Look my way

I’ve been chatting with some friends these last couple of days, and we’ve developed a new* theory that could generally be applied to chemistry/chemists, so I thought I’d share. The idea is that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who know things and those who look things up. The first category also includes the subgroup ‘people who don’t know anything but pretend that they do’ (which is a topic for another day).

It’s obvious that, in the modern age, it’s becoming increasingly easier to look things up. It used to be that you had to go to college or a library (or perhaps to someone’s house who had a set of encyclopedias) to learn about the Diels-Alder reaction or the physical properties of mercury. But now you just use a book you have handy, or the internet, or even your phone to find out almost anything instantly. I assume this is why I’ve never been asked to memorize the periodic table (aaaaah! Chemistry sacrilege!!). Anyway, this inspires a few questions:

1. Given the extent of information that is now available, is it even possible to be a person who knows things anymore, or are we all just people who look things up, with some people looking up less things than others?

2. Does it matter if we don’t know things, and just look things up? What information is worth knowing?

3. Do we specifically know less because it’s easier to look things up? Meaning, do our minds subconsciously say “what’s the point in really learning the preferred ionization state of Iridium if you can get the information in 3 seconds and instead use those neurons to remember what time your favorite TV show is on?” And if that’s the case, can we reverse that? Do we want to?

I don’t have the answers to these questions. It is obvious that it’s hard to know where to look some things up if you never learned them in the first place, or at least how to use that information once you have it if you never had a place for it in your overall world view. … Anyway, I’m curious to know what you guys think.

Catherine (associate editor, Nature Chemical Biology)

  • OK, you probably have all already thought of this. But, that should mean that your comments are even more thoughtful and inspired??