Superlearning science: tips for beginners

I did not understand about learning science until the second year of my PhD.  At some point every method and technique I used started to fail. I read a lot, and the more I read the more helpless I felt. Things just did not work as I expected. Then I suddenly made a breakthrough and everything started to work.  Here I want to summarize some things I learned  the hard way.

  • Scientists love explanations. When learning science you will be explained many times why some things work, how they work, and how they might work. These explanations allow to memorize scientific ideas with ease. Sometimes they capture our imagination and are so visual and symbolic that can act as logical markers. Many of these explanations are highly speculative and controversial.
  • Trust formulas. Usually, scientists work very hard to create and verify formulas.  Formulas typically can be trusted and are very useful. Unfortunately, they are also hard to understand, remember and use.  Quite often it is much easier to remember the way the formulas were derived, the experiments that checked the formula etc. One way to understand formulas, is to stage mental experiments. What if I change one of the variables by factor of 2, how will other variables be affected.
  • Look at the graphs. The experimental results are typically presented in graphs and tables. Tables are there to prove a point, so there are many arguments about them. Graphs show trends and make it easy to generate formulas. Graphs are highly visual –  a sort of “photographic” markers, like architectural monuments in foreign cities.  If you do not understand a formula, try to think how it can be visualized with a graph.
  • Specific vs generic. Science tends to be very different for specific subjects. Physics will be very different from biology and psychology very different still. There is even more than one  type of math. The statistics used in quantum physics is not the statistics used in cognitive psychology to the point where scientists do not understand each other. The common link between sciences [math and humanities are very different]: the scientific method of setting up an experiment and analyzing its results.
  • Science is not a spectator sport. If you really need to understand something, you need to stop reading about other people’s experiments and start running your own. When faced with the challenges overcome by your peers, you will be able to understand their solutions much better. Start from simple experiments or you may have very hard time understanding their results. Try to generate as many cross-validation and test points as you can to make sure your experiment is set up correctly.
  • Tenacity. Science requires patience, confidence and resilience. You can work for several months without getting any good result and then one day have a breakthrough. You may have great results due to errors in your experimental setup. It is quite possible that nobody will believe your results or want to hear about them after you spent years perfecting them. If you are serious about science, you should be able to enjoy the scientific research in your field of choice, and not results of this research.
    If you are not strong enough, you can always work for commercial enterprises, like I do.

I had several ventures focused on different sciences, so I have some understanding specific to the sciences I tried myself at. I will publish more specific articles later on.


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2 Replies to “Superlearning science: tips for beginners”

  1. I have two questions.How important is intuition in the sciences? And how do you not let intuition interfere with learning the sciences? Intuition is conditioned, but I feel like I had a hard time learning some counter-intuitive concepts in the beginning simply because my gut-feeling kept saying that can’t be true. I’m thinking that the best way is to internalize scientific logic to let it naturally become the intuition.

    1. This is a very complex question with controversial findings. Some people get genius results following their intuitions, but there are very few examples. Typically people who fine-tune their intuition get results somewhat better and faster than peers. People who do not fine-tune their intuition by reading countless books about their subject of interest and running countless simulations, typically should not rely on intuition. You can do science quite well without intuition, but your progress may become painfully slow and incremental.

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