Scientific textbooks suck

Well maybe not suck but I have to get your attention somehow.

Today I was reading Maxell’s Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism. There are many things that are different in the older literature and book compared to the new ones. The first is that the older books display much less of a sense of science being a finished product. There is an immense amount of empirical information contained in Maxwell’s book even though its supposed to be a mathematical work. He discusses all kinds of electrical and magnetic phenemonon. The only modern equivalent I can think of is the Feynman lectures. And many of these phenomenon did not have complete theoretical explanations.

In addition there is an interesting way of talking about scientific discoveries by naming the actual person. So Maxwell might say “Messrs. Bright and Clark have found that the following formula gives results agreeing with their experiments”. In addition to this there is the verbose and crappy notation. Maxwell did not use vector notation and most of the book is done using components all of which are given separate letters. I am not sure why Maxwell does this. Why would you say, the vector H, having components A, B, C when you could say the vector H having components Hx, Hy, Hz.

The contrast with today’s scientific books is that most are much more technical. Their notation is more concise. The presentation is more logical and clear. The thinking is also more symbolic and less visual. Maxwell tends to think with pictures. His math represents his pictures. Today’s text books think in symbols and logic and rarely visually. Again the conspicuous exemption to this modern trend is Feynman.

To a certain extent the reason for this is that we are living in an age when most of the science we spend our time studying is dead. Its old old science for us. And so we have had decades to clean in up, polish it, present only those topics most important to know, eliminate useless details etc. The result is a concise logical very mathematical presentation that fairly quickly provides students with the mathematical account of the subject and the ability to solve mathematical problems on tests and exams. Today a good physicist is one that good at math. Indeed this is the way I learned it and it helped when reading Maxwell’s books. Part of the reason I could understand him is that I already had the full account in my head.

But of course the problem with this is that the student isn’t faced with a living breathing subject. He doesn’t really know where he can fit himself in. There is none of the excitement of a subject where new discoveries are being made and being described. I think the most damaging thing is that these books contain little to no empirical information. To the extent empirical information is given its almost always to illustrate a scientific concept or technical result to a student. Its rarely and almost never to expose the phenomenon as a subject of interest worthy of understanding in its own right. You never see the messiness of the real world…only the neat tidy mathematical model.

I have repeatedly brought up Feynman as an exception to this. He is. But of course the Feynman lectures will never be used as a textbook. The greatness of these lectures is precisely the fact that they present science as a living breathing subject. And they are filled with empirical information. I think this is largely because Feynman developed his interest in science when he read the Encyclopedia Britannica. His account is also enormously idiosyncratic. I am glad I didn’t learn vibrations and waves from Feynman. But I am also glad I have Feynman to read after having studied vibrations and waves.

I see the advantages of the older style but I also know the advantages of the newer one. The newer one is efficient and effective as a tool for training a large number of student quickly in a set of analytic techniques. But its very poor at getting students to think critically and inquisitively about the subject. You will get really great technicians out of the new textbooks but probably poor scientists.

The older books were better at teaching a living breathing subject but probably incomprehensible to most students and so useless the majority of the time. I suspect the few times they were useful though they were inspirational. I am not sure though how much I should be praising Maxwell’s books. After all Heaviside spent years trying to comprehend them and ultimately he only made progress when he started working things out using his own methods and notations.

Douglas Engelbart: My Hero

In nearly every place I have ever worked a common pattern emerges. I start by doing X and in nearly every case I try to create tools to automate X, to develop a deeper understanding of X and I attempt to train people to do X better. In other words my focus is never X….its always on making people more powerful and adept at doing X.

Sometimes this just involves tools but often it also involves training. Interestingly in this society I have found in nearly every case that my efforts though hugely successful were never ever recognized or rewarded. This merits a deeper discussion of the sociology of North American society and why no one cares about this sort of stuff. If I were to quickly sketch a possible argument, it would revolve around hierarchy and individualism. Achievements are measured on an individual basis and so anyone proposing to improve group abilities which is what I was trying to do is not considered important. Additionally more powerful tools generally lesson the power of management in hierarchies since you can often get smaller groups of people to do the jobs larger groups of people were doing. Generally speaking what bloated hierarchal organizations crave is the ability to justify large teams and big budgets. Powerful tools and training are counterproductive to this and so are usually not wanted and not rewarded.

This brings me to Douglas Engelbart, who is my hero. He is my hero because this thing which is a tendency in me…he made into a full blown career. He pursued it fearlessly to its logical end. Ultimately what Douglas Engelbart wanted to do was increase the collective intelligence of humanity and he was looking for ways to do that. The hilarious thing about this is that he considered his inventions of the mouse, bit-mapped displays, hypertext AS mere artifacts of this endeavour. He changed the world with his CASTOFFs!!

But if Douglas Engelbart represents the tremendous promise of this approach…he simultaneously represents its incredible social failure. I can think of few other people where the magnitude of what they accomplished was so incommensurate with the recognition and acceptance they received. Its an incredible thing to me that no one listened to his ideas, he had trouble getting funding and that absolutely no organization took his ideas up in later life. This happened to such an extent that he considered himself a complete failure. The full vision that Douglas Engelbart had in mind remains unexplored.

I have to find a way to make these ideas work. But I’m not really sure how. Douglas Engelbart was a spectacular failure. I think I’ll just be a mediocre one.