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.

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.