The Royal Society has made its archives available for free online and it’s an incredible trove. Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle introduced me to the early days of the organization and those like Isaac Newton and Christopher Wren who were there in the very beginning. The release of these 60,000 documents got me thinking again about that time period of free discovery and how exciting it must have been – an entirely uncharted world of science, begging for exploration.
Still, no one says it has to stop now that we’ve made such huge strides during the centuries since it was founded. I can’t imagine we’ll ever understand everything or conquer every troubling problem. To some, that might be troubling – but I can’t help but feel a bit of the same excitement that they probably felt. There is a sense of empowerment stemming from the notion that there’s so much to learn and so much that we can still accomplish.
That craving drive to explore and expand knowledge is the real legacy of the Royal Society.
Philosophical Transactions Issue Archives
BBC article: Strange tales from the Royal Society
I heard an interview the other day with Nicholas Carr, author of the book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. The basic idea is that the brain is a flexible machine that grows and improves itself based on how it is used. If you spend a lot of time practicing an activity, like playing the piano, your brain is designed to emphasize those skills so that it’s better suited for each subsequent try. While the brain is improving in one area, however, those that remain unused don’t get the same type of attention.
Mr. Carr’s argument suggests that throuh years of surfing the web and becoming daily more immersed in the online experience, we have trained our brains to be good at that type of interaction. Reading an article, we expect lots of links and widgets pulling in and exposing lots of information at one time. The very activity – “surfing” – expresses the flowing nature which is really good for absorbing a broad range of information at once. This breadth, however, comes at the cost of depth. Just as Nicholas describes, we find ourselves leaping from thing to thing without the same kind of focus and dedication as we might with a long news article or chapter of a book.
Conversations come in short chat or text messages, squeezed in between or layered on top of other activities. At any given time, I have access to huge wealths of information, but not the time or focus to get into any of it. It takes real work to hone in on the details of anything and we’ve been training ourselves to do be bad at exactly this. Skimming the surface can be great, but it comes at a cost. It will be a sad day when generations begin to grow up in a world of hyper-experience, without the grounding of concrete and focused interaction with the world.
NPR Interview with Nicholas Carr
If I had the time and energy, I’d take courses in a huge variety of different departments and subjects. Unfortunately, my college career is 4 years long, and majoring in Physics and Computer Science, I’m limited mostly to courses along those lines.
I recently stumbled across MIT’s OpenCourseWare which hosts more than 1700 courses, fully accessible online complete with lecture notes and reading recommendations. It’s a cool way to pursue a bit of directed independent study in an area where your expertise is lacking.