It actually is possible for a single person to understand most things

Thursday, March 23rd, 2023

People understand in the abstract that they can read a lot of books — that a book a week adds up to thousands over a lifetime — but they don’t seem to realize, Dwarkesh Patel suggests, what exactly it would mean to have read thousands of great books:

David Deutsch points out in The Fabric of Reality that contra conventional wisdom, it actually is possible for a single person to understand most things — not in the sense of memorizing the names of ant subspecies or the GDP of different Asian countries, but in the sense of appreciating the main explanatory theories in each field.

One consequence of living in The Great Stagnation is that there is relatively little turnover in these fundamental ideas. Quantum mechanics, that nascent branch of physics which elicits the sense of woo woo from popular culture, is about a hundred years old. So is the theory of computation. The neo-Darwinian synthesis is over 50 year old.

So you don’t have to be scouring through the newest papers on Arxiv in order to know the most important things. A dozen or so textbooks even from a few decades ago contain about 80% of legible scientific knowledge.


  1. Freddo says:

    “If you took reading seriously and read a book a week (approximately an hour or two of reading a day), that’s just 3 months of reading. Half a semester to understand much of an entire field. That is unreasonably effective.”

    The bureaucratic-educational complex exposed. Or he needs to update his definition of “understand” to “you can outsmart 90% of journalists at the science desk”.

  2. Dave says:

    This is true, but the problem is many things are either partially, mostly, or entirely wrong.

    For instance, most of astronomy is based on gravity being the prime mover, when the evidence is overwhelming that it’s electricity ( has all the receipts).

    These sorts of fundamental errors lead to subsequent errors, such as the need to create “dark matter”, which doesn’t exist… Except in the minds of those needing to preserve their false assumptions.

    These errors are rife through all sciences and institutions. If parts of your foundation are broken, every part afterward based on it is also broken.

  3. McChuck says:

    Ignore Dave’s statement about electricity.

    That being said, scientific errors abound. Generally not in the math, though. Their explanations are often quite terrible. (The Copenhagen Interpretation being a prime offender and cause of much of the “woo woo”.)

    The problem is that to explain complex topics, the expert has to dumb down the explanation to the level of the audience’s knowledge and experience. That often twists things out of focus so badly that the audience often winds up learning nearly the opposite of the truth.

    The truly terrible part is that once you get through the complicated math, the concepts behind most scientific topics are quite simple indeed. scientists, being primarily mathematicians, are taught the math, and often misunderstand the beauty of the reality underlying the equations.

    Here is a good example of things: Geometric Algebra. It’s fantastic, it’s true, it’s representative of how the universe works, it’s relatively (hah!) simple, it’s predictive, and it’s almost completely ignored in scientific education. The behavior of both complex numbers and quaternions emerges GA. Quantum spinors emerge from GA. Maxwell’s 4 equations become a single GA equation describing the relationship between electric charge and magnetism. And all this derives from a single, simple, unifying principle.

  4. Michael van der Riet says:

    I re-read Steven Pinker’s How The Mind Works (mine only works at Pop Science level) then went online to see what has changed in the cognitive sciences in the intervening 27 years. The answer is, not much that I could detect.

  5. John Smith says:

    There are many books which can perhaps be read in a week but not understood that quickly. Most math textbooks, for example.

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