On Understanding

On Understanding

I have come across a very important and relevant fact of the idea of understanding things. We do not simply understand something and be done with it. We say we understand something, maybe something for one of our classes, or something we see on TV. We tell ourselves that we understand and in a sense we may be right. What I think is important to realize is that understanding something isn’t a yes or no concept it is not black or white. Rather there is a spectrum, or varying degrees of understanding. For example, while reading Six Easy Pieces by Richard Feynman, I came across many instances of Feynman admitting that physicists do not understand some phenomena, like what energy is, why it is conserved, the relationship between gravity and the quantum world, and even gravity in general. These areas of physics and astronomy are not new and it took my by surprise when Feynman said that we do not understand them. Upon further reading of Feynmans explanations it soon became apparent as to what he meant. You see there are different levels, or degrees of understanding. You can understand how something works, say for instance, an fMRI machine. I have done a good amount of research on this topic interning at FI. I know that an MRI machine is essentially a giant magnet that aligns the nucleus of hydrogen atoms into an equilibrium state. A radio wave then quickly blasts the atoms out of equilibrium into a higher energy level. As the radio wave stops the atoms come back down into equilibrium, a stable energy level, giving off energy. This energy is read by the machine which creates a picture. Now for any regular person this seems to be a pretty good understanding. But what about the engineer making the MRI machine. He might need to know a little more about what it is he’s doing. I am useless to the engineer building the machine because my level of understanding is not complete. It is partial. I might even say it is merely fractional of the engineer. This is why Feynman once said, “that which I cannot create I do not understand”. A perspective I like to look at this idea of understanding from is that of a child. Recall the wonderment of a child, asking why, why, why endlessly. I have no began judging my own comprehension on how many why’s I can answer about a certain subject. Going back to the MRI machine I think I would be able to answer only a few why’s at most. I do not understand magnetism well at all and I do not understand electromagnetic radiation, let alone radio waves well either. I really do not know how an MRI machine works, I only know how its major parts work. I think eventually, down the endless chain of why’s we will always hit a dead end where we must admit to our tiny inquirer that we do not know the next why and must subsequently admit we don’t know and that is just the way it is.

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About ben james

"The stars keep me up at night" -some song I heard one time Human. Studying the intersection of Neuroscience and Computation. Wanna be (astro) physicist.
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