Reinventing the Wheel

We know too much. If you want to get the best knowledge about something, you need to do a lot of research. The reason is that every interesting question has already been thought of by people much smarter than you, who spent most their lives thinking about it. Sure, this isn’t true for silly things like “what number am I thinking of?” or “who lives next door?” but it is true about the `big’ questions. What is the Earth made of? Is there a God? How old is the universe? Any fundamental question you can think of has a huge history in human thought.

You could contemplate an interesting question for an hour or so, maybe in discussion with some intelligent friends, and you might form some opinion about what you think the answer is. But you can be sure that some old bearded man a hundred years ago probably wrote something that captures your opinion in a very elegant way and also created an entire philosophy around it that endures to this day and is taught to university philosophy students as something with a name like `Explainarism’ – and if you had just taken the time to do some research, you would know this and you could just say to people, any time the question pops up, `oh, I’m an Explainarist’ and then you could answer any question they might have by pointing to the classic text on Explainarism by Professor Dr. Pheebington-Blatt Esq. Many university students are familiar with this state of affairs.

How can we recover the joy of learning in a world where everybody apparently already knows everything? The answer is that knowledge is not the same as understanding. To know something you only need to read it in a book, but to really understand something, you have to experience it. Most science and history is based on real things and places – experiments you can witness and ruins you can visit. Even the more abstract sciences pertain to imaginary worlds that can be imagined in terms of visual things – a good scientist doesn’t just see a bunch of equations as numbers and letters, but rather has a picture in their head of the physical system that those equations represent. A number like 0.5 is not just a number, but a probability, or an energy, or something else that is conceptually tangible. Therefore, we still live in an age of discovery, but it is now an age of personal discovery.

Sure, anybody can read about China. But how many people have actually been there? Similarly, anybody can read that E=mc2. But how many people know what that means in terms of energy, and mass, and speed? Knowledge is abundant, but understanding is not. It is in extending our personal understanding of the world that we are able to cross new frontiers, and the reward is still great even though many others have been there before us.

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