This blog promises to create a mental kaleidoscope out of ideas I have encountered. Probably mostly wrong. Maybe some interesting and curious combinations. This is a post about why I am doing it.

1. Organizing my thoughts

During the COVID crisis, and long before, I have enjoyed hearing new ideas, reflecting on the esoterica of my scientific work, and thinking about the absurd fact of our existence (and awareness thereof). However, I have found myself getting lost in these thoughts and, rather insidiously, the chronophage has not slowed while I have been tinkering with these ideas.

In addition to time passing, I realised I was consuming the ideas of others too passively. I thought it would be an instructive and valuable exercise to work through the information I had been reading and listening to. Thus, in order to better integrate this information and to organise my own mind, I have decided to follow the old Latin principle Docendo discimus - “the best way to learn is to teach.”

I also draw inspiration from the curious and playful mind of Richard Feynman. In James Gleick’s biography of the Nobel Prize winning physicist, Genius: the Life and Science of Richard Feynman, he recalls a technique that Feynman employed during his graduate work at Princeton.

“He opened a fresh notebook. On the title page he wrote: NOTEBOOK OF THINGS I DON’T KNOW ABOUT. For the first but not last time he reorganized his knowledge. He worked for weeks at disassembling each branch of physics, oiling the parts, and putting them back together, looking all the while for the raw edges and inconsistencies. He tried to find the essential kernels of each subject”.

This blog is my notebook of things I don’t know about. In addition, there are mental health benefits linked to the act of journaling which seems to have some scientific support (cf. this summary). Blogging is pretty much journaling, right? Thus, I am using this as a tool to learn new concepts, shore up knowledge gaps I have, help to avoid fooling myself about what I know, and to avoid guilt and depression worming inside of me if I am worried I am not getting any new ideas.

2. Generating products and value

Since entering academia I have experienced a gradual erosion of my illusions of what it means to be an academic. This disillusionment has been driven dominantly by the realization that the story of success in the culture of academia is not the outwardly noble goals that my scientific heroes (Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, E.O Wilson, Carl Sagan and Marie Curie) spoke of.

It seems to me that what has become Plato’s ideal Academic in the eyes of the community, can be described as an individual that:

  • Publishes frequently and in high impact journals (gaming publish or perish system)
  • Has a boundless well of self confidence
  • Works around the clock highly efficiently
  • Is immune to mental health problems

It is my view that this ideal is not centered sufficiently on scientific ideals. Further, in striving toward this end, one opens themself up to unnecessary stress, anxiety, and the production of work that is less likely to be satisfying, of good quality, or particularly useful. All this can be rather demoralizing. Thus, I am forced to try to navigate the academic waters with a different map. My guiding principle is one which can be summarized with a quote from Albert Einstein:

Strive not to be a success but rather to be of value.

The obvious problem with this quote is, of course, that value has no specific definition. I define it as the activities that are helpful to others and to the human project. My ideas on this matter have been strongly influenced by the philisophy of effective altruism; a topic for another post. What I see as value in the context of my work is effectively contributing to the effort to expand the human knowledge frontier. Particularly in the area of climate change research, which poses a threat to the stability and well-being of humanity if not an existential risk directly.

While work in the environmental sciences can take many years to complete and then share, blog posts can be shared relatively frequently and easily. Not only this, but they are freely shared- not hidden behind a paywall. I also have a desire to share ideas, methods, logic, and stories of failures that may not be publishable, but I think would be nonetheless useful for others. For example, a discussion of why in the aquatic sciences community we define dissolved organic matter operationally.

3. Improving communication and building competence

So, why a blog rather than spending time writing more papers? This academic currency can be cashed in for prestige, the respect of peers, academic positions, and funding. I believe I can balance the aforementioned while still adhering to the goals and principles outlined earlier. I also think that this blog can assist in this balancing act.

This excerpt out of the book Atomic Habits, by James Clear contains a useful parable. He had extracted the story from the Art & Fear (book) by authors David Bayles and Ted Orland. I have to admit, when I first recalled this story I had misremembered it as a scientific study and not a pure anecdote. But, I think it is still helpful to illustrate my case:

On the first day of class, Jerry Uelsmann, a professor at the University of Florida, divided his film photography students into two groups.

Everyone on the left side of the classroom, he explained, would be in the “quantity” group. They would be graded solely on the amount of work they produced. On the final day of class, he would tally the number of photos submitted by each student. One hundred photos would rate an A, ninety photos a B, eighty photos a C, and so on.

Meanwhile, everyone on the right side of the room would be in the “quality” group. They would be graded only on the excellence of their work. They would only need to produce one photo during the semester, but to get an A, it had to be a nearly perfect image.

At the end of the term, he was surprised to find that all the best photos were produced by the quantity group. During the semester, these students were busy taking photos, experimenting with composition and lighting, testing out various methods in the darkroom, and learning from their mistakes. In the process of creating hundreds of photos, they honed their skills. Meanwhile, the quality group sat around speculating about perfection. In the end, they had little to show for their efforts other than unverified theories and one mediocre photo.

This story can be written in other words. As done by Voltaire (1972):

“The best is the enemy of the good.”

The act of writing scientific articles is relatively infrequent for an individual, and especially for a graduate student, blogging serves as useful exercise for creating quality content and playing around with ideas.