Tuesday, August 22, 2006


A reader writes in to ask Noam Chomsky about the declassification record in the US. One of the questions he asks is how Chomsky, when he reads something, knows if it is important or not. Well, Chomsky's powers of retention, organisation, and comprehension are extraordinary, and sometimes beyond belief for me. The information which he carries in his head is prodigious beyond normal comprehension. He can cite literally dozens of references for almost every statement he makes. One is free to go and check those references, and many of them are easily accessible. He seems to have almost everything published in every mainstream or sidestream newspaper, magazine, or book in the US, Europe, Middle East, Asia, and Latin America, right in his head. In one case (I believe it was 'The Chomsky Reader'), they had to publish an entire separate small book only to list his references. I wouldn't even dream of proselytizing even a hundredth of the amount of information which he has acquired, in my whole lifetime.

To be frank, I think that this is the real quality that makes Chomsky such a formidable and unbeatable opponent in debate. It is hard to win an argument against him, not because he is right all the time, but because it is simply impossible for one to summon the kind of references that he does for reinforcing one's argument. Of course, sometimes speakers can use this as a cover for their lack of credibility, but that's generally not the case with Chomsky, as most of his references are verifiable. As an aside, this quality of his also makes some of his books pretty dense to read, and readers who are not seriously and specifically interested in the particular topic under consideration can be put off. That happened to me recently when I started to read his 'Fateful Triangle'. I collapsed with exhaustion after just two chapters. On the other hand, that is what makes his collections of interviews valuable, where you can get the highlights without the details.

However, the question asked to Chomsky brings up a more general question. In this age of almost pathological information explosion, how does one acquire the ability to discern and retain the important information? As Chomsky himself attests (and I am happy he cites the example of chemists!), his job is similar to that of scientists, who have to wade through thickets of information every day, and decide what's important. One of the most important conditions for such a feat is simply hard work, and Chomsky's wife says that much of his erudition stems from the sheer and tremendous amount of time that he spends on getting his facts.

Scientists and research students also face a similar problem, and especially people like me who are interested in general reading about their subject. Every week, thousands of pages are published on every conceivable aspect of even your own particular discipline. The problem is, most of them are ordinary. Or are they? The even bigger problem is, most of them are ordinary, yet, because no one can predict what piece of information can be useful to you in getting insight, they still may aid you in your work. And because such a source of insight is inherently unpredictable, you can never predecide what may be important. So how do you discern the wheat from the chaff, especially when the chaff is wheat in disguise? I have thought of a few approaches that might help, that I myself try to follow:

1. One strategy I use is to keep track of the world's leading researchers. The ISI highly cited website, although not perfect, lists the top scientists in your field in the last twenty years or so, along with their references. I have made a directory which lists their websites, and I periodically take a look at their publications. It's not like everyone else except them is doing unexceptional work, but it is more likely that they are working on important problems. It is more likely that they define the frontiers of the field. As one famous biochemist put it, you are probably going to spend equal time working on trivial as well as important problems, so you might as well try to work on important ones. What those important ones are can be gleaned from the work of the 'luminaries'. Then one may also take a look at lesser known scientists who are working on similar problems, and try to follow the branches of the tree as further down as one's time and patience can allow.

2. Even in science as elsewhere, research ability is hardly commensurate with power of cogent expression. Among top scientists, there are a few who don't just do great science, but who are exceptionally clear in expressing themselves. I have made a separate list of such people. I especially look for recent reviews written by them, and usually find that reading those reviews is a rewarding experience in both knowledge and comprehension.

3. When I skim through paper titles, I try to look for titles that reflect investigations of a general nature. Once you understand a general principle, that can provide comprehension of many specific examples. A particular system is inevitably used for studying that general principle. But many times, the title makes it clear that the research work undertaken is with a view to fully understand a general phenomena (and sometimes it is not...). Since a lot of chemistry, for example, can be evoked with a few central principles, any paper dealing with the investigation of such a principle catches my eye, and it is likely to be fruitful for insight into my problem.

4. One of the leanings I try not to follow, is to get tempted by a title simply because there's some catch phrase in it, like 'cancer', 'alzheimer's' or 'nanotubes'. Although I do pay special attention to such 'hot' topics, hot topics generally come with a caveat; while they are hot and may signal breakthroughs, there are also way too many bottom feeders (such as myself) who are working on them because they are hot. In such cases, it especially becomes important to pay more than usual attention to the topics, simply because there's so much published on them that may or may not be important. Of course, journals like Nature or Science who publish on such topics usually will deliver the goods. But there are so many other journals with papers on such topics, which may be hot or not. Some of the most cited papers in scientific history, including those involving Nobel Prize winning work, have not been published in Nature or Science. Also, it's now a well known fact that researchers may establish a tenuous connection of their project with some buzz word (most likely a disease) to get more credibility to secure grants (and these days, you can hardly blame them). So pay attention to, but also beware of that hot stuff!

5. One of the problems that we always encounter is the fact that because most of the important problems in science today are interdisciplinary, you cannot predict from what quarters the next breakthrough in your problem will come from. You may be working on a problem in cell biology, and voila!; a physicist suddenly publishes a radical insight into that problem. To a large extent, this problem is intractable, because it's impossible (and extremely unwise) to try to keep track of all approaches to your problem. But because you are trying to solve the problem, what's really important for you are the conclusions. So even if you don't understand the approach to your problem adopted by the scientists from other fields, you should definitely try to at least understand the conclusions, and their implications for your work.

More often than not, these rules of thumb don't help me a great deal. But I would surely be worse off trying to digest the monster of information today without them. To some extent at least, they help to organise my mind and it's inputs, and preserve some sanity in me. After all, we are no Noams. But we at least want to be good graduate students.

When Winston Churchill and the English were fighting the Battle of Britain, the enemy was stronger and more in number. But Churchill said that the English would 'fight on the beaches, in the streets, and in the hills, in the fields and the landing grounds...we shall never surrender'. And they won. In the Battle of Written, again, the 'enemy' is stronger, overwhelming in number. So let us read, let us read articles, read papers, read news items and read footnotes. Read from sunrise to sunset, and perhaps even read on the beaches and the fields. Let us read till we pass out, and most importantly, read with discrimination. In fact, let us read so astutely, that we find plenty of time for other things in life. And we shall never surrender. And we will not win, but we will keep fighting, and learning.

6. And of course, many times when it gets under my skin, I simply take a break and play my keyboard.


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