Getting the most out of this site

Exploring the unknown

The home page of this site says it's a place for exploring on the frontiers of science. Think a moment about what that means. A "frontier" is a boundary between territory that is known, and territory that is (relatively) unknown. Between what is familiar and what is (to some degree) mysterious.

On the near side of the frontier you are in a relatively comfortable territory that you know reasonably well. There are good roads, and signs, and friendly natives. You feel "at home" there.

On the other side of the frontier, "here be dragons". There are few, if any, good roads. You don't know exactly what is out there. You'll certainly meet some surprises, maybe pleasant ones (irresistable lakes and plunging waterfalls amidst gorgeous snow-capped mountains) -- or maybe not.

In any case, you should not reasonably expect that the way forward will be as simple as a "walk in the park". There could be some hard work and rough going ahead. You might want to turn back now.

We hope not. But we just want to put you on notice, through this metaphor of travel to strange places at and beyond the frontiers, that the journey won't always be easy. Although we've tried to provide as many markers on the trail as possible, ultimately you're on your own. When, as will occasionally happen, you come to a tough spot, like a hard climb or a forest which offers no obvious means of egress, you'll have to rely on your own resources.

Good luck, and happy exploring!

Guide for the perplexed

So, you've just found this site for the first time and you've started to read about something -- maybe cosmology, maybe the human genome. And you're having a hard time even figuring out what's being talked about.

We understand.

But you have to recognize what the purpose is here. That purpose is, specifically, to discuss ongoing research in a scientific field -- what's happening at the frontiers. The really interesting stuff. If we spent too much time at first just describing what the field is all about, we'd never even get close to the frontiers. And people who come along and do know some of the fundamentals would have a hard time figuring out where to jump in so that they reach the interesting stuff as soon as possible.

So we've deliberately been sketchy about discussing the fundamentals. The chances are you may already know more than you think. Let's say you decided to have a look at a topic in cosmology. Almost certainly you've already read relevant articles in the paper about the "big bang", and the expansion of the universe, and maybe even about the "cosmic microwave background". Perhaps you've read more in popular science magazines like Discover or Scientific American. You may already have read one or more books on the subject or encountered it in a course in high school or college.

Good. That ought to be enough to get started. If not, then try some of the general links provided to look for more basic information. Or go to the library to track down some of the articles or books mentioned. You might even want to purchase a book or two. We believe that all of the books recommended here are worth the time of anyone who's seriously interested in learning more about the subject. We've deliberately left out a lot of references that we considered either too simplistic or too advanced -- or just plain not well written. (However, omission of a particular book doesn't mean we think it's not good. Perhaps we've just never seen it.)

Of course, if even starting down this road seems like too much effort, maybe you weren't so interested in the topic after all. That's OK too. Look around. There's probably some other topic discussed here where you already know more of the fundamentals -- which may be a sign that topic is more interesting to you to begin with.

Think of it this way. It's like visiting a foreign country you've never been to before. You could always spend days in the library or with books you've bought reading about the country before you go. And that wouldn't be such a bad idea if you have the time and are not the impatient sort.

But you need to start somewhere, and if you spend all your time preparing, you may never even make the trip. So at some point, probably sooner rather than later, you should just jump in -- get on the airplane and go. If you're a little bit travel-wise, you'll find that you can figure out how to get around once you arrive. At your destination there will be guide books, and tourist-aid stations, and probably friendly people at the hotel desk to ask questions of. If necessary, just strike up a conversation with the person next to you on the bus or train and ask for hints about what to see and explanations of the local customs.

Getting around in an unfamiliar area of science isn't a whole lot different.

Specialized terminology

It follows from our general philsophy in building this site, as described above, that we prefer to use specialized, technical terminology in discussing whatever topic is at hand. We don't try to go overboard in trying to "translate" it into "everyday English". Although such translation can be done, there are drawbacks to relying overly much on it.

One problem is that everyday language isn't necessarily all that precise. The fact is that in a technical subject distinctions are required that have little importance in everyday life. It doesn't matter what the subject is -- raising dogs, knitting, auto mechanics, whatever. There simply is a need to make finer distinctions in a technical discussion than are required in general discourse. Remember the old saw about how Eskimos have dozens of words for snow (which might be somewhat of an exaggeration, but they have a lot more terms than we do). All those words don't exist simply because people who live in the snow have time to see finer distinctions. The distinctions are there for a reason: they are needed to deal with crucial differences between kinds of snow that are heavy or light, safe to walk on or treacherous, suitable or not for making igloos, etc.

Another problem with everyday language is that common words have existing connotations or shades of meaning that can simply be misleading or distracting when applied to technical subjects. The word, when used in a technical context may just be too specific or too general. This happens a lot in mathematics, for instance. Consider the branch known as topology. It is like "geometry" in some ways, in that it studies the "shape" of objects, but in a much more relaxed sense: the conditions under which two things have the same "shape" is much broader. Of course, "geometry" itself is a technical term, but much more widely known. But if we used "geometry" when we really meant "topology", a lot of erroneous presuppositions would creep in. It's better to use the more exact technical term, even though it is not part of "common language". We can say it is "like" geometry, explain how it is different, and proceed from there.

Taking this one step further, the most commonly studied objects in topology are "manifolds". In everyday language, a "surface" is an example of a manifold, but it's not an equivalent word, because a "surface" is a two-dimensional object, whereas lines and curves are also manifolds (one-dimensional), as are solid objects (three-dimensional), and so forth. Rather than being too specific and talking about a "curve" or a "surface" when what we're saying really applies to a manifold of any dimension, it's best to just use the technical term.

Yes, it's true that generations of teachers of "writing" have warned against the use of "jargon". They mean well, but they're misguided. They promote the fallacious notion that technical concepts can always be just as easily described in "ordinary language" as in a technical vocabulary. That is simply wrong, in part for reasons described above. If nothing else, it's wrong simply becuase avoiding technical language is inefficient. One can write much more succinctly, and ultimately much more clearly, if one isn't forced to translate everything into an artificially constrained vocabulary.

Go back to the metaphor of visiting a foreign country for the first time. If you're fortunate enough to have learned the language before you go, that's great. But there are hundreds of common languages in the world (and thousands of less common ones). The chances are pretty good you won't know the local language of many places you'd enjoy visiting. So you don't worry too much about it and go anyway.

Usually you find you can get along pretty well. You'll probably bring along a phrase book or traveler's dictionary, or at least buy one when you arrive. The equivalent thing here is the glossary. Use it, and let us know if it doesn't contain a term you find puzzling or if the meaning given isn't clear enough. Beyond that, many people you meet abroad will know at least some of your language and can help you out with translations or answers to simple questions. The corresponding thing in this case is to find others to discuss these topics with -- if the person involved actually knows a good deal about the topic, so much the better.

Here's another analogy to think about. Most children start picking up their "native" language automatically between the ages of one and two. Without having every word specifically taught to them, they quickly acquire the basic vocabulary, just from hearing it used around them. The ability is quite remarkable, and has long been studied by linguists and cognitive scientists.

Adults can do it too, if they just let it happen. Say you're staying at the home of native speakers in the country you're visiting, and they know as little of your language as you do of theirs. Chances are you'll still get along fine. Just point to anything, and they'll tell you the word for it. Or just listen. At dinner your hostess will offer you a dish of something and use the word for it. If you pay attention, you'll learn the word quickly.

You won't get all the translations perfectly, of course. Maybe your hostess uses the word "stew" for a particular dish made with vegetables, but the next day uses the same word for a dish made with chicken, in a slightly different sauce, but otherwise similar. You'll realize that a more generic term is involved than you had supposed. But when you've seen enough examples, you'll have a much better idea what the term refers to.

It works the same way in technical writings. Once you're read enough about "manifolds" in articles on topology, you'll start to catch on, as long as you don't just give up at the beginning. Of course, there is a precise technical definition of what a "manifold" is, but it's tricky and involves a number of other technical concepts you may not already be entirely clear on. The truth is, you need more than just the precise definitions. You need to already know enough examples so that by the time you get to the exact definition, it "makes sense".

This is what's called "learning". It's an iterative process. Just enjoy it.

And incidentally, when you're in a foreign country, and especially if you're a guest in a native's home, although it would be convenient to you if everyone around spoke your language, it won't always happen that way. Indeed, it would be impolite to expect that. You need to get used to the natives' way of speaking, rather than expect them to use your language.

It will be worth the effort.


Copyright © 2002 by Charles Daney, All Rights Reserved