I’ve just been reading a couple of old posts by Carl Zimmer over at The Loom, Death to Obfuscation! and the Index of Banned Words, which give a few hints on how to write more clearly for an audience outside your scientific field. There was a comment that included a quote from the master of science communication Richard Feynman about being a layman trying to read up on a new subject.
The layman searches for book after book in the hope that he will avoid the complexities which ultimately set in, even with the best expositor of this type. He finds as he reads a generally increasing confusion: one complicated statement after another, one difficult-to-understand thing after another, all apparently disconnected from one another. It becomes obscure, and he hopes that maybe in some other book there is some explanation. . . . The author almost made it — maybe another fellow will make it right.
— Richard Feynman, The Character of Physical Law (1964)
That pretty much describes a lot of my experiences trying to teach myself something new. I frequently find myself searching for a more comprehensive but manageable text. Sometimes such a book or website exists, sometimes I end up with a whole range of different introductory materials.
But even if I get a suitable range of material together it’s not always easy – especially if the whole topic is entirely new to me, and I’ve got next to no mental framework to slot the new information into. If even the information from introductory material isn’t going in, then I think I must be doing something wrong. It frustrates me. If it’s an introductory text I feel like I should be able to pick things up almost the first time I meet them. I should be able to work through all the examples. They must make sense, surely? Occasionally I have flashes of realisation that I’ve been in this situation before, and it takes a bit of effort and a bit more time, and that when the basics have settled in I’ll have a better idea of what’s going on. Often, however, I’m still blinkered and stubborn. Maybe if I stare at the notation for set theory long enough, all the concepts will make sense. Hopefully, writing posts will help me keep that learning curve in mind, and I’ll spend less time stuck trying to figure out how I can take a shortcut.