S2EP11: The life and times of the hermit mathematician

Autodidactic Podcast Season Two
Autodidactic Podcast Season Two
S2EP11: The life and times of the hermit mathematician

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Hello and welcome to the Autodidactic podcast, season 2 episode 11. Before we begin I would like to do a little self-promotion and tell you about my other activities online. I have a YouTube Channel and I’ll put the link in the show notes, as well as a number of books both fiction and non-fiction. I’ll also put the links to some of these in the show notes. So if you want to see the links, or the transcript of these podcasts you can find them all at https://autodidactic.info/

Let’s get on with the show. This week I’m going to be talking about a not so famous mathematician. A person very few people will have heard of, and who even during his lifetime was considered an oddball and an eccentric. A self-trained English mathematician and a pioneer of electromagnetic theory. You may not have heard his name, but you may have heard some of the words he invented such as “impedance” or “inductance” especially if you work with or have knowledge of electrics or electronics.

Oliver Heaviside is the person I’m talking about. He was born on the 18th of May 1850 to Rachel Elizabeth West and Thomas Heaviside in Camden Town, a notoriously crime-ridden, lower class area of London. Thomas Heaviside was a wood engraver and water colour artist. Oliver was the youngest of four sons. Oliver Heaviside had a challenging and troubled youth. The family lived for years on the ragged edge of poverty their home was just around the corner from where Charles Dickens had lived during the most miserable part of his childhood.

Life in the slums was difficult enough, but a childhood bout with scarlet fever, which left him nearly deaf, added to his troubles. Heaviside’s mother ran a school for girls, which he attended rather than attending the neighbourhood school. This offered some protection from the influence of the local ruffians. Heaviside’s hearing impairment made making friends difficult, however his school results were rather good and in 1865 he was placed fifth from 500 pupils.

Despite being bright and a good student, by age 16 the socially awkward Heaviside had had enough of formal education and left school. Perhaps he was more disillusioned with school than with learning since he continued to study after leaving school, in particular he learnt Morse code, studied electricity and studied further languages in particular Danish and German. He was aiming at a career as a telegrapher and in this he was advised and helped by his uncle Charles Wheatstone.

In 1868 Heaviside went to Denmark and became a telegrapher. While working there, Heaviside noticed that signals from England to Denmark could be sent faster than those sent from Denmark to England. Those in the telegraph industry thought this was due to some strange and unknown property of the 347-nautical mile undersea cable carrying the messages. Heaviside wasn’t so sure and was able to show mathematically that if everything is identical on both ends of the cable, the maximum rate must be the same in both directions. He then showed, again mathematically, that any difference must be due to different resistance at each end. Simply put, the equipment in England had lower electrical resistance and could push more current faster into the capacitance of the cable, and thus could send at a higher rate.

He progressed quickly in his profession and returned to England in 1871 to take up a post in Newcastle upon Tyne in the office of Great Northern Telegraph Company which dealt with overseas traffic.

Heaviside quit the cable company in May 1874, at age 24, and returned to London to live with his parents. He never again held a regular job, but instead worked full-time on electrical problems. His brother Arthur provided financial support and collaborated on projects related to his engineering work, but for the next decade or more Heaviside worked in almost complete isolation in his parents’ spare room, pushing back the frontiers of electrical knowledge on his own.

Heaviside became increasingly deaf as he worked on his own researches into electricity. While still working as chief operator in Newcastle he had published papers on electricity, the first in 1872 and then the second in 1873 was of sufficient interest to the author James Maxwell a noted Scottish mathematician that he mentioned the results in the second edition of his Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism. From 1874 he continued working on Maxwells equations.

Heaviside was able to greatly simplify Maxwell’s 20 equations in 20 variables, replacing them by four equations in two variables. Today we call these ‘Maxwell’s equations’ forgetting that they are in fact ‘Heaviside’s equations’.

Heaviside results on electromagnetism, impressive as they were, were overshadowed by the important methods in vector analysis which he developed in his investigations. His operational calculus, developed between 1880 and 1887, caused much controversy however. He introduced his operational calculus to enable him to solve the ordinary differential equations which came out of the theory of electrical circuits.

Heaviside gave, for the first time, the conditions necessary to transmit a signal without distortion but Heaviside dropped the idea and it was patented in 1904 in the United States. Michael Pupin of Columbia University and George Campbell of ATT both read Heaviside’s papers about using induction coils at intervals along the telephone line. Both Campbell and Pupin applied for a patent which was awarded to Pupin in 1904.

Edmund Whittaker rated Heaviside’s operational calculus as one of the three most important discoveries of the late 19th Century.

In 1902 Heaviside predicted that there was a conducting layer in the atmosphere which allowed radio waves to follow the Earth’s curvature. This layer in the atmosphere, the Heaviside layer, is named after him. Its existence was proved in 1923 when radio pulses were transmitted vertically upward and the returning pulses from the reflecting layer were received.

At the climax of the musical Cats, chorus members sing about how Grizabella is about to rise “Up, up, up past the Russell Hotel/ Up, up, up, up to the Heaviside Layer,” they are alluding to Heaviside’s idea that there must be a conducting layer in the upper atmosphere—though I’m sure very few in the audience probably catch the reference.

He seemed to become more and more bitter as the years went by. In 1909 Heaviside moved to Torquay where he showed increasing evidence of a persecution complex. His neighbours related stories of Heaviside as a strange and embittered hermit who replaced his furniture with granite blocks which stood about in the bare rooms. Through those rooms he wandered, growing dirtier and dirtier, and more and more unkempt; with one exception. His nails were always exquisitely manicured, and painted a glistening cherry pink.

As on old man, Heaviside spent his final years comfortably, although his mental powers diminished. “I have become as stupid as an owl,” he once bluntly stated. Heaviside died at the age of 74 on the 3rd of February 1925 and was buried with his parents in a small grave in Tourquay.

What can we learn from Oliver Heaviside?

Overcoming adversity including poverty and a hearing disability to create a complex system of calculus seems to be something we can take away. Regardless of our own problems it is clear that it is possible to overcome adversity and to learn.

Not many people listening to this podcast will be living in Dickensian conditions of poverty, but even if you are you can take heart in the fact that it is possible to overcome. But Heaviside never actually overcame poverty, he returned to it after leaving the telegraph company in order to focus on mathematics. He lived in poverty most of his life and in his later years on a small pension. For him money wasn’t his driving force. Knowledge and working in a topic he loved were more important.

While many people study in order to get ahead, or to increase their monetary value in the workforce, it doesn’t mean it is required. Some people feel ashamed to tell others that they ae studying a new language or advanced maths or whatever just for fun. They think they will be looked down upon for not having a monetary reason for learning. Learning for no other reason than you want to, is a good enough reason.

In addition, Oliver Heaviside had help from family and friends. So getting external assistance from friends and family can be helpful when you’re feeling alone or struggling with your study.

Oliver Heaviside worked as a telegraph operator, but his job didn’t define him or his life’s work. Many people confuse what they do for a living with their life. It doesn’t have to be the same thing. If you are a computer programmer, but study beekeeping as a hobby, or vicversa so be it. You should allow yourself to explore the roads you want.

Well that is all for this week. I hope you’ve found it helpful or at least informative.

If you enjoy the show, please give a rating on the platform you’re using to listen, and please share the podcast with friends and family who might be interested. Also, please feel free to email me at rick@autodidactic.info, or leave feedback on the website autodidactic.info.

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S2EP10: Autodidactics of the past – George Boole

Autodidactic Podcast Season Two
Autodidactic Podcast Season Two
S2EP10: Autodidactics of the past - George Boole

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Hello and welcome to the Autodidactic podcast, season 2 episode 10. I wasn’t able to publish a podcast last week due to some time constraints. Hopefully this episode will have been worth the wait.

This week I’m going to be talking about a famous mathematician who was vital in the creation of the digital age. I’m going to be talking about George Boole, an English mathematician who helped establish modern symbolic logic and whose algebra of logic, now called Boolean algebra, is basic to the design of digital computer circuits.

George Boole approached logic in a new way reducing it to a simple algebra, incorporating logic into mathematics. He also worked on differential equations, the calculus of finite differences and general methods in probability.

He was born on the 2nd of November 1815 and died the 8th of December 1864.

George Boole’s parents were Mary Ann Joyce and John Boole. John made shoes but he was interested in science and in particular the application of mathematics to scientific instruments. Mary Ann was a lady’s maid and she married John on 14 September 1806. The family were not well off, partly because John’s love of science and mathematics meant that he did not devote the energy to developing his business in the way he might have done. George, their first child, was born after Mary Ann and John had been married for nine years. They had almost given up hope of having children after this time so it was an occasion for great rejoicing. They went on to have three more children, two boys and a girl.

George first attended a school in Lincoln for children of tradesmen run by when he was less than two years old. After a year he went to a commercial school run by a friend of John Boole, where he remained until he was seven. His early instruction in mathematics, however, was from his father.

When he was seven George attended a primary school and his interests turned to languages. His father arranged for him to receive instruction in Latin from a local bookseller. Having learnt Latin from a tutor, George went on to teach himself Greek. By the age of 14 he had become so skilled in Greek that it provoked an accusation of plagiarism after his father had one of his poems published.

At this time George was attending Bainbridge’s Commercial Academy in Lincoln. This school did not provide the type of education he would have wished but it was all his parents could afford. George was able to teach himself French and German studying and studying other academic subjects that a commercial school did not cover.

At 16, George started teaching as an assistant teacher in Doncaster after his father’s business collapsed and he found himself having to support financially his parents, brothers and sister. While he maintained his interest in languages, began to study mathematics seriously at this time. The first advanced mathematics book he read was Lacroix’s Differential and integral calculus. He was later to realise that he had wasted four years in trying to teach himself the subject instead of having a skilled teacher.

In 1834 he opened his own school in Lincoln although he was only 19 years old. Four years later Robert Hall, who had run Hall’s Academy in Waddington, died and Boole was invited to take over the school. His parents, brothers and sister moved to Waddington and together they ran the school which had both boarding and day pupils.

Boole was studying the works of Laplace and Lagrange and working on what would become is first mathmatics paper. He was encouraged by Duncan Gregory who was in Cambridge and was the editor of the Cambridge Mathematical Journal. Boole was unable to take up the offer to study at Cambridge as he needed the income from his school to look after his family. In the summer of 1840 he had opened a boarding school in Lincoln and again the whole family had moved with him. He began publishing regularly in the Cambridge Mathematical Journal.

Again encouraged by Duncan Gregory he began a serious study of Algebra. In 1844 he had a paper published called “On a general method of analysis; applying algebraic methods to the solution of differential equations” in the Transactions of the Royal Society. He received the Society’s Royal Medal in November 1844.

Boole was appointed to the chair of mathematics at Queens College, Cork in 1849. Boole was to become the first Professor of Mathematics at Queen’s College, Cork, and he took up the position in November. He taught there for the rest of his life, gaining a reputation as an outstanding and dedicated teacher.

In May of 1851 Boole was elected as Dean of Science, and he’d met his future wife Mary Everest (a niece of Sir George Everest, after whom the mountain is named) whose uncle was the professor of Greek at Cork and a friend of Boole.

July 1852 when Boole visited the Everest family in Wickwar, Gloucestershire, England. Boole began to give Mary informal mathematics lessons on the differential calculus. At this time he was 37 years old while Mary was only 20. In 1855 Mary’s father died leaving her without means of support and Boole proposed marriage. They married on 11 September 1855 at a small ceremony in Wickwar. It proved a very happy marriage with five daughters

It was in this period that Boole published his most important work. In 1854 he published An investigation into the Laws of Thought, on Which are founded the Mathematical Theories of Logic and Probabilities. Boole approached logic in a new way reducing it to a simple algebra, incorporating logic into mathematics. He pointed out the analogy between algebraic symbols and those that represent logical forms. It began the algebra of logic called Boolean algebra which now finds application in computer construction, switching circuits etc

Boole also worked on differential equations, the influential Treatise on Differential Equations appeared in 1859, the calculus of finite differences, Treatise on the Calculus of Finite Differences (1860), and general methods in probability. He published around 50 papers and was one of the first to investigate the basic properties of numbers, such as the distributive property, that underlie the subject of algebra.

Many honours were given to Boole as the genius in his work was recognised. He received honorary degrees from the universities of Dublin and Oxford and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (1857). However his career, which was started rather late, came to a tragic early end when he died at the age of 49.

One day in 1864 he walked from his residence to the College, a distance of two miles, in the drenching rain, and lectured in wet clothes. The result was a feverish cold which soon fell upon his lungs. Boole’s wife believed that a remedy should resemble the cause. She put Boole to bed and threw buckets of water over the bed since his illness had been caused by getting wet.

Boolean algebra has wide applications in telephone switching and the design of modern computers. Boole’s work has to be seen as a fundamental step in today’s computer revolution.

So what can we learn from Boole to use for ourselves as Autodidactics. Boole’s realisation that he had wasted time by not finding a teacher is a critical point.

As an autodidactic you may struggle to understand some concepts which you are learning. You should take some time to evaluate if you should look into getting a tutor to help you. Here are some tips to help you to evaluate.

  1. Is the work load taking you twice as long as you think it should? In subjects like math and science, concepts build on one another. Missing just one concept can have a snowball effect, and you may need some extra help.
  2. If you start needing more help than usual—and find your normal go-to people or places can’t help you—you might want to consider enlisting a tutor.
  3. If you are beginning to dislike the subject it might be a sign of frustration because you aren’t “getting it”.
  4. You’re putting in the effort, but not seeing the results you expect, then it’s time to pinpoint the problem and get some extra help.
  5. You are beginning to skip study times, or avoid the work. You’ve probably gotten frustrated to the point of quitting.

If you decide you need external assistance, then review your options. Would some kind of remote classroom or after work classes help? Do you need a lot of help on a particular subject, or is it just some concepts that you need to work on?

Here are some things to think about before going out to find someone.

  1. How much help do you need? A full course or just some help with a few key concepts?
  2. What is your budget for tutoring? Keep in mind a difficult subject will take longer to prepare, so expect to pay more for the extra preparation time. Cost varies greatly, depending on subject area, location, and the credentials of the tutor. Neighbors or friends may charge less, but remember, professional tutors charge professional rates.
  3. What hours do you expect to have available for tutoring?
  4. What references or qualifications do you want to see? You get references for electricians, doctors and dentists. Doesn’t it truly make sense to get a reference for a tutor?

How do you find a tutor? There are a number of places you can look and a lot depends on your location. Some places to start are:

Depending on what you’re learning the way to find a tutor or mentor will be different. But before paying anyone you should check credentials, and remember to be safe before allowing anyone inside your home.

Well that is all for this week.

If you enjoy the show, please give a rating on the platform you’re using to listen, and please share the podcast with friends and family who might be interested. Also, please feel free to email me at rick@autodidactic.info, or leave feedback on the website autodidactic.info.

S2EP9: Mid-Season Interlude

Autodidactic Podcast Season Two
Autodidactic Podcast Season Two
S2EP9: Mid-Season Interlude

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Hello and welcome to the Autodidactic Podcast, Episode nine Season two.

If your first time listener, I wanna welcome you to the show and I’m glad you’re visiting. If you haven’t already, please visit the website autodidactic.info, where you’ll find links to all the shows that the show notes and the transcriptions and these contain. You need links to anything I talk about in the show.

This season. I’ve been covering autodidtactics and their methods for learning, but on this show I don’t want to talk about a specific autodidactic but rather talk about somethings all of the people I’ve profiled had in common, and these things are reading and a passion for learning, and then at the end, I briefly like to discuss creation of what I and others call the Forever project.

So if you have listened to all of this season, you will have noted a common thread among all of the other two tactics that I’ve profiled. And that is all of them have been. Readers, all of them, from childhood onward have continued to read a great number of books on a daily basis. This is in their topic of interest and outside generally. But you can find others who do this today as well, including Warren Buffett and Bill Gates and Stephen King, who read constantly and assess what they’re reading.

Reading is a great way to broaden your horizons and to expand the topic of interests. If you’re studying something solely to complete a particular project, then it’s a finite amount of time that you need to study and to complete. But generally, if you’re working toward a more general usage of this system.

So, for example, let’s say you were learning mathematics, and but you don’t generally have a direct need for it. But the knowledge of mathematics would help you in your job or your daily life in some way, shape or form. Setting up a strict regime for learning. This might not be appropriate, but as covered previously, you do still need a goal where you’re going to go and how you’re going to accomplish what it is you need on.

The first step is always to determine what it is you need. You have the issue of you don’t know what you don’t know and starting out there are things that you need to learn. But you don’t actually know that you need to learn them yet because you’ve not passed along on your journey far enough to realise that you need to know these things. So reading broadly in a topic prior to commencing can help you when you’re trying to define what it is you need to learn. And assuming that you are doing this as a forever project which will cover later rather than a specific, I need to know by X date, then reading more broadly in the topic.

Generalised reading or related topics as you come across them will help you to develop a study plan. Now, it might be that your topic is fairly specific and you don’t really need to read broadly in it that you have a really good idea of where you’re going and what you need to do to start, in which case, brilliant. But when you get into the topic, you are still going to need to read, and you’re gonna need to read a lot in order to learn the topic. I would advise you to listen to my previous podcast and I’ll put a link to some of the ones that are be of most interest about reading and studying reading for comprehension, reading for retention.

As well as highlighting and note-taking for the things that you’re studying. If you’re studying, for example, to become a better writer, it might be that you’re reading not to underlying a specific section of, a textbook, but more likely you are reading and highlighting passages that help you to understand character development or how to convey a sense of seeing or scenery this type of reading activity where you’re reading and you’re actually studying the material that you’re reading, as opposed to learning from the material that you’re reading.

I haven’t done a topic or a show on that, but I will in the future because I have done this myself where you’re analysing on author style or you’re you’re analysing a piece of work in order to help yourself learn how to construct that same type of thing later. Now the other thing that they all had in common was a passion for learning. All of them had the desire and the passion to learn on the motivation to learn a lot of people when they start their studies are looking at the end, go far more than the journey itself.

So, for example, if you’re a college student and you just enrolled, you’re actually looking at the goal of graduation, and you were thinking about what you will do when you graduate, but you really should try and enjoy the process of learning while you’re doing it. Try to make yourself enjoy the process of learning, because that will help you, too. Continue to be a lifelong learner and to enjoy learning, enjoy reading and have a passion for knowing new things. Which sort of brings me on to the topic. I want to discuss the primary topic for today, which is what is called a forever topic, and I’ll give you a couple links in the show notes for some plug posts people have made about this but forever. Project is a project you’re going to focus your time and energy on, but you are not using this as a source of income typically so, for example, this might be what most people would label as a hobby.

But the first element of forever project is to focus on a new topic that you aren’t investing time and energy. And so, for example, if you are a computer programmer on your forever project is carpentry. Um, you read about carpentry. You learn about different techniques. You might go to shows or conferences. You might speak to professional carpenters or furniture builders. So this is ah, forever project. Now, the point of a Forever project is that you, as the name applying implies, you can work on it forever. It’s an open into topic that you can explore for a long time without ever running out of challenges.

Now, normally, when we pick something to learn or to do, we have an economic goal because you’re learning this in order to get a job doing it, for example. But if you’re not doing it for an economic reason and you’re not time constraint, they economic reasoning behind doing the project breaks down a bit. So for someone who had an infinite lifetime, you’d have an infinite amount of money because you you know it doesn’t matter. You constantly be able to get more money. If you didn’t have money, you just carry on until you did get the money and then you start again because you have infinity to do it in.

You don’t have to choose between doing one thing or another, because in an infinite lifetime you can do both. So any any thinking along the lines of I’m wasting my time makes absolutely no sense at all. If you were going to live forever because you have an infinite amount of time and there’s no way that you could leave, lose it. And even if you spent half an affinity infinity on one topic, you still have an infinite amount of time left. Now, obviously, we don’t have forever to work on the project, but you can reason like you, too. And so ah, the economic drive to learn or to not go off on tensions or not, distract yourself or think about you’re wasting time, etcetera goes away. So a good forever project encourages you to wander through a variety of topics, and many of them will be new to you. And you can find something easy to learn about them or difficult to learn about them, that you’re constantly walking along the pathways and byways of knowledge that you’re gaining from this particular project.

In our example forever. Project of Woodworking you might go off on a tangent and study different types of wood and how it grows and what climates different trees globe grow in, and the relative strengths that gives to the wood before you come back to actually learning a technique for joinery. And it doesn’t matter to you because your reasoning is not Oh, I’ve wasted six months doing investigation of climate changes and how they affect would because you have forever to do it. So the reasoning process of wasting time has gone away.

A great deal of this show is talking about how to study and methods of studying. But why you study is really quite a personal thing Your reasoning behind studying a particular topic or not is completely up to you. But for the most part, most people have economic reasons for whatever project they’re choosing, and I would advise you to pick a project that actually has no economic benefit. But you find interesting because it will allow you to read, expand your horizons and to learn about something new and different, and keeps you engaged with the world without having the constant drive to improve yourself in an economic work related sort of way.

Now, for many people, this is not or may not seem valid. You know, we all have bills to pay and things to do and not a lot of time and not a lot of time to invest. But many people will have a small amount of time that they can use for a forever project, and you don’t need to pick a large. You need a large topic, something that will let you move through different areas. But when you’re doing a project within your forever project, it might only take you a day or a week or a month. Well, it’s been a quite a short show this week. I hope you enjoyed it. I know it’s going off on a bit of diversions, but hopefully you’ve enjoyed it. If you’re interested in the show and you want to give me feedback or suggestions, please email me at rick@autodidactic.info and I’d like to thank you for taking the time to listen to these podcasts, and I hope you believe that this is time well spent. So once again, thank you for listening

S2EP8: Study methods of “The Great Explainer”

Autodidactic Podcast Season Two
Autodidactic Podcast Season Two
S2EP8: Study methods of "The Great Explainer"

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Hello and welcome to the Autodidactic podcast, season 2 episode 8. This episode was also delayed this week, but the reason for the delay was simple; I hadn’t yet finished the autobiography of this weeks featured autodidactic.

This week I’ll be looking at a modern autodidactic Richard Phillips Feynman. Richard Feynman won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965 and assisted in the development of the atomic bomb during World War II. He became known to a wide public in the 1980s as a member of the Rogers Commission, the panel that investigated the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. Along with his work in theoretical physics, Feynman has been credited with pioneering the field of quantum computing and introducing the concept of nanotechnology. Richard Feynman was often referred to as “The Great Explainer” due to his ability to make complex topics understandable.

Richard Feynman was born 11 May 1918 in New York and died 15 February 1988 in Los Angeles, California. Feynman’s parents were Melville Feynman and Lucille Phillips. His father was born into a Jewish family in Belarus and immigrated to the US when he was 5 years old. Lucille Phillips was born in the United States into another Jewish family of Polish immigrants. They were married in 1917 and moved to Manhattan before Lucille gave birth to Richard in 1918.

Melville Feynman was a mediocre businessman but had always had a keen interest in science but never had the opportunity to study. Melville did all he could to interest Richard in science throughout his childhood.

Richard Feynman had two siblings, a brother who died just 4 weeks after being born, and his sister Joan who was born with Richard was 9 years old. The family moved several times during these years but when Richard was ten they settled in Far Rockaway.

Melville Feynman didn’t push Richard into science, his approach was much more intuitive and subtle. He never taught facts so much as questions. He encouraged young Richard to identify not what he knew, but rather what he did not know. This is the essence of Richard Feynman’s style of understanding. By absolutely asking what his ignorance consisted of, he freed himself from conventional wisdom.

Richard learnt a great deal of science from Encyclopaedia Britannica and taught himself elementary mathematics before he encountered it at school. He also set up a laboratory in his room at home where he experimented with electricity. In particular he wired circuits with light bulbs, he invented a burglar alarm, and he took radios apart to repair damaged circuits. When he entered Far Rockaway High School his interests were almost entirely mathematics and science.

He enjoyed recreational mathematics from which he derived a large amount of pleasure. When Feynman was 15, he taught himself trigonometry, advanced algebra, infinite series, analytic geometry, and both differential and integral calculus.

As a young man in school he found himself who would be perhaps the single most important person in Richard’s life, Arline Greenbaum.

After leaving high-school he applied to several universities. It was difficult for him to find a space even with is obvious gifts. Although his grades in mathematics and science were outstanding, he had performed much less well in other subjects. There was also the “problem” that he was a Jew and in the USA at the time there were quotas on the number of Jews they admitted to university.

Finally he was accepted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or MIT. He entered MIT in 1935 and, after four years study, obtained his B.Sc. in 1939. He went there to study mathematics but, although he found the courses easy, he became increasingly worried by the abstraction and lack of applications. His mathematics lecturers presented him with the view that one did mathematics for its own sake so Feynman changed courses, taking electrical engineering. Very quickly he changed again, this time moving into physics.

The physics course that Feynman took at MIT was not the standard one. He took Introduction to Theoretical Physics, a class intended for graduate students, in his second year. There was no course on quantum mechanics, a topic that Feynman was very keen to study, so together with a fellow undergraduate, T A Welton, he began to read the available texts in the spring of 1936.

Near the end of his time at MIT he began to think about studying for his doctorate. Since he had been so happy at MIT and also believing it to be the leading institution, he approached the head of physics, John Slater, requesting that he stay on to take a Ph.D. course. Slater told him that for his own good he had to move and he suggested Princeton.

Feynman was accepted by Princeton. His doctoral work at Princeton was supervised by John Wheeler. He then went on to develop a new approach to quantum mechanics using the principle of least action. He received his doctorate from Princeton in 1942 but before this time the United States had entered World War II.

During this time in his life he became engaged to marry Arline, which they’d do after completion of his Ph.D. However, Arline at one point started to display serious symptoms of some sort of illness. After some time she was positively diagnosed with tuberculosis, and was not expected to live too many more years. Richard figured that there was only one right thing for him to do, and that was to marry her as soon as possible. He wanted to be responsible for her welfare as much as he could muster. Although his family advised against it because of his unfinished Ph.D., the two were married in a simple civil ceremony.

Feynman worked on the atomic bomb project at Princeton University (1941-42) and then at Los Alamos (1943-45). Feynman began work on the Manhattan project at Princeton developing a theory of how to separate Uranium 235 from Uranium 238, while his thesis supervisor Wheeler went to Chicago to work with Fermi on the first nuclear reactor.

Feynman went to the newly constructed Los Alamos site to work on the atomic bomb project. His remarkable abilities soon led to him being appointed as head of the theoretical division. Arlene died in 1945 just before the first test of the bomb.

After World War II, in the autumn of 1945, Feynman was appointed as a professor of theoretical physics at Cornell University. In 1950 Feynman accepted a position as professor of theoretical physics at the California Institute of Technology. Since he had already planned a sabbatical leave before receiving the offer, he was able to arrange to spend the first ten months of his new appointment in Brazil. He remained at Cal tech for the rest of his career.

Feynman’s main contribution was to quantum mechanics, following on from the work of his doctoral thesis. He introduced diagrams (now called Feynman diagrams) that are graphic analogues of the mathematical expressions needed to describe the behaviour of systems of interacting particles. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1965.

In early 1979 Feyman’s health had deteriorated and he had surgery for stomach cancer. This was very successful and his doctors believed that he would not suffer a recurrence. His final major task was as a member of a committee set up to investigate the cause of the explosion on the space shuttle Challenger on Tuesday 28 January 1986.

It was a very difficult time for Feyman since throughout the investigation his health was deteriorating. Near the end of 1987 cancer was found again in his abdomen.

Luckily for us as autodidactics, Richard Feynman left us details of his learning method and we can adopt these practices ourselves. While he didn’t leave a step by step guide his methods can be taken from his works and autobiography. Richard Feynman had cultivated a habit of deliberate learning, where he used to connect what he knew with what he did not know. Feynman started writing down every topic that was important for him to know which he had no knowledge about. He kept a notebook for the purpose. He called it ‘the notebook of things I do not know’.

The Feynman Learning Technique has been studied and produced by many biographers, and while many will list the steps slightly differently they are mostly the same.

The basic steps are:

Step 1: Write down the topic to study

Step 2: Teach the topic

Step 3: Review what you do not know

Step 4: Explain the topic to someone who knows nothing about the subject such as a child.

In Step 1, selecting a concept to study compels you to be intentional about what you don’t know. It also forces you to choose a topic that’s small enough that it could reasonably fit onto one or several pages.

In Step 2, true understanding requires a more active process like teaching. Start out by formally teaching yourself. Write out a summary in your own words without looking at your notes. Or explain it to yourself out loud. Then take it to the next level by teaching other people. Teaching also initiates a feedback loop, where critique or questions can help us learn and sharpen our thinking.

When working in Brazil teaching at a university he discovered students would memorise the terms and phrases in the textbook which would be on the exam, but didn’t understand the principles behind the terms. Feynman realized people can trick themselves into believing they understand something more than they truly do. These Brazilian students could quote the textbook, but couldn’t explain the concept or give examples.

When you have to truly explain something, whether through writing or aloud, you encounter the holes in your reasoning and the white spaces in your knowledge. Think of writing and teaching as a process to obtain understanding, not something you do once you already understand. When gaps in our knowledge arise and our explanations aren’t quite right, revisiting our primary and secondary sources can help solidify what we’re learning. Getting it right will likely take several iterations. That’s a good thing; the more you refine your explanations, the more your understanding will deepen.

Step 2 and 3 are linked. Review the explanation that you came up with, and pinpoint the areas where you were not clear or you felt your explanation was shaky. Then, return to your source material and notes to better your understanding. Practice step #2 again with your new, revised notes.

Step 4 is to explain this to a child. In order to do this you must simply the terms you use, remove jargon, and use simpler words.

Because science is filled with complex terms, Feynman’s diagrams became valuable to people who were struggling to teach and to people who were struggling to understand. His charts were able to simply explain things that other scientists took hours to lecture students on in an attempt to teach them.

This search for visual representations and simplification also increases you understanding. Using analogies when teaching forces you to meet your listeners where they are in terms of their level of understanding, and relate something they already know to the new concept you are teaching. It’s easy enough to commit terms to memory, and repeat them back when prompted. But memorization is not understanding.

Those are the basic four steps to the Feynman Learning Technique. You can learn these four steps in seconds and apply them in minutes. But the steps are relatively unimportant. What Richard Feynman had and what you need to cultivate is a constant need to question instilled into him by his father Melville. In fact you can further reduce the Feynman Learning Technique down to just simply asking what you don’t know, then finding that out, then repeat.

Well that is all for this week.

If you enjoy the show, please give a rating on the platform you’re using to listen, and please share the podcast with friends and family who might be interested. Also, please feel free to email me at rick@autodidactic.info, or leave feedback on the website autodidactic.info.

S2EP7: How to create a rigorous standard for self-learning

Autodidactic Podcast Season Two
Autodidactic Podcast Season Two
S2EP7: How to create a rigorous standard for self-learning

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Hello and welcome to the Autodidactic podcast, season 2 episode 7. This week I’m taking a little break from exploring autodidactics of the past to focus on a different topic, how to create a rigorous standard for self-learning.

My friend and I had an argument. He said only people who learned at university had a rigorous education. I countered with the fact I knew more about computing and programming as a self-taught programmer than my daughter with a degree in computer science. But he did made some very valid points about the lack rigour most self-taught people have.

What is rigour in learning? A combined definition includes the following, most relevant, terms: Accurate, Exact, Exhaustive, Meticulous, Precise. The definition my friend was referring to mostly was exhaustive. He felt that people who are self-taught aren’t forced to learn the difficult things, and they tend to gloss over things without confirming they understand. Also he felt that people who self-study “wander all over the place” without actually having a meticulous or exact goal to achieve.

Some mistakenly assume that rigour in education means making things more difficult. Others believe it means piling on the work. Rigour is not quantified by how much gets crammed in, it is measured in depth of understanding.

Most people don’t have rigour in their self-education simply because there isn’t anyone “looking over their shoulder”. But if you want to learn a subject then you need to add rigour to your methods so that you’re learning and working to your full potential. But how do you do that?

Well, it’s different for everyone. If you can’t consistently negotiate rigorous tasks, either your understanding or thinking habits should be more closely examined. In this podcast I want to explore so ways you can add rigour to your learning.

In season one, I stressed quite often that you should be testing yourself daily with quizzes you build up from the previous sessions study. Each day when studying you need to generate a small quiz for the next session, and then group these quizzes periodically into an examination. There are a number of other things you can do to add rigour.

Use someone else’s curriculum

The first and most easy way to add rigour is if what you are studying a subject which is also taught at a university you can use their curriculum, many universities publish their curriculum. In university the rule-of-thumb is you are supposed to devote twice as many hours outside of class as in class. To add this type of rigour to your own studies you should have a self-study rule-of-thumb that 2/3 of study time should be problem solving or exercises, aka “homework”.

Transfer your understanding.

This means to teach someone else what you’ve learned. This requires you to apply knowledge in new and unfamiliar situations, an inherently rigorous process. But what if you don’t have anyone to teach? Then teach yourself. Put together a slide presentation showing what you’ve learned as if you’re going to be giving a course on it. You might even consider creating a YouTube video teaching what you have learned. This would be on public display and would encourage you to ensure what you’re showing is correct and you really understand it.

Mix multiple sources of information into a single source.

You typically have multiple sources of information available to you. Many textbooks, YouTube lectures, podcasts, etc. Take these multiple sources of inputs and perspectives and synthesize them together. This is similar to the exercise above, but here the output would be an essay showing the information and citing it. When you have to analyse, internalize, and reconcile multiple perspectives to into a new position, perspective or format, rigour is a requirement.

Create your study periods with Bloom’s Taxonomy in mind.

Bloom’s Taxonomy is a hierarchical classification of the different levels of thinking, and should be applied when creating course objectives. Course objectives are brief statements that describe what students will be expected to learn by the end of the course. The full power of learning objectives is realized when the learning objectives are explicitly stated.

The framework elaborated by Bloom consisted of six major categories: Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis, and Evaluation. Modern cognitive psychologists, curriculum theorists and instructional researchers, and testing and assessment specialists revised this into more action orientated wording.

Remember: Recall basic facts and concepts

Understand: Explain, describe, classify concepts

Apply: use the information in new situations

Analyse: draw connections between ideas, differentiate, contrast

Evaluate: Justify, argue and defend a stance or decision biased on the information

Create: Produce an original work

Think about exercises you can do which will force you to use the information and skills you are learning to complete Blooms Taxonomy.

Find divergent perspectives and media

Find and use authors, philosophers, experts, or other thinkers who make authentic cases of their own that offer contrasting perspectives. Try to reconcile these various points of view. Don’t just stick to one type of input, use video, audio, textbooks, tweets, or interviews to gain different perspectives.

Require design thinking and project-based learning

Build design thinking into your study, be sure that elements of design thinking, creativity, and the “tinker culture” are used to help you to find success. For example, if you’re learning programming, think of a large project you can do along with all the exercises you’re doing in the text books. Give yourself exercises in such things as identifying patterns, cause-effect analysis, and problem-solution thinking.

A simple way to incentivize yourself is to work on a project on the side while you are going through the tutorials/courses. Building something cool and interesting is a great way to trick yourself into learning.

Complete an essay periodically

Essay questions are extremely effective for measuring complex learning. Opportunities for guessing are removed, so you can truly measure what you understand. So schedule in numerous essays into the learning plans and activities for practice.

Always pick good resources with exercises and do them

As a self-learner, it’s critical to pick books with exercises and solutions. Pick resources with better exposition, motivation, and examples. You don’t have the luxury of a lecturer who can “fill in the blanks”, and these expositions can be critical. Do all the exercises in the book. Even if you think they are trivial and a waste of time. It forces you to apply what you have learned, and if it is easy for you, great. If it isn’t easy then it is giving you feedback about where you’re lacking.

Resources with worked problems make a text much more valuable and useful; even students in a class may spend a lot of time doing self-study. For self-study, without worked problems a book is only useful as a reference while working problems from elsewhere. Try to find a book with lots of examples, problems and projects for you to work through.

Challenge yourself

As you look to develop rigour in your study, make sure you’re providing relevant challenges you want to rise and meet. It is not just about “getting it done,” but about seeing how far you can go and how much you can improve.

Have a lesson plan

In EP11: Study Plan Creation for Self-learners, I covered a lot of information about how to create a study plan for yourself. It included 3 phases:

  1. Initial assessment of level
  2. Resource gathering
  3. Study scheduling.

In EP12: How to evaluate resources for study, I covered how to evaluate resources you can use.

But in hindsight I can see that one of the things lacking is a method for developing a lesson plan. I assumed you’d be able to take the lesson plan from the book or resource you’re using, but my friend convinced me otherwise. So lets quickly look at how to develop a lesson plan for your study periods.

The basic self-study lesson plan includes for basic phases.

  1. Challenging objectives for the lesson
  2. Instruction and presentation of information.
  3. Practice and production
  4. Verification of objectives

Writing out the objectives for each lesson can be formal, or it can just be a single sentence on a post-it-note, but you need to know the goal if you’re going to know if you’ve done it or not. Don’t just write a simple objective; “Explain merge sort algorithm.” instead do something like; “Explain merge sort algorithm in contrast to other algorithms such as bubble sort or insertion sort.”

Complete the instruction and presentation of data. This might be simply reading the textbook chapter, or watching the video. Relate this to your learning objective.

Practice and production is where you should be spending most of the time. Remember the self-study rule-of-thumb that 2/3 of your study time should be doing exercises and practising the skill. Make sure to think about and use Bloom’s Taxonomy when you’re thinking about exercises and practice.

Finally verification is taking a quiz or test. In many of the podcasts in season one I recommended creation of a quiz from the material you’re learning today. Here you need to create this simple quiz and take it before the next study session to make sure you understand the lesson. Otherwise you should repeat the relevant portions which you missed on the quiz. Exercises and practice also help to verify and confirm that you know and understand what you’ve studied.

Spending a little time creating a simple lesson plan before you start with a challenging objective will add rigour to your study times. The need to look forward in the book at the section headings, etc., in order to define your objectives will help you focus on the study material. I mentioned this in EP7: Textbook Study Methods, when I discussed various methods of reviewing textbook material. These methods were the P2R to reading and studying system, the SQ3R studying system and the S-RUN-R reading and studying system.

Please re-listen or reread those podcasts if you need more information. I put transcriptions of the podcasts on my website so they are available to read as well as listen.

Well that is all for this week.

If you enjoy the show, please give a rating on the platform you’re using to listen, and please share the podcast with friends and family who might be interested. Also, please feel free to email me at rick@autodidactic.info, or leave feedback on the website autodidactic.info.

S2EP6: Exploring the study methods of the (other) inventor of calculus

Autodidactic Podcast Season Two
Autodidactic Podcast Season Two
S2EP6: Exploring the study methods of the (other) inventor of calculus

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Hello and welcome to the Autodidactic podcast, season 2 episode 6.

This week I’ll be talking about a German autodidactic who one of the great thinkers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and is known as the last “universal genius”. He made deep and important contributions to the fields of metaphysics, epistemology, logic, philosophy of religion, as well as mathematics, physics, geology, jurisprudence, and history.

Who? It is Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1 July 1646–14 Nov 1716) a prominent German polymath and one of the most important logicians, mathematicians and natural philosophers of the Enlightenment.

A contemporary Denis Diderot an eighteenth-century French atheist and materialist said: “When one compares the talents one has with those of a Leibniz, one is tempted to throw away one’s books and go die quietly in the dark of some forgotten corner”

As a representative of the seventeenth-century tradition of rationalism, Leibniz developed, as his most prominent accomplishment, the ideas of differential and integral calculus, independently of Isaac Newton’s contemporaneous developments. Mathematical works have consistently favoured Leibniz’s notation as the conventional expression of calculus.

He became one of the most prolific inventors in the field of mechanical calculators. While working on adding automatic multiplication and division to Pascal’s calculator, he was the first to describe a pinwheel calculator in 1685 and invented the Leibniz wheel, used in a device called the arithmometer, the first mass-produced mechanical calculator. He also refined the binary number system, which is the foundation of nearly all digital (electronic, solid-state, discrete logic) computers, including the Von Neumann machine, which is the standard design paradigm, or “computer architecture”, followed from the second half of the 20th century, and into the 21st.

Leibniz made major contributions to physics and technology, and anticipated notions that surfaced much later in philosophy, probability theory, biology, medicine, geology, psychology, linguistics, and computer science. He wrote works on philosophy, politics, law, ethics, theology, and history.

He wrote in several languages, primarily in Latin, French and German but also in English, Italian and Dutch.

Leibniz was born in Leipzig on July 1, 1646, two years prior to the end of the Thirty Years War, which had ravaged central Europe. His father, Friedrich Leibniz, was a jurist and professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Leipzig, and his mother, Catharina Schmuck, the daughter of a professor of Law.

Leibniz’s father died in 1652, and his subsequent education was directed by his mother, uncle, and according to his own reports, himself. He was given access to his father’s extensive library at a young age and proceeded to pore over its contents, particularly the volumes of ancient history and the Church Fathers. His father’s library enabled him to study a wide variety of advanced philosophical and theological works—ones that he would not have otherwise been able to read until his college years.

Access to his father’s library, largely written in Latin, also led to his proficiency in the Latin language, which he achieved by the age of 12. While young, Leibniz immersed himself in history, poetry, maths, and other subjects, gaining knowledge in many different fields.

At the age of seven, Leibniz entered the Nicolai School in Leipzig. Although he was taught Latin at the elementary school, Leibniz had taught himself far more advanced Latin and some Greek. As he progressed through school he was taught Aristotle’s logic and theory of categorising knowledge. Leibniz was clearly not satisfied with Aristotle’s system and began to develop his own ideas on how to improve on it. In later life Leibniz recalled that at this time he was trying to find orderings on logical truths which, although he did not know it at the time, were the ideas behind rigorous mathematical proofs.

In 1661, at the age of fourteen, Leibniz entered the University of Leipzig. It may sound today as if this were a truly exceptionally early age for anyone to enter university, but it is fair to say that by the standards of the time he was quite young but there would be others of a similar age. He studied philosophy, which was well taught at the University of Leipzig, and mathematics which was very poorly taught. Among the other topics which were included in this two year general degree course were rhetoric, Latin, Greek and Hebrew. He graduated with a bachelors degree in 1663

Leibniz then went to Jena to spend the summer term of 1663.

At Jena the professor of mathematics was Erhard Weigel but Weigel was also a philosopher and through him Leibniz began to understand the importance of the method of mathematical proof for subjects such as logic and philosophy. Weigel believed that number was the fundamental concept of the universe and his ideas were to have considerable influence of Leibniz. By October 1663 Leibniz was back in Leipzig starting his studies towards a doctorate in law. He was awarded his Master’s Degree in philosophy for a dissertation which combined aspects of philosophy and law studying relations in these subjects with mathematical ideas that he had learnt from Weigel. A few days after Leibniz presented his dissertation, his mother died.

Despite his growing reputation and acknowledged scholarship, Leibniz was refused the doctorate in law at Leipzig. It is a little unclear why this happened, but Leibniz was not prepared to accept any delay and he went immediately to the University of Altdorf where he received a doctorate in law in February 1667.

Leibniz dedicated his working life to serving two German families that were very important to the society of the time. He had proposed to a plan to revitalize and protect German-speaking countries after the devastating and opportunistic situation left by the Thirty Years’ War. Although the elector listened to this plan with reservations, Leibniz was later summoned to Paris to explain the details of the plan.

In the end, this plan was not carried out, but it was the beginning of a Parisian stay in Leibniz that lasted for years. This stay in Paris allowed Leibniz to be in contact with several well-known personalities in the field of science and philosophy. Having been in contact with all these specialists, he realized that he needed to expand his areas of knowledge.

Leibniz decided to follow a self-education program. This program had excellent results, even discovering elements of great importance and transcendence, such as his investigations linked to the infinite series and his own version of differential calculus.

The reason why Leibniz was summoned to Paris did not take place and Leibniz was sent to London for a diplomatic mission to the government of England. During these years he took the opportunity to present to the Royal Society an invention he had been developing since 1670. It was a tool through which it was possible to make calculations in the field of arithmetic. After witnessing the operation of this machine, the members of the Royal Society appointed him an external member.

While in London, he learned that the elector Juan Felipe von Schönborn for whom he worked had died, and Leibniz had to find another occupation. Leibniz began working as a private justice counsellor for the House of Brunswick. While Leibniz dedicated himself to providing his services to the House of Brunswick, they allowed him to develop his studies and inventions, which were in no way linked to obligations directly related to the family.

Then, in 1674 Leibniz began to develop the conception of calculus. Two years later, in 1676, he had already developed a system that was coherent and that saw the light of day in 1684.

1682 and 1692 were very important years for Leibniz, as his documents were published in the field of mathematics.

During the first decade of the 1700s, the Scottish mathematician John Keill indicated that Leibniz had plagiarized Isaac Newton in relation to the conception of calculus. This accusation took place in an article written by Keill for the Royal Society.

This institution then carried out extremely detailed research on both scientists to determine who had been the author of this discovery. It was eventually determined that Newton was the first to discover calculus, but Leibniz was the first to publish his dissertations. Today historians believe both men made the discoveries completely independently and both are credited with the invention of calculus.

The last part of Leibniz’s life was plagued by the controversy. In 1714, George Louis of Hanover became King George I of Great Britain. Leibniz had a lot to do with this appointment, but George I was adverse towards him.

Leibniz died in Hanover on November 14, 1716. He was 70 years old. Leibniz never married, and his funeral was only attended by his personal secretary. George I did not attend his funeral, which shows the separation between the two.

So what can we take away from Leibniz? Well he had two periods of intense self-learning. The first as a child in his fathers library, and the second from 1672 in Paris. Leibniz studied mathematics and physics under Christiaan Huygens a Dutch scientist in 1672 and it was Huygens who encouraged to read and gave him an extensive reading list. This list included, works of many famous mathematicians such as Pascal and Descartes.

In both of these periods he read extensively. Like many of my previous podcasts about famous autodidactics reading was a keystone for Leibniz as well. Ray Bradbury a writer I featured recently called the library his college. For Leibniz reading was a critical method for extending his knowledge. Leibniz didn’t just read in a single area of knowledge, he read extensively in all areas he was interested in.

In this podcast let’s focus on becoming more prolific readers. If you’re listening to this then you’re probably already doing a lot of study and like most people you’re short of time. Using what we know about Leibniz and his two periods of intensive study let me propose some things to help become voracious readers.

First, make a list of books to read.

Leibniz started both his periods of intense self-study with reading lists. The first was his intention to read all the books in his fathers library. You can picture him as a young child entering the room, pulling the book from the top most shelf on the left wall, and working his way around the room book by book. The second period he was given a list to start with by a friend and mentor.

It doesn’t really matter how you get a starting list, you’ll come across other books as you read. Or you might find a topic mentioned in one book which leads to another set of books. But the trick is to have a list of books you’ll be reading next. From your starting list, just keep adding more and more books as they appear on your radar.

Set a reading goal.

Have a target for how many books you’ll read, and how many pages or chapters per day. But most importantly set a daily goal. For example 20 pages every day.

Always have a book handy.

Like the famous advert said, “Don’t leave home without it.”. Always have something to read with you. I know someone who used to rip books into 20 pages. Then carry around the 20 page sections to read in his pocket. Personally I don’t think I could bring myself to destroy a book like that, but it worked for him and he read all the time.

In addition to books, try audio books.

I used to listen to some audio books while driving from the Great Course company. It is very useful to have a book to listen to when driving alone, since you’re not wasting any time.

Make reading a priority.

You need to put reading in a higher category than other things you might be doing now. Park the TV or the Xbox, stop using Instagram and read instead.

Set a deadline for each book.

When you don’t set a deadline to complete your book, there isn’t a sense of urgency, and when something isn’t urgent, you tend to procrastinate and your books get left on the shelves untouched and unread. Set a deadline to avoid this problem. You can have a general deadline like complete any book you open in 2 weeks.

Read in layers.

For non-fiction books you may want to read contents page, headers, etc. first. You can find more information in the autodidactic podcast, Season 1, Episode 7: Textbook Study Methods. I’ll put a link in the show notes.

Well that is all for this week.

If you enjoy the show, please give a rating on the platform you’re using to listen, and please share the podcast with friends and family who might be interested. Also, please feel free to email me at rick@autodidactic.info, or leave feedback on the website autodidactic.info.

Thank you very much for listening.







S2EP5: Exploring the study methods of Thomas Henry Huxley

Autodidactic Podcast Season Two
Autodidactic Podcast Season Two
S2EP5: Exploring the study methods of Thomas Henry Huxley

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Hello and welcome to the Autodidactic podcast, season 2 episode 5.

This week I’ll be looking into a British autodidactic named Thomas Henry Huxley who was born on the 4th of May 1825 and died 29 June 1895. Huxley was a biologist and anthropologist specializing in comparative anatomy. He was known as “Darwin’s Bulldog” for his advocacy of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.

His father taught mathematics and was assistant headmaster at a school in Ealing which Thomas Henry attended for a brief period. But after his father lost his job he no longer attended school. For his general education Huxley was largely self-taught; while still in his teens he read extensively, particularly in science and metaphysics, and gained a facility in reading German and French. He learned Latin, and enough Greek to read Aristotle.

Though raised as an evangelical, Tom devoured books of a distinctly anti-evangelical nature written by subversives such as William Lawrence and David Hume and William Paley. Though he wanted to grow up to be an engineer, he became a medical student instead–at the advanced age of 12, he was introduced to medicine as apprentice to brother-in-law Dr. John Scott. This began his life-long commitment to investigating the engineering of the body, to anatomy, morphology, physiology.

He was apprenticed to his sister Ellen’s husband, John Charles Cooke, a medical materialist. Transferred to a London dockside practitioner early in 1841, Huxley was shaken by the lives of his pauper patients. As an apprentice, he would walk the streets of the East End on his way to patients, observing the dreary and dangerous life lived by the poor.

In September 1842 Huxley and his brother James were awarded free scholarships at Charing Cross Hospital. The lecturer on physiology, Thomas Wharton Jones, had a strong influence on Huxley’s interest in physiology and anatomy and helped teach him methods of scientific investigation. Under Wharton Jones’ guidance, Huxley published his first scientific paper demonstrating the existence of an unrecognized layer in the inner sheath of hairs, a layer that has been known since as Huxley’s layer.

He passed his first exams at London University, but didn’t present himself for the second exam and consequently didn’t qualify for a degree. However, this first exam results were enough to allow him to apply for the Royal Navy. Huxley was too young to apply for the Royal College of Surgeons for a license, but because he was deeply in debt he applied for the navy. He was interviewed by Sir William Burnett, the Physician General of the Navy, who arranged for his competence to be tested and he was made Assistant Surgeon on the HMS Rattlesnake.

The Rattlesnake left England on 3 December 1846 and, once they had arrived in the southern hemisphere, Huxley devoted his time to the study of marine invertebrates. He began to send details of his discoveries back to England, where his papers were published by a friend Edward Forbes.

The value of Huxley’s work was recognised and, on returning to England in 1850, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. In the following year, at the age of twenty-six, he not only received the Royal Society Medal but was also elected to the Council. Huxley, who had learned German when he was a teenager and had begun serious scholarly investigation of German science upon his return to England. He regularly corresponded with, and sometimes had as household guests, Anton Dohrn, Ernst Haeckel, Dr. Leuckart and other German biologists.

Huxley effectively resigned from the navy (by refusing to return to active service). In 1851 recently returned from the Rattlesnake voyage, was so desperate for a job that he applied to the University of Toronto. Fortunately for England and perhaps for science, Toronto rejected him in favor of a politician’s relative. In July 1854, he became Professor of Natural History at the Royal School of Mines and naturalist to the British Geological Survey in 1855. He was active in the British scientific circles for the remainder of his life.

He was also Fullerian Professor at the Royal Institution; Hunterian Professor at the Royal College of Surgeons; President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science; President of the Quekett Microscopical Club; President of the Royal Society; Inspector of Fisheries; and President of the Marine Biological Association.

In 1890, he moved from London to Eastbourne where he edited the nine volumes of his Collected Essays. Finally, in 1895, he died of a heart attack (after contracting influenza and pneumonia), and was buried in North London.

When Huxley himself was young there were virtually no degrees in British universities in the biological sciences and few courses. Most biologists of his day were either self-taught, or took medical degrees. When he retired there were established chairs in biological disciplines in most universities, and a broad consensus on the curricula to be followed. Huxley was the single most influential person in this transformation.

Huxley was also a major influence in the direction taken by British schools: in November 1870 he was voted onto the London School Board. In primary schooling, he advocated a wide range of disciplines, similar to what is taught today: reading, writing, arithmetic, art, science, music, etc.

Of all his public speaking Huxley was most interested in the serious of workingmen’s lectures which gave regularly, beginning in 1855, by which he wanted “the working classes to understand that Science and her ways are great facts for them.”

While Huxley is best known for his defense of Darwin’s hypothesis, he did not accept it uncritically and did not consider that the problem was finally settled nor that natural selection was by any means proven as the mechanism. For Huxley it remained a hypothesis because of the lack of experimental proof.

Huxley’s close friends were Charles Lyell, whom he met shortly after his return from the voyage, Herbert Spencer, Michael Foster, John Knowles, Charles Darwin, Joseph Hooker, and John Tyndall. The number of letters exchanged between Huxley and these people hints at the degree of closeness.

Later an idea came to these friends: to institute a club, Huxley’s title for which was Blastodermic. The first meeting of the X Club, as it came to be designated, was in January of 1864. The club became an admired and feared cabal, since it not only had the talent to write most of a scientific encyclopedia, but from its members came four Presidents of the Royal Society, five Presidents of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, officers of the Royal College of Surgeons and many societies, the London Mathematical, the Chemical, the Geological, the Ethnological.

According to its members, the club was originally started to keep friends from drifting apart, and to partake in scientific discussion free from theological influence. A key aim was to reform the Royal Society, with a view to making the practice of science professional.

The scientific eminence, social status, hard work, and political astuteness of the X Club’s members were all essential to the group’s success. By electing one another to office and through effective networking, these men were influential in scientific societies and became leading advisers to the government. As popular lecturers, contributors to elite journals, and textbook writers, they were among the prime interpreters of science for the industrializing and secularizing society of Victorian England

What can we take away from Huxleys life and learning? Firstly like all the autodidactics and polymaths I’ve reviewed so far he had an insatiable love of reading. He also was hard-working and dedicated. I can tell you as a fellow language learner, Huxley’s learning of multiple languages, German, French, Greek, and Latin was not mean feat and would have consumed many hours of study, reading and practice.

The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) has created a practical reference for people interested in learning a foreign language. The list contains difficulty ratings and the estimated number of classroom hours necessary to learn each language at a semi-proficient level.

German is rated as a category 2 language and considered to be similar to English. The FSI estimates that German takes approximately 30 weeks, or 750 classroom hours to learn. This study was conducted on a group of language students who spent 25 hours per week in class, and three hours daily on individual practice.

Without a teacher or modern methods such as electronic flashcards and working only with books and meetings, Huxley would have had a much more difficult time, and probably would have spent longer. Remember that a bachelor’s degree in most areas can require between 124 to 128 college credits particular to a specific program of study. Where as a C2 – CEFR certification in German is estimated at well over 1500 hours of study.

So we know that Huxley had dogged determination and great motivation to learn a language. We know he was a vicarious reader. But one thing we can also take away from Huxley’s life and study practices is his network of people. Huxley was a prolific correspondent and wrote letters all his life. Starting in his early years while studying and corresponding with various mentors.

In addition, the creation of the X-Club was specifically designed to have a peer system. Today we’d call this a Mastermind Group. Napoleon Hill, his classic book Think and Grow Rich, coined the phrase “mastermind group” and pointed out that the most successful people throughout history had a personal “Board of Advisors” that helped them reach their goals. Huxley was one of these people.

Surrounding himself with like minded people, and creating a network of friends and mentors via correspondence was a core feature in Huxley’s life and learnings. These mastermind groups have been around a long time. One of the people I previously reviewed, Ben Franklin established a group called “The Junto” in 1727 who met together for mutual improvement by discussing moral, political, and scientific topics of the day.

As a self-learner you may struggle with a topic and it is often good to get an outside perspective on the issue. For example, yesterday I sent some computer code to a friend asking him for help. He didn’t give me the answer, but managed to start me down the correct path to get the answer myself. Often when you have a knotty problem to figure out, just explaining the problem to someone else will trigger the answer to pop up into your head without them saying a word.

If you research a Napoleon Hill mastermind group, it will be different from what I’m proposing for an autodidactic. Typically the groups outlined by Hill are for career progression and business mentoring. What I’m suggesting is more like what Huxley used in his youth. A group of people who are knowledgeable in a subject your are learning and would be willing to assist you. It is also helpful if you know something they are learning so you can pay them back, but often people will assist you simply from kindness or friendship.

Huxley corresponded via letter with knowledgeable people in his field of study. Asking questions and having discussions about what he was learning.

A few years ago I was looking into statistics and wanted to do a small experiment. I read a number of books on the subject and had a general idea how to go about it, but didn’t know any specifics. I decided to write the author of one of the books I was studying, a professor at the University of Bath. I sent an email and told him I was reading his book, and why I was reading it. I asked the specific question about my project and hoped for an answer. Not only did he reply he advanced some suggestions for improvements in my project and we continued to correspond via email for a few weeks.

You can have a group of mentors for your own learning. You need to identify people who could help you, and may want to help you. Remember that you shouldn’t badger people into helping you, nor depend on a few people. But here are some ways you can start to pull together a learning mastermind group.

  1. Create a list of people who are knowledgable.
  2. Determine the best way to communicate with these people.
  3. Determine what you can do for them.
  4. Have a hotseat.

A diverse group has been proven to be a far better way to solve our problems than one or two individuals. Groups that are too much alike find it harder to keep learning, so try to diversify. For example, if you’re learning computer programming having a mathematician around would be extremely helpful to you.

Communication could be as a group, or to individuals. You might decide to meet with your six friends who are all learning the same subject as you each week. Or you might decide to create a WhatsApps or Signal group in order to share learnings and problems. You might decide that you’d rather meet one-to-one or use email correspondence for communications.

Determine what you can give back to these people. It might be that you don’t have anything to give back, but they help simply because they enjoy helping others. Don’t abuse people for your personal gain, try to help them if you can. Always be available to answer their questions if they have them.

If you’re going to meet regularly have a hot-seat that rotates through all the members so they can ask questions about their issues and seek answers from the group.

Remember that while the authors of books, professors, or other people might seem to mighty to answer your simple questions, they are people just like you. A rather famous, but insightful saying is; Don’t ask, don’t get.

Well that is all for this week.

If you enjoy the show, please give a rating on the platform you’re using to listen, and please share the podcast with friends and family who might be interested. Also, please feel free to email me at rick@autodidactic.info, or leave feedback on the website autodidactic.info.

Thank you very much for listening.




S2E4: Polymathy and Autodidactics

Autodidactic Podcast Season Two
Autodidactic Podcast Season Two
S2E4: Polymathy and Autodidactics

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Hello and welcome to the Autodidactic podcast, season 2 episode 4. I had an email in my mailbox this week from a listener named Kenyatta (forgive me if I have mispronounced your name). She was wondering about my definitions of Autodidactic, Polymath, and self-learner. So I thought I would expand a little on these terms this week, and how I tend to use them.

She also asked why I ask for donations. Well that one is easy to answer, I don’t have any corporate sponsor, and I pay for all the podcast hosting and things myself. So the donation is just if someone liked the show, and wanted to show their appreciation by buying me a coffee.

Back to Kenyatta’s musings. I’ll give you the dictionary definitions then talk a little more about each one.

  1. Self-Learner – Learning done by oneself, without a teacher or instructor.
  2. Polymath – a person of great learning in several fields of study.
  3. Autodidactic – a person who has learned a subject without the benefit of a teacher or formal education; a self-taught person.

So you can see that a self-learner and an autodidactic are actually the same. It is someone who learns by themselves. While this might mean they are learning one thing only, they could be learning in multiple fields. Autodidactics then may or may not be a polymath, and a polymath, may or may not be an autodidactic.

In this podcast I try to explore techniques and methods for self-learning and hopefully this is of some use to either type of autodidactic, polymath or non-polymath. But one assumption that I have a tendency to make is that many people who are listening to the podcast are more likely to be polymaths and trying to learn skills in multiple fields.

Using myself as an example; I self-learn mathematics, electronics, programming, metal working, knife-making, cooking, and languages. While I’m certainly no expert in all of these, I enjoy working in these disparate fields. As a writer I find it helps to have a broad knowledge of a lot of topics in order to write characters convincingly.

Autodidacticism and self-learning we’ve covered, but let me explore polymathism with you.

A polymath is from the Greek and means “much learned”. So this is a person who has knowledge in multiple fields of study, but might not be self-taught. In the renaissance, a period in Europe covering the 14th through the 17t centuries, started in Italy in the late middle ages. The idea of a “Uomo Universale” or universal man was someone who could play musical instruments, speak many languages, write poetry, paint and so on.

Normally these ideal persons were nobility or sons of nobility and required a rounded universal education. Interestingly, the idea of a universal education was essential to achieving polymath ability, hence the word university was used to describe a seat of learning. The idea behind a university was not to specialise but to give a general well-rounded education to these young courtiers so they cound then go forward and specialise in a specific field.

Marching forward to the 21st century we find a renewed interest in polymathy in the scientific community. Robert Root-Bernstein worked in the area of polymathy and two other types of categories which were the specialists and the dilettante. He regards a specialist as someone who has great depth in a subject with without a breadth of knowledge, and a dilettante is someone who has superficial knowledge of many subjects. However, the dilettante unlike the polymath has acquired these skills without any regard to understanding broader applications or implications and without integrating knowledge across these fields.

So for Robert Root-Bernstein a polymath is someone who has knowledge in multiple fields, but can “put a significant amount of time and effort into their avocations and find ways to use their multiple interests to inform their vocations”.

Robert Root-Bernstein argues in favour of polymathy. The argument that universality of domain favours the creative processes. Which means other interests outside of the primary domain can feed the mental tools required to generate creative ideas. A prime example often cited is Albert Einstein and his love of the violin. Einstein once said that if he hadn’t been a scientist, he would certainly have been a musician.

In “Life Stages of Creativity”, Robert and Michèle Root-Bernstein suggest six typologies of creative life stages.

  • Type 1 represents people who specialize in developing one major talent early in life (e.g., prodigies) and successfully exploit that talent exclusively for the rest of their lives.
  • Type 2 individuals explore a range of different creative activities (e.g., through worldplay or a variety of hobbies) and then settle on exploiting one of these for the rest of their lives.
  • Type 3 people are polymathic from the outset and manage to juggle multiple careers simultaneously so that their creativity pattern is constantly varied.
  • Type 4 creators are recognized early for one major talent (e.g., math or music) but go on to explore additional creative outlets, diversifying their productivity with age.
  • Type 5 creators devote themselves serially to one creative field after another.
  • Type 6 people develop diversified creative skills early and then, like Type 5 individuals, explore these serially, one at a time.

So why is there a decline in polymathy since the middle ages? Well Peter Burke, Professor Emeritus of Cultural History and Fellow of Emmanuel College at Cambridge believed that due to the rapid increase in knowledge from the 17th century onwards with was increasingly difficult from an individual to master as many disciplines as before. Professor Burke warns that in the age of specialization, polymathic people are more necessary than ever.

Michael Araki is a professor at Universidade Federal Fluminense in Brazil, who sought to formalise the polymathic development. Professor Araki’s work shows although there are many different perspectives and definitions of a polymath, they generally assert three elements which are; Breadth, Depth, and Integration.

Breadth means a comprehensive knowledge of the subjects, rather than a narrow specialisation. This is the primary indicator of a polymath. Depth refers to the accumulation of knowledge, as opposed to the dilettantes superficial knowledge. Finally there is integration which requires connecting, articulating and synthesising knowledge from different frameworks.

How do I use these terms? Well I’m assuming that you wouldn’t listen to this podcast unless you are a self-learner, or my mother. I also make the assumption that my listeners are studying in multiple fields of study. But even if you aren’t a polymath, I need to try to make my podcasts relevant to the person studying biology as it is to the person studying avionics just because of a diversity of listeners.

Also I think that a lot of people who are willing to put in the effort to self-learn, to be an autodidactic will naturally want to study and understand more than one topic.

Autodidacticism is simply education without the guidance of subject matter experts such as teachers or professors. In general an autodidactic has chosen the topic themselves and might be trying self-learning for the first time. When you need to select your own study material, create your own study plans and find the time yourself, it is useful to know that you’re not alone and that many people have trodden this path before. There is a well worn path, you just need someone to point it out to you.

It might be as an autodidactic you’re studying independently as a complement or an alternative to formal education. For example, learning how to program a computer could be a skill which is a complement to work you’re already doing.

In this pandemic lots of people are using their newly acquired spare time to learn other topics they have an interest in. A 2016 Stack Overflow poll reported 69.1% of software developers appear to be self-taught and I suspect in the current climate these numbers will only increase.

Well that is all for this week. It was a bit shorter than normal, but hopefully enjoyable. Next week I plan to return to the investigation of an autodidactic and try to ascertain their methods and adopt them for us to use.

If you enjoy the show, please give a rating on the platform you’re using to listen, and please share the podcast with friends and family who might be interested. Also, please feel free to email me like Kenyatta did to rick@autodidactic.info, or leave feedback on the website autodidactic.info.

Thank you very much for listening.

PolymathWikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc.

S2E3: Exploring the study methods of a famous American Writer

Autodidactic Podcast Season Two
Autodidactic Podcast Season Two
S2E3: Exploring the study methods of a famous American Writer

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Hello and welcome to the Autodidactic podcast, season 2 episode 3. I’m happy to say that I’m appearing on another podcast soon. I was interviewed by Kris Brohom from Actual Fluency Podcast about my language learning activities and advice for people studying during the pandemic. I’ll put links in the podcast transcription on the autodidactic.info website.

This episode I’m going to be looking into the study habits of a great writer and autodidactic. Before I tell you his name, let me read a quote from him.

“Libraries raised me. I don’t believe in colleges and universities. I believe in libraries because most students don’t have any money. When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn’t go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years.”

He is one of the most celebrated 20th- and 21st-century American writers, and worked in a variety of genres including fantasy, science fiction, horror, and mystery fiction. I’m speaking of Ray Douglas Bradbury (born August 22, 1920, died June 5, 2012). He was born in in Waukegan, Illinois to Esther Bradbury a Swedish immigrant and Leonard Bradbury who was a telephone lineman.

Bradbury’s most famous works include “Fahrenheit 451” and “Something wicked this way comes.”

Bradbury began writing his stories at age 11 (1931), during the Great Depression—sometimes writing on the only available paper, butcher paper. Bradbury was a firm believer in writing something every day. One incident which Bradbury attributed to his lifelong writing habit was, in 1932, when a carnival entertainer, one Mr. Electrico, touched the young man on the nose with an electrified sword, made his hair stand on end, and shouted, “Live forever!” Bradbury wanted to be immortalised forever through his writing.

Bradbury remarked, “I felt that something strange and wonderful had happened to me because of my encounter with Mr. Electrico … [he] gave me a future … I began to write, full-time. I have written every single day of my life since that day 69 years ago.”

In addition to writing Bradbury was a keen prestidigitator, otherwise known as a magician. As a boy, Bradbury attended several performances by Blackstone the Magician and, in 1931, was given a book on magic for his eleventh birthday. He was soon performing his own magic act for various service clubs and lodges, and was invited to appear at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Hall on Christmas Eve.

In high-school Bradbury was a member of the drama club and was a keen actor. Bradbury married his wife in 1947 and they were married for 56 years until her death in 2003. His wife was the first and only woman he’d ever dated, and they had four daughters. Bradbury never obtained a driver’s license, but relied on public transportation or his bicycle. Bradbury witnessed a fatal car accident when he was 16. Later he said:

“I saw six people die horribly in an accident. I walked home holding on to walls and trees. It took me months to begin to function again. So I don’t drive. But whether I drive or not is irrelevant. The automobile is the most dangerous weapon in our society—cars kill more than wars do.”

Bradbury was a strong supporter of public library systems, raising money to prevent the closure of several libraries in California facing budgetary cuts. He said “libraries raised me”, and shunned colleges and universities, comparing his own lack of funds during the Depression with poor contemporary students. Bradbury permitted the publication of “Fahrenheit 451” in electronic form provided that the publisher, Simon & Schuster, allowed the e-book to be digitally downloaded by any library patron. The title remains the only book in the Simon & Schuster catalogue where this is possible.

It took Bradbury just nine days to write Fahrenheit 451—and he did it in the basement of the UCLA library on a rented typewriter. (The title of his classic novel, by the way, comes from the temperature at which paper burns without being exposed to flame.)

Bradbury remained an enthusiastic playwright all his life, leaving a rich theatrical legacy, as well as literary. Bradbury headed the Pandemonium Theatre Company in Los Angeles for many years and had a five-year relationship with the Fremont Centre Theatre in South Pasadena. Not only was Bradbury highly creative with language—he was also an exceptional visual artist. He would use the basement office as his studio, doodling, sketching, and painting.

He once said that when he died, he planned to have his ashes placed in a Campbell’s Tomato Soup can and planted on Mars. A more fitting memorial is the one NASA gave him when they landed a rover on Mars a few months after Bradbury’s death in 2012: They named the site where Mars Curiosity touched down “Bradbury Landing.”

So what can we take away from Ray Bradbury that would help us as autodidactics? The first is obviously the use of libraries and reading. He was at the library three days a week for 10 years. Even if he spent only an hour or two, he still invested between 520 and 1040 hours of time in the library. But from other statements he made while doing fund raising for libraries we can see that he invested a lot more time than that. He said:

“I read everything in the library. I read everything. I took out 10 books a week so I had a couple of hundred books a year I read, on literature, poetry, plays, and I read all the great short stories, hundreds of them. I graduated from the library when I was 28 years old. That library educated me, not the college.”

So Bradbury in the 10 years he invested time in the library he read about 5200 books. You can see from this quote that he was investing that reading time focused on his primary interest which was writing and theatre. Earl Nightingale said many years ago that one hour per day of study in your chosen field was all it takes. One hour per day of study will put you at the top of your field within three years. Within five years you’ll be a national authority. In seven years, you can be one of the best people in the world at what you do. Bradbury did it for 10 years, and for more than an hour.

To paraphrase self-help guru Brian Tracy: Read all you can about your field. Subscribe to the executive book clubs and book summaries. Build your own library of important books in your field. Never be cheap about your education. If you read one hour per day in your field, that will translate into about one book per week. One book per week translates into about 50 books per year.

As autodidactics much of our primary focus will be on using books for learning. Even if you’re learning a more physical skill such as sailing or painting there are numerous books written by professionals in your area of interest. If you’re interest is more academic then the library shelves are full of things you need.

Where I live the library provides an online catalogue of all their books, not just in my local library, but all the libraries run within the district I live in. They allow me to place an order for any book in any of the 75 libraries under their control and they will deliver it to my local library for me to walk over and pickup. While not every library provides this type of service, it is certainly worth investigating what is available to you via your local library.

Libraries contain not only books for study, but audio and visual works as well. If you’re learning a language then there is a good chance you can pick up some courses at the library with audio included.

Another thing we can take away from Ray Bradbury is the concept of Synergistic Learning. I don’t mean some kind of new-age buzzword. But rather knowledge gained in pursuit of one area, often has application in others. Bradbury introduced a concept of magic or mystery into many of his stories, and used the plays and poems he’d read to help give his writing a more lyrical feel. He applied his writing to a number of areas. In fact Bradbury’s first pay as a writer was for a joke he sold to comedian George Burns.

Being an autodidactic typically means that you’ll be learning more than one topic. These topics of interest can spread over a widely divergent set of things, but can be related. Synergistic learning is simply looking at your various topics of interest and seeing if there is any common ground. If there is you can focus on that area and gain knowledge in two interests not just one. For example, many topics need a good knowledge of maths.

Often we think of self-study as being simply sitting at a desk with a textbook. While that is valid, it isn’t the only thing that should be done. If you’re interested in Nutrition Science. You shouldn’t just be reading textbooks, you should try to also read websites, government guidelines, weight watchers magazines, cooking books, watch YouTube cooking channels, read about agriculture techniques, gardening books, wine and food magazines, etc.

Don’t narrow your focus too much, try to keep an open approach. You can focus when you start to get overwhelmed with information, but having a wider general knowldege of the subject will benefit you when you narrow your focus as well.

Well that is all for this week. If you enjoy the show, please give a rating on the platform you’re using to listen, and please share the podcast with friends and family who might be interested. Also let me know if you find these explorations of the methods used by other autodidactics useful, and if there is someone in particular you’d like me to research. As always you can leave feedback on the website autodidactic.info, or send me an email to rick@autodidactic.info.

Thank you very much for listening.

Actual Fluency Podcast

S2EP2: Exploring the study methods of Ben Franklin.

Autodidactic Podcast Season Two
Autodidactic Podcast Season Two
S2EP2: Exploring the study methods of Ben Franklin.

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Hello and welcome to the Autodidactic podcast, season 2 episode 2. I’d like to apologise for the delay in getting this weeks episode out. I ran into some technical issues and also getting a quiet area to do the recording. Hopefully I’ll be able to be more consistent in future.

This week I’m going to start delving into the lives and study methods of autodidactics through the ages and into modern times. I’m going to start with a person who most listeners inside the United States would need no introduction. I haven’t yet worked out the format of these podcasts about autodidactics, but I will generally start with telling you a little about the person, what they accomplished, and what we know of their methods. Then I’ll try to dig a little deeper into the methods they used and relate it to what we can emulate today.

The person I’m going to talk about today is Benjamin Franklin. Ben Franklin was born in what would become the United States on January 17, 1706 and died on April 17, 1790. Franklin was an American autodidactic and one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. He was a leading writer, printer, political philosopher, politician, postmaster, scientist, inventor, humorist, civic activist, statesman, and diplomat. Franklin became a successful newspaper editor and printer in Philadelphia, the leading city in the colonies, publishing the Pennsylvania Gazette at the age of 23.

Benjamin Franklin became a luminary in everything from politics to physics, and he did this without modern educational techniques such as schools, teachers, or the Internet.

Franklin was a prodigious inventor, but Franklin never patented his inventions. Probably the first advocate of opensource/open knowledge movement he wrote: “… as we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours; and this we should do freely and generously.”

Franklin studied, electricity, ocean currents, population and demography, wave light theory, meteorology. He was an avid chess player, and with a friend learned Italian. The loser of these matches had to perform some task given by the winner, such as reciting sections of Italian grammar, or 100 animal names at the next meeting.

Ben Franklin’s autobiography can give us many clues about the man and how he used his time and many of his writings are available online to read. I’ll put links to his writings at the end of the transcript on the autodidactic.info website.

Although there is a lot to learn from his writings, I believe that Franklin had two methods we can emulate as autodidactics. The first is known today as “deliberate practice” and the second is measurement or monitoring.

Of all the things Franklin does these two things lend themselves most to self-study and autodidactism.

First let’s look at deliberate practice. What is it?

Deliberate practice refers to a special type of practice that is purposeful and systematic. While regular practice might include mindless repetitions, deliberate practice requires focused attention and is conducted with the specific goal of improving performance. What sets deliberate practice apart from other training methods is a rigorous sequence of ongoing performance assessment, tailored goal-setting, and systematic skill-building informed by expert feedback.

Franklin shows us how he used deliberate practice when he taught himself to become an author and better writer. Let me read an excerpt from his autobiography.

About this time I met with an odd volume of the Spectator. It was the third. I had never before seen any of them. I bought it, read it over and over, and was much delighted with it. I thought the writing excellent, and wished, if possible, to imitate it. With this view I took some of the papers, and, making short hints of the sentiment in each sentence, laid them by a few days, and then, without looking at the book, try’d to compleat the papers again, by expressing each hinted sentiment at length, and as fully as it had been expressed before, in any suitable words that should come to hand. Then I compared my Spectator with the original, discovered some of my faults, and corrected them.

—Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography

Here Franklin is doing what is known as “deliberate practice” in order to improve his writing. K. Anders Ericsson likens it to how artists practice by trying to imitate some famous work. Mathematicians are taught to attempt to prove most theorems themselves when reading a book or paper — even if they can’t, they’ll have an easier time compressing the proof to its basic insight.

Deliberate practice can be used to learn any skill from music to computer programming.

Let’s use some examples of how you could use deliberate practice for something other than writing as Franklin does.

Many people are self-taught programmers who use a programming textbook to learn a programming language. But if you just read the book and cover to cover you’ll not get the maximum value from it. Instead when you come to a section in a chapter showing a small snippet of code to open a file. Look at the snippet, close the book and actually try to create the program yourself without opening the book. Chances are you’ll fail, however when you open the book back up you’ll be able to compare your work against the snippet. You’ll get some immediate feedback about where you’ve gone wrong.

Otherwise when studying you can use this method by simply reading a page of the book you’re learning from, a recorded lecture, etc. Close the book or pause the video/audio and try to write down everything you’ve just read or listened to. Try not to do a summary, but to remember everything. It would be tedious to reproduce and entire book verbatim but this method would give immediate feedback about knowledge gaps. It might show you that the information you’ve missed tends to always been at the end of paragraphs, so you can modify your behaviour to focus on the end of paragraphs as well.

But deliberate practice is bigger than this. The exerpt I read from Franklin didn’t cover the three primary things you must do for deliberate practice. Mostly because Franklin himself had done the other steps “off camera”.

The three steps are:

  1. Have a specific goal, and break it down – Break down what you want to know or practice into a well defined small amount. For a textbook this might be into chapters for example.
  2. Create a plan – Have a written plan for how you’re going to practice, with times and a schedule. For example, you might decide on a chapter per week, with X number of exercises.
  3. Get a coach (or some form of feedback) – this is probably the most important thing to have. Remember Franklin used the original Spectator articles as feedback to compare against his own writing. You also need some type of feedback mechanism. In the programming example you have the authors version of the file opening snippet.

When you do your plan you need to keep your goal in mind. When you break this down into practice sessions you need to have a goal in mind for each section.

Goals like:

  • Play or sing a certain song at a specific speed with no mistakes three times in a row.
  • Memorise the first 10 digits of pi.
  • Type at 50 words per minute with no errors.
  • Summarise each page of the textbook with no gaps.

If you’re interested in deliberate practice I recommend the book Peak by K. Anders Ericsson

The other area we can emulate from Franklin is tracking or monitoring of progress. Franklin had a little book where he would track his errors each day, monitoring himself to try to improve.

A phrase most managers in most companies will immediately recognises is “You get what you measure.” It’s human nature to shoot for the objectives set, and it is human nature to pay attention to the metrics which are being measured. However, a word of caution here. You need to make sure that you’re measuring the correct thing, or that the instrument you’re using to measure is correct. Just measuring time studying doesn’t indicate amount learned.

Sir Arthur Eddington, an English astrophysicist, told a short story involving a scientist studying fish by pulling them up with nets. After checking all the fish hauled up, the scientist concludes that there is a minimum size of fish in the sea. But the fish seen were determined by the size of the holes in the net, the smaller ones having slipped through, unmeasurable. The instrument you use affects what you see.

So you need to think carefully about what you are trying to learn and try to find a way to measure your ability.

If you are learning from a textbook you might create a simple form to fill out at the end of each chapter with some questions rating from 1-7 where 1 is defiantly not, and 7 is defiantly yes. Some statements might be:

“I understand ALL the concepts in this chapter.”

“I found this chapter easy.”

This type of survey would let you judge how well you learned from this book, and if you should re-read, or find an easier or more difficult resource.

If you were learning a skill such as learning how to remember names you might score yourself 2 points for all names remembered and -1 point for any name forgotten. Then you review your scoreboard each week, plotting it to spot trends. You might discover you typically fail to remember when introduced to a group of people at the same time, but are ok individually. Then you can use deliberate practice to focus on remembering names at group introductions.

If you were learning photography you might have your photos scored based on framing, lighting, focus, filtering, exposure, etc. Then you design practice sessions with deliberate practice on the elements you score low in.

For monitoring you need to:

  • Break down and list your goal into things which can be measured.
  • Eliminate things from the list who’s measurement isn’t essential
  • Be clear on what you need to measure, why you are measuring it, and how you’ll measure it.
  • Schedule periodic reflections on the measures
  • Design repetitive, deliberate practice to overcome measured defects.

Remember you can’t improve what you don’t measure, but measuring the amount of time spend generally isn’t useful. Review what you’re measuring in order to design better practice, and review your measures to ensure you’re still measuring essential matrix.

Well that is all for this week. If you enjoy the show, please give a rating on the platform you’re using to listen, and please share the podcast with friends and family who might be interested. Also let me know if you find these explorations of the methods used by other autodidactics useful, and if there is someone in particular you’d like me to research. As always you can leave feedback on the website autodidactic.info, or send me an email to rick@autodidactic.info.

Thank you very much for listening.

Writings of Ben Franklin

NOTE: I apologize for the transcript not being 100% accurate this week, I had some difficulties getting it out.