The process of discovery

Because of the focus school today has on well-polished “facts,” we grow up overestimating and misunderstanding the processes by which facts are discovered in the first place.

In English, we learn grammar but not the process by which grammar emerges or is codified and the serious debates that led to what we have today.

In the sciences, we learn accurate equations but we learn very little about the history of the field, the ways in which scientists discovered these equations, and the well-reasoned arguments for other views of the universe that preceded them. For example, you’ll learn relativity theory but not the aether theory it supposedly surpassed. We also don’t bother to study the history of fields that preceded the sciences: natural philosophy, alchemy, and theology or of the people of staggering intelligence like Isaac Newton who engaged with those fields despite ultimately being incorrect.

In History, we learn of events but we rarely learn of compelling alternative histories of those events, the methods by which the past is analyzed, nor do we try to get truly inside the heads of the people we are learning about. We learn the Wright brothers discovered how to fly but not their steps to get there. We’re told Edison tried 10,000 experiments but we never learn what they were.

Students leave school with a grab bag of factual information but no understanding of where to go from there. The process of discovery, of innovation, of originality, takes on mystical-like qualities. You either have the gift or you do not, and surely nobody you know, yourself included, has the gift.

Of course discovery is not mystical. Archimedes sat in his bath tub. Or so Vitruvius says. Galileo says in his La Bilancetta that he can’t have done that. This debate is important regardless of the correct answer. If you engage with original sources in any field in a meaningful way and read biographies (esp. old ones) of the principle actors, not just their polished ideas, but also the unpolished, inaccurate ones, you can see quite clearly patterns and methodologies emerging that will shed light on how you too can become a “discoverer.”

Ironically enough it is in doing away with the schooled short term focus on clean facts and theories that we give ourselves the ability to discover new things in the long term. You just might serve yourself better in the end by reading Hippocrates or Vasari’s Lives of Artists or Aristotle’s Parts of Animals or Darwin or Watson & Crick or Copernicus On the Heavenly Spheres than you would reading your schoolbook.

This syllabus is a good place to get started.