A long, rambling conversation leads a friend and I to discover that that the borders of knowledge are not as far away as we originally thought them to be.
I spent the evening on the phone tonight with Ms. Beautyphile, and we had a long rambling conversation about chemistry, elemental bonds, bacteria, and viruses. I love this kind of discourse. We each bring some knowledge to the table, and when we reluctantly hang up at the end of the night, we each have a greater understanding of the topic and a lot more questions for the next call.
What amazes me is how quickly we found ourselves at the edge of human knowledge. At one point we were flummoxed by our inability to come up with the answer to what we thought was a simple question. Instead, we found an argument, with dueling hypothesis and contradictory information. At first we were annoyed, but the more we discussed it, the more excited we became. Our inability to find a definitive answer was because we were ensnared in the turbulence of current research.
That is an exhilarating experience. As people who live in a highly technological and scientific world, we become accustomed to thinking that if we don’t actually know how some aspect of our world works, the answer is no further than a web browser and a search engine away. While I may not know exactly why an antenna improves wifi reception (for example), but I feel comfortable that I can locate something on the topic online very quickly.
This attitude results in an unconscious assumption – that the borders of knowledge are far away. We start to feel that as layman, we can’t participate in the scientific discussion on any specific topic without 8-12 years of specialized training. The frontier is actually so much closer than we think, and it is startling how rapidly you can find yourself there.
We two amateurs found ourselves making the transition from scientific tourists to potential scientific explorers in just one night.
Stuart Firestein did an excellent TED talk titled ‘The Pursuit of Ignorance‘, and it really helped clarify my thoughts on the topic. I recommend checking it out, if the topic interests you further.