background preloader

The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge

The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge
by Maria Popova “The real enemy is the man who tries to mold the human spirit so that it will not dare to spread its wings.” In an age obsessed with practicality, productivity, and efficiency, I frequently worry that we are leaving little room for abstract knowledge and for the kind of curiosity that invites just enough serendipity to allow for the discovery of ideas we didn’t know we were interested in until we are, ideas that we may later transform into new combinations with applications both practical and metaphysical. This concern, it turns out, is hardly new. We hear it said with tiresome iteration that ours is a materialistic age, the main concern of which should be the wider distribution of material goods and worldly opportunities. Mr. Flexner goes on to contend that the work of Hertz and Maxwell is exemplary of the motives underpinning all instances of monumental scientific discovery, bringing to mind Richard Feynman’s timeless wisdom. This lament, alas, is timelier than ever. Related:  knowledge managementsparhawk

KM as market garden or wild garden? One of my favourite sayings is that if knowledge is organic, KM is gardening. And as all gardeners know, gardening is hard work! Even within the topic of gardening, there is a range of approaches, and we can see that also in KM terms when it comes to how we work with communities of practice. There really are two approaches to “community gardening”, which we can call "select and support" and "seed and promote". The first approach sets the conditions for community growth, lets communities emerge spontaneously, and then selects and supports the ones that are felt to be strategic. The second approach is to deliberately seed communities on key topics. Each approach has its merits and demerits The "select and support" approach makes use of existing networks and existing energy. However there may be no existing communities which cover the most crucial and strategic topics, and many of the communities that do emerge may have relatively limited business benefit.

Book Review: Lee Smolin's 'Time Reborn' : 13.7: Cosmos And Culture We physicists are all romantics. Don't laugh; it's true. In our youth we all fall deeply in love. We fall in love with a beautiful idea: beyond this world of constant change lies another world that is perfect and timeless. This eternal domain is made not of matter or energy. Unless we lose faith in that Grail. I used to think my job as a theoretical physicist was to find that formula. For Smolin there is no timeless world and there are no timeless laws. Time, of course, seems real to us. Ever since Newton, physicists have been developing ever-more exact laws describing the behavior of the world. That means these laws are more real than time. Now before you say "that's crazy," remember that every modern miracle of physics — from jet planes to GPS — is built using these laws. But, according to Smolin, when it comes to cosmology, the ultimate study of the Universe as a whole, faith in timeless laws has led physicists astray.

Remembering Sally Ride, the First American Woman in Space: What It's Actually Like to Launch on the Space Shuttle by Maria Popova Celebrating a pioneering astronaut, remarkable role model, and tireless advocate of science literacy. On June 18, 1983, Sally Ride boarded the space shuttle Challenger and became the first American woman in space. Ride has just passed away after a fight with pancreatic cancer. But besides being a pioneering astronaut, Ride was also a tireless advocate for more science and math in schools and a prolific co-author of children’s science books, including the 1986 tome To Space and Back. The long elevator ride up the launch tower takes us to a level near the nose of the space shuttle, 195 feet above the ground. The book also features this fascinating anatomy of the interior of the space shuttle by artist Mike Eagle: To send Sally off, here’s the most exquisite cover of “Blue Moon” you’ll ever hear — thanks, Radiolab: ↬ GalleyCat Donating = Loving Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. Share on Tumblr

Why Socrates hated explicit knowledge, and what to do about it. Socrates, as reported by Plato in The Phaedrus, was not a fan of explicit knowledge. Explicit knowledge, in those days, meant Writing, and Socrates never wrote anything down - he had a scribe (Plato) to do that for him. He mistrusted writing - he felt it made people stupid and lazy by giving them the impression that they were recording (and reading) real knowledge. Here's Socrates "He would be a very simple person...who should leave in writing or receive in writing any art under the idea that the written word would be intelligible or certain; or who deemed that writing was at all better than knowledge and recollection of the same matters..... In the form of a fable, he says this about writing as a means of transmitting knowledge In Summary, Explicit Knowledge, for Socrates, is poor because it cannot be questioned, gives always the same answer, and is the "semblance of truth". Socrates (as befits one of the world's leading philosophers) had a good point.

The story of the checklist: Anecdote Sometimes the simplest interventions can have the biggest impact. In October 1935, US Army Air Corps brass gathered at an airfield in Dayton, Ohio. They’d come to see two aircraft builders pit their planes against each other in a series of trials, with the best-performed aircraft getting its builder a lucrative contract for new long-range bombers. In theory, the two rivals, Boeing Corporation and Martin & Douglas, had an equal chance of winning the contract. But in reality, the result seemed a foregone conclusion. The smaller Martin & Douglas plane just couldn’t compete with Boeing’s bigger, more powerful Model 299. The Model 299, carrying five crew members, made for an impressive sight as it taxied onto the runway and then roared off to rise gracefully into the sky. But some in the Army Air Corps still thought the Model 299 was the better aircraft.

New clues on origins of Maya civilization unearthed The Maya civilization is well-known for its elaborate temples, sophisticated writing system, and mathematical and astronomical developments, yet the civilization's origins remain something of a mystery.A new University of Arizona study to be published in the journal Science challenges the two prevailing theories on how the ancient civilization began, suggesting its origins are more complex than previously thought. Anthropologists typically fall into one of two competing camps with regard to the origins of Maya civilization. The first camp believes that it developed almost entirely on its own in the jungles of what is now Guatemala and southern Mexico. The second believes that the Maya civilization developed as the result of direct influences from the older Olmec civilization and its center of La Venta. "We really focused on the beginning of this civilization and how this remarkable civilization developed," said Inomata, UA professor of anthropology and the study's lead author.

Cheating the Impossible: Wire-Walker Philippe Petit on Education, Creativity, and Patience by Maria Popova The art of self-correction and the value of tenacity in a world obsessed with instant results. On August 7th, 1974, shortly after the World Trade Center was erected, French high-wire artist Philippe Petit stood in front of the impossible and took it full stride as he walked 200 feet between the Twin Towers, 1,368 feet above ground, on a 55-pound balancing rope. Dubbed “the artistic crime of the century,” the feat — which took place almost exactly a century after the first crossing of the East River on wire — took six years of planning. Petit — who never finished formal education — had to acquaint himself with the most esoteric details of engineering, architecture, and the physics of wind, among other preemptive intricacies. In Cheating The Impossible: Ideas and Recipes from a Rebellious High-Wire Artist, the latest release from TEDBooks, Petit tells his story in a broader context of how to live life with “patience and tenacity” in an age of silver bullets and shortcuts.

Atul Gawande: How Do Good Ideas Spread? Why do some innovations spread so swiftly and others so slowly? Consider the very different trajectories of surgical anesthesia and antiseptics, both of which were discovered in the nineteenth century. The first public demonstration of anesthesia was in 1846. The Boston surgeon Henry Jacob Bigelow was approached by a local dentist named William Morton, who insisted that he had found a gas that could render patients insensible to the pain of surgery. That was a dramatic claim. On October 16, 1846, at Massachusetts General Hospital, Morton administered his gas through an inhaler in the mouth of a young man undergoing the excision of a tumor in his jaw. Four weeks later, on November 18th, Bigelow published his report on the discovery of “insensibility produced by inhalation” in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal. There were forces of resistance, to be sure. Sepsis—infection—was the other great scourge of surgery. Far from it. But anesthesia was no easier.