratic paperwork, you can apply for a patent to protect other people from stealing and/or profiting from your idea. On second thought, this route may be just as long and tedious.

There is another component in the information cycle that doesn't follow the typical flow of information through the normal channels of the cycle. What has traditionally been known as the popular media (TV news, newspapers, magazine) has recently been joined by internet sources like blogs, conspiracy theory websites, or other sources that publish crazy ideas (like Akhnaton's Journal, for example). These sources are not always wrong or dangerous, but they do have lower standards when it comes to carefully and critically evaluating sources of information. It usually takes several years for information to cycle from experiment to textbooks, and in each step, the new information gets refined and improved. The news, whether TV, internet, or what have you, like things to be new and 'hot off the presses.' So when you read about a new drug or a new discovery, you are often getting it early, before it's published in a journal or even before it's presented in a conference.

One good recent example was a poster presentation about the relationship between Facebook usage and academic performance (as measured in GPAs). Some of the first news article about this presentation appeared in March of 2009, a few weeks before it was presented at the annual meeting of the American Education Research Association on April 19th. The stories carried titles like 'Research finds that Facebook Makes you Dumb.' The mistake people were making was assuming that Facebook usage causes dumbness. What the main author, Aryn Karpinski, was trying to say was, among other things, and I am paraphrasing here, dumb people spend more time on Facebook. This was more-or-less confirmed in an article she co-authored and published in Computers in Human Behavior in 2010 (notice the time lag; and this is fast by academic standards).

More about the Website
As a child, one of my favored authors was the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov. I was not much of a fan of science fiction, but rather I loved his non-fiction books. The vast majority of his books dealt with physics and and astronomy, but he seemed to take an interest in everything. He wrote a guide to Shakespeare and the Bible. I had always been fascinated by his explanations of scientific phenomena and his creative use of history in describing scientific discoveries. One of his last works of non-fiction was a thick volume called the Chronology of Science and Discovery. In this work, Asimov starts with the earliest scientific discoveries in pre-history, tells stories about the lives of people involved, describes, clarifies, and makes connections for a long list of discoveries going all the way up to 1989 (there was a second edition in 1991). This website takes it's inspiration from that work; it's started as sort of an Internet version of that work. I had originally thought about contacting the Asimov estate, the publisher, or whoever has copyright clearance for the Chronology and producing an online, annotated, and hypertexted version of it. However, as I re-read through the Chronology a few years ago and did some background research in preparation, I soon discovered that Mr. Asimov was not always correct with his information, and hardly ever identified his sources. That's not to say that Mr. Asimov is to blame. That's just how things were done in the age before the Internet. We promoted certain individuals as brilliant authorities on subjects and allowed them to enlighten us without question, especially if they had a talent for telling stories. The Internet allows us access to sources that most people had not had previously, or at least not as quick and easily. This makes it easier to better question claims by those 'authorities'. This is part of the reason why the Internet is killing journalism and threatens a host of other professions (like real estate agents, librarians, 411 operators, for examples).

But I'm going off on tangent here. Returning to the purpose of the website, what began as an effort to emulate Asimov's Chronology, however, took on a different focus. Most 'lessons' may center on a specific discovery, but I tried to bring some new information, make connections with other discoveries, and provide support for specific claims with links to other sources, trying to use as many 'primary sources' as possible. I may not always go in chronological order, and I am not sure if I will ever finish it, but I hope to enlighten, entertain, provoke, and encourage you to question and maybe even come up with your ideas or discoveries.

Akhnaton (or sometimes spelled Akhenaten) is the website's tragic hero. Akhanton was a very ugly man and a heretic. He had enough neurosis to challenge the people of the day 'who know everything'. Even though those people may have been right, he sought out truth by virtue of his own reasoning. He was punished severely for this. The intellectual elites erased him from the history books and even the common folk rejected him, with the exception of a small band of slaves who later revolted, escaped from their captives, took Akhanton's ideas with them, and changed history. For more details about Akhnaton and his story, see this lesson.