Tough learning, part 3: Critical comments on the first draft

Why on Earth would anybody be interested in somebody else’s essay revision?

This post is a bit of an experiment. In any case, I’m posting not so much in the hope that anyone is interested in the revision of this specific document, as in the belief that some people may be interested in the general process of how to go about revision, and this post may be of interest to those people.

Tough learning: first draft

Abstract: The natural sciences have a reputation for posing special challenges to the way we think and learn: they are a form of “extreme thinking”. In this essay physicist Michael Nielsen discusses some of the challenges facing researchers in the natural sciences, and how those challenges shed light on other tough learning situations.

This essay is the text for a presentation delivered by the author at the “Tough Learning” conference held in Brisbane, Australia, September 7-10, 2003, organized by Learning Network Australia (

3600 words, available in ASCII, PDF, and Microsoft Word formats.

Running on empty

Ever find yourself staring dumbly at your computer screen, realizing that your “hard work” of the previous two hours has consisted mostly of web-surfing, writing and deleting poorly thought-out emails, and half-starting a couple of projects that, upon reflection, you don’t actually need to do?

Being very clever, you decide that what is needed is to work harder. You may work late, or at least try to work intensely, fueling yourself with caffeine and sugar. You leave work several hours later, having done virtually nothing effective, and absolutely exhausted. You’re irritable at home, don’t eat well, and have difficulty sleeping, in part because of the caffeine.

The next day is, presumably, unlikely to be a rousing success.

Sadly, the above paragraphs aren’t exactly based on hearsay.

Categorized as General

Networking on the Network (NotN), Part 2

Update: This post (and the previous post) used to contain a link to a local copy of the essay “Networking on the Network”. I’ve taken it down in response to a request from the author; it can (probably) be found by searching online.

Notes inspired by sections 1 and 2

Professional networking is an incredibly useful skill. The direct impact of effective networking is to improve both your own and others’ research. As an indirect benefit, by being more useful to your professional community, and by making that fact known, networking has implications for your career – jobs, promotions, grants, and so on, that can help ensure both your security, and successfully accomplishing your goals.

Networking is, however, a complex skill that needs to be learnt. Phil Agre’s essay, NotN, is primarily about learning this skill, especially in the context of electronic networking, although many of the same ideas apply also to other forms of networking.

The concept of “networking” is widely reviled amongst physicists. People speak of “schmoozing” or “playing politics”, often with a slight sneer, or with a feeling that it is a necessary evil. The underlying feeling seems to be one of shame – it is something to be hidden from sight, not celebrated, and certainly not practiced, or thought about in any deep way.

In my opinion, this feeling has much in common with the sense, shared by many, that occupations such as lawyer, stock-trader, manager, or banker, are somehow less virtuous than occupations which directly produce a tangible good, such as medical doctor, farmer, engineer, or factory worker.

This is to misunderstand how our society functions. Our society engages in many truly amazing forms of co-operative behaviour. A town of a few thousand people may well have a fire station, ambulance, school, library, post office, supermarket, petrol station, and many other amenities. Each one of these is an amazing phenomenon, involving an enormous amount of co-operation – think of how many people are involved in producing goods in the supermarket, and how many levels of co-operation there are!

Networking on the Network (NoTN), Part 1

Update: This post (and a later post) used to contain a link to a local copy of the essay “Networking on the Network”. I’ve taken it down in response to a request from the author; it can (probably) be found by searching online.

Phil Agre has written an essay, “Networking on the Network” (NotN), that I strongly recommend to anybody involved in research, at any level, but particularly to those beginning research careers. NotN is ostensibly about the process of building and maintaining electronic networks as part of a research career. In fact, it contains an enormous amount of information on all aspects of research.

I intend to use NotN as source material to stimulate exploration, analysis, and synthesis. To that end, I have archived the August 18, 2002 version of the document on my website. More recent updates may be available at Agre’s website.

(As an aside, I wonder at the origin of the document. It offers a wide range of insights into research, so much so that the underlying organizing principle of electronic networking sometimes feels a little artificial. Perhaps Agre felt a need to distinguish the document from others texts on the research process?)

How to do research?

The question of how to do research is the central question to be addressed by the discussion group which motivated the setting up of this weblog. It’s not yet clear to me how we as a group should go about addressing the question. We’ll just have to try several different ways, and try to identify ways that work. I can, at least, identify a few important goals from the outset.

  • Exploration: Identify important issues and problems involved in doing research.
  • Analysis: With the issues identified, try to break them up into smaller pieces, susceptible to individual analysis.
  • Synthesis: Try various ways of putting things together into coherent (and preferably enlightening) narratives.

Good methods for doing these things might include:

  • Brainstorming lists of issues and questions, which are then to be described, and used as fodder for further analysis, finally to be put back together again.
  • Identifying good source materials for discussion. Once again, the material can be analyzed, and then synthesized with other materials.
Categorized as General

Tough learning: introductory draft

I’ve been invited to give a presentation at a conference on “Tough Learning”, being held in Brisbane, Australia, from September 7-10, 2003. The following is a draft introduction for my presentation.

Introduction (Draft)

Have any of you ever known a bratty teenager?

Have you ever known a bratty teenager who’s gone on a trip overseas for a few weeks or months, and come back a different person? They might have come back more aware of others, less quick to judge, less quick to anger when they feel trodden upon.

Of course, what’s going on here is common to all people. It’s just that it’s less visible in older people, perhaps because we’re less bratty before we go on our trip. When we go overseas, or even just to another town, we experience things outside our usual domain of understanding.

Such experiences broaden us. They provide new perspectives on our everyday lives, even if they are themselves very remote from our everyday lives. They are, in short, learning experiences, learning experiences whose very power derives from the differences they have with our usual experience.

Today, I’m going to be talking about physics. For most people, the word “physics” means something like: “the subject I disliked most / was worst at in high school”.

I want to talk about physics in a different way. All that stuff in high school – inclined planes, calculus, friction, and so on – bears very little relationship to what I mean today when I talk about physics.

When I talk about physics today, I’m talking about a human endeavour. It’s the endeavour to figure out what the basic rules governing our Universe are. What is the Universe made of? How did it start? How will it end? What’s out there?

These are hard questions. Doing physics is the process of trying to figure out the answers to questions like these. It is a learning experience. What makes it interesting and relevant today is that it’s different in some crucial ways from a lot of the other types of learning that people do. Here’s some ways in which it’s different:

  • No teachers. The first way is that there are no teachers. The process of doing physics is a process of figuring out answers to questions that nobody yet knows the answers to.
  • No guarantees. It’s pretty darn presumptuous to suppose that we human beings can actually understand how the world works. Maybe, as J. B. S. Haldane said, “the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, it is queerer than we can suppose”. Answering these questions certainly requires mind-bending exercises in mental ingenuity and creative thoughts.

I’ll talk more as we go on about ways in which physics is unusual.

Of course, it is precisely because physics is so different from many other learning experiences that makes it potentially so enlightening. The great computer scientist Alan Kay, inventor of the modern personal computer, is fond of saying that “A change of perception is worth 80 IQ points”.

My goal today is to describe to you some of the ways in which doing physics is an exercise in tough learning, in the hope that, like travel, this change of perspective will prove valuable for people doing tough learning in other areas.

Mathematical quickness and research in theoretical physics

Do outstanding minds differ from ordinary minds in any special way? I don’t believe that there is anything basically different in a genius, except for having an unusual combination of abilities, none very special by itself.

– From “Why people think computers can’t’”, an essay by Marvin Minsky

Certain kinds of talent are extremely evident in mathematically-oriented pursuits, such as theoretical physics. Solving simple mathematical problems (“Prove that any set of 51 numbers in the range 1 to 100 must contain two numbers with no common factor” [*]) is an important part of doing research in the mathematical sciences.

Some people will solve the problem just posed effortlessly and instantaneously. A smaller group of people can do the same even with much more complex problems. Other people will struggle with the problem, requiring several minutes or more of laborious thought to convince themselves of the truth of the statement.

It can be rather depressing to meet someone who is clearly much faster than you at this type of problem-solving. Some promising students give up and change fields for something less mathematically demanding, or leave science altogether.

In my opinion, this is a pity. Such mathematical quickness is, unfortunately, both easy to spot, and idolized within the culture of the mathematical sciences. People frequently comment on how “bright” another person is, and mathematical quickness seems to play a major role in forming such assessments.

Yet, such quickness does not seem especially important to make a creative contribution. As Minsky’s comment indicates, a whole plethora of skills and attributes are involved in making such creative contributions. It is more important to be reasonably competent across that entire range of skills and attributes than it is to be extremely talented in just one or a few ways.

[*] I believe I first heard this problem in a biography of the mathematician Paul Erdos.

Categorized as General

Why are research skills so seldom taught?

Undergraduate education in physics is mostly concentrated on learning certain basic facts about physics, and technical skills that enable one to solve problems in physics. While both these are essential facets of doing research, many other equally essential skills are neglected, or ignored completely.

Why is this the case? In some small part it may be because not all people taking physics degrees necessarily hope to do research one day. However, to an extent far greater than in almost any other subject, an undergraduate degree in physics is, at least nominally, focused on the task of preparing people for research.

At the PhD level, it is interesting that while there is certainly a focus on doing research and getting research results, relatively few supervisors seem to engage in much active discussion of how research ought to be pursued. If a student is lucky they may see a particular research style modeled, through interactions with their supervisor and other more senior scientists.

Such modeling is potentially quite valuable, especially if a student is exposed to a wide range of research styles. However, what works for one person may not work for others; this may be especially true when one is inexperienced and lacks confidence, while another is very experienced and has considerable confidence. Furthermore, each individual needs to develop their own style, suited to their own unique combination of talents.

Many students fail even to see such modeling. A remarkably common attitude is that students either “have it”, or “don’t”, when it comes to research skills. This sells students lumped into either category short. It is true that some beginning PhD students are exceptionally well equipped to do the tasks required of a PhD student. Such students may complete their PhD much more rapidly than usual, with apparently astounding success. However, such students may also plateau – they may never move beyond this level, stagnating instead of growing into a new set of skills beyond that required of a PhD student. Similarly, other beginning students may be very well equipped in some ways, but lacking in certain essential skills that result in them being placed into the “don’t” category. It is interesting to wonder how such students might benefit from learning some basic research skills.

I believe that there are many ways in which the learning of research skills can be integrated into both the undergraduate and postgraduate curricula. Rather than drafting such a list to be placed here, I’ll leave the construction of such a list as a topic for discussion, and for future posts.

Topics for further thought:

  • Why are research skills so seldom taught, or even discussed, at either the undergraduate or graduate levels?
  • How significant a factor in research success is the process of thinking about how one does research, discussing it with others, and looking for lessons from history?
  • How can the learning of research skills be integrated into the undergraduate and graduate curricula?
Categorized as General

Quote: Ralph Waldo Emerson on independence

What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.

– From “Self-Reliance” in Emerson’s first series of essays

Categorized as Quotations