It's a cold, early spring Sunday in Boston, and I'm on my way to breakfast with an old friend who's in town for a conference. Passing the central branch of the Boston Public Library, I notice names of great scientists carved into the stone facing on its east side. I recognize all but one, and I think, "Cuvier…who is that?"
Apparently I have some things to learn about the history of science. I make a mental note, and continue my walk.
But now I'm thinking about how much there is to learn, and how little time most of us have to dedicate to learning. I'm not thinking here about the latest news, or job-related technology; rather, learning about how things came to be, or where things are, or where we're headed, or any of the big questions we struggle with as a species.
Only the fortunate few have the time or energy to read voraciously, or to take courses for enjoyment. If you've been missing the thrill of learning something new, here are some suggestions for finding it once again.
First, you'll want resources. Here are three:
- If you encounter a term, name, or concept you don't understand, ask the people around you what they know. You'll get some blank stares and misinformation, but you'll also get leads to paths that will resolve the puzzle.
- The Web
- The World Wide Web is a little more authoritative than most people are, and I can usually find the answers to my questions with a few searches. Use your favorite search engine or Wikipedia.
- Dictionary, encyclopedia, atlas, globe, and star charts
- How much there is to learn,
and how little time most of us
have to dedicate to learning!
- A good dictionary is great for brief explanations. Encyclopedias are the next step. You'll want an atlas for graphical geography, and a globe (or a good two-dimensional representation) because the earth isn't flat. And don't forget the sky. The Web can provide all of these.
Next, you need sources of questions — practices that stir your brain. Here are three.
- Randomly peruse your resources
- Spend five minutes a day just looking at random entries in your dictionary or encyclopedia, or at parts of the atlas, globe, or star charts. Questions will pop like popcorn.
- Notice what's around you
- I noticed the name "Cuvier" for the first time, even though I've walked past the library hundreds of times. Noticing stirs your brain.
- Notice what isn't
- Ask yourself, 'Why isn't X here?' For instance, some plants tend not to thrive in sunny spots. Why not?
Perhaps you're wondering where you'll find the energy for these things. Probably more of us think we're maxed out than are actually maxed out, but if you really do feel a thrill when you learn something new, the learning might actually give you energy. And when that happens, you can ask yourself, 'Why is that?' Top Next Issue
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
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- Hard problems need not be big problems. Even when they're small, they can halt progress on any project. Here's Part I of an approach to working on hard problems by breaking them down into smaller steps. Available here and by RSS on June 28.
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- In this Part II of our look at solving hard problems, we continue developing properties of the solution, and look at how we get from the beginning to the end. Available here and by RSS on July 5.
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