Monday, August 30, 2010

"Science is built up with facts, as a house is with stones. But a collection of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house." --Henri Poincaré

We are surrounded with facts. Easily accessible facts. Facts that can be "recalled" with no more thought than it takes to enter a phrase into a search engine. As an example, let's do an experiment. How long does it take you to find the circumference of the earth at the equator in miles? My time was around 8 seconds and I guarantee it is an easy time to beat.

But searching doesn't require (much) intelligence. Let's now do an experiment that requires some thought. How would you go about discovering the circumference of the earth with nothing more than a your brain, a protractor, and a stick? If you are like most, you'll writhe and wriggle and squirm your way out of devising answers to questions like these by asking other questions like: Who cares? Why can't I just look it up? What's the point?

Well 1) lots of people care (astronomers, physicists, mapmakers, airlines, ship captains, etc), 2) yes you can just look it up, and 3) the point is this: It is easy to believe we are an intelligent people because we have unlimited access to vast stores of information. But, as Henri Poincaré pointed out, "...a collection of facts is no more science than a heap of stones is a house." [1] This in no way means that these facts or the Internet search engines that deliver them are useless. Some argue that the human race has been able to deepen our thinking and expand our intelligence by enabling us to so quickly and easily pull together information from a massive corpus of information [3]. I'm inclined to agree. Mr. Poincaré was simply pointing out that science, experimentation, hypotheses, critical thinking, and invention are needed to make sense of this world. Facts are merely the building blocks on which this critical thinking takes place.

We've all played a role in creating this miraculous technological advancement called the Internet. Even so, the Internet doesn't necessarily help us think like (perhaps) we had hoped. It merely delivers building blocks to us faster and cheaper than any other service or technology in the history of mankind. Today, it seems we are missing something of value... Where are the great thinkers of our time? Where are the da Vinci's, the Einstein's, the Newton's, the Galileo's, the Aristotle's? I know only a small handful of great modern thinkers--people who spend their days and nights fulfilling their curiosity by thinking about how miscellaneous facts jointly paint the picture of our cosmos. These people, people who constantly exercise gedanken experiments in their mind, are few and far between. Perhaps it has always been like this. Perhaps great thinkers have always been so few and far between that people like me would only know a handful. Regardless, shouldn't there be more?

With the utterly astounding amount of information at our fingertips, we should all be deep in thought. We should all be viewing this information through our own lenses and filters, using our brainpower to build and test theories which challenge the way humanity thinks. The Internet can be more than an entertainment hub and a handful of facts, but it is up to us to make it so. Please, if you read this, provide your comments and let us all know what you are doing to sift and think through the information at your fingertips. Comment, and let us know what you are doing to experiment, innovate, invent, and change the way we live in and view our world.

For those who are wondering, Eratosthenes was able to measure the circumference of the earth with nothing more than his brain, a protractor, and a stick. Read about it here. The simplicity and ingenuity of the solution is astounding, especially considering Eratosthenes calculated his answer circa 250 BC [2]!


References
  1. Simon Singh. Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe. Harper Perennial, 2005.
  2. Rubin, Julian. "Eratosthenes: The Measurement of the Earth's Circumference". www.juliantrubin.com. August 28th, 2010 <http://www.juliantrubin.com/bigten/eratosthenes.html>.
  3. Masnick, Mike. "Did The Automobile Dehumanize Walking? No? Then Does Google Dehumanize Intelligence?". www.techdirt.com. August 29th, 2010 <http://techdirt.com/articles/20100119/0404397812.shtml>.

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