Delighting in Hard Ideas — Recommended Readings

Strogatz, Steven H. The Joy of X: A Guided Tour of Math, from One to Infinity. 2012, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Randall, Lisa. Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe’s Hidden Dimensions.  2006, New York: Harper Perennial.

Kant, Immanuel.  The Metaphysics of Morals.  ed, Mary Gregor, 2007, New York: Cambridge University Press.

Some ideas are really hard to grasp.  Advanced math.  Particle physics.  Moral philosophy.  Or at least the ideas seem to be hard to grasp.  Most of the time, I seem to buy into the idea that only highly trained experts can even begin to have a clue about some of these ideas.  I no longer believe this to be true.  I find that it is more a matter of storytelling.  I do not need to understand all of the nuances of something to find it interesting and to be able to relate to it.

I find that there are a few ways to tell stories.  Three of them make it almost impossible to engage with the hard ideas.

  1. Some writers water down the ideas.  Just the bullet points, in 140 characters or less.  I think of this as the “American coffee” story.  Not much there.
  2. Some make the ideas hard to swallow.  Let me show you how smart I am.  This is the “cod liver oil” story.  Not much fun to take in.
  3. Some overwhelm the senses.  The 18 secrets to success.  Everything that I randomly can think  of to tell you about what I know.  This is the “half double decaffeinated half-caf, with a twist of lemon” story or the “notice the aged cinnamon in the roasted jalapeño Oaxacan chili mole” story.  Too many details I cannot connect, so it is also off-putting.

Then there are storytellers that engage me, awaken my interest, and help me make connections that I did not have before.  They do not water down the ideas; they dig in quite a bit.  They do not make the ideas hard to swallow; they sweeten them up with anecdotes, with context for why this is meaningful to know in my life, and even a few little insider secrets.  They do not overwhelm the senses, rather building up my understanding through a scaffolding of insights.  At the end, I see something I did not see before, and I have an engagement with the ideas that I did not have before.  While I could be upset that years of formal education did not give me the insights gleaned from a few hours of reading, I decided to be grateful that I have them now.

I have just finished reading the three books listed above.  They all do a great job at this.  Cornell University professor of math Steven Strogatz gave me an overview of the world of basic math principles, from grade school through graduate school, and an appreciation for how I can use it for my own understanding of the world and in my research that I did not have.  I had the tools, which I now grok at a whole new level.

Harvard University professor of theoretical physics Lisa Randall gave me a deeper understanding of particle physics, string theory, and multi-dimensional realities than I had gained after reading dozens of books on the subject.  What I had as a bunch of somewhat disconnected ideas, now fit together into a clean, clear picture.

I had never tried to read the great philosophers until recently.  While some are very hard to read, Immanuel Kant’s very structured logic and careful building of a frame works very well for me.  Not only was I able to see farther into the world of Kant’s philosophy and its repercussions through the years, I also benefitted from his structuring of a very challenging idea, of a moral philosophy for humanity.

It is a joy to explore the often-hidden depths of what it is to be alive, and it is even more fun to follow those warped passages when guided by great storytellers.

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