Sunday, July 23, 2006

What You Think You Know

In March, I posted a favorite Richard Feynman story.

Richard Feynman was once asked by a younger colleague: "Dick, explain to me, so that I can understand it, why spin one-half particles obey Fermi-Dirac statistics." Feynman answered: "I'll prepare a freshman lecture on it." Feynman came back a few days later and said: "I couldn't do it. I couldn't reduce it to the freshman level. That means we don't really understand it."

In my own life this insight continues to ring true. It's easy for me to believe I understand something when I really don't. Often there are all sorts of holes and cracks in my knowledge that are imperceptible to me. There's often a gap between what I know and what I think I know.

Writing is the ultimate knowledge debugger.

When I want to check my understanding of newly acquired knowledge, I like to sit down and try to write about it. When my understanding is good, lucid words flow relatively freely; but when there are holes and cracks, the writing gets challenging and the holes and cracks become quite apparent.

Lately, I've been doing a lot of this sort of writing.


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