Frontier of Knowledge

With one of the first optical telescopes on earth, Galileo could observe novel phenomena everywhere he looked. A few hundred years later and new astronomical discoveries require instruments like the $10 billion James Webb. The more we as a species know, the harder it becomes to discover new information. Each new discovery requires more previous knowledge to build upon and often requires more advanced instruments to plumb unknown depths. That at least is the productivity problem also known as the “burden of knowledge“.

The idea that “there is nothing new under the sun” traces at least as far back as ancient Hebrew. In modern times anyone starting a company will quickly find that the same idea has been tried a few times before. Though learning from those failures is one of the best places to start it can be a depressing way to start one’s day.

Fortunately there are a few countervailing forces. Much knowledge acquisition is what in computer science would be called NP-hard. It takes a lot of work to discover – running years long experiments, trying many avenues of research – but once discovered is easy to verify or put into practice. Learning to use CRISPR to edit genes is much faster than discovering it as a mechanism

Next, old ideas are supplanted with new and our working model of what is important to know is constantly refined and updated. We spend a lot of time on this. Is somebody wrong on the internet? I better help them update their model. This process of compaction and encoding allows us to carry around and more quickly find efficient representations of how the universe works.

Ideally those improved representations then make it into school curricula where we can apply improvements in pedagogy. The better we can teach both raw knowledge and the general skills of how to learn and how to reason, the more tractable endless facts become.

We can’t ever read all the books and that of which we are ignorant will always be expanding, however we still have good tools to get us to that frontier and on to exploring. We should expect to discover great and wondrous new things.

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