How limited one’s knowledge is

COMSOL Conference 2013, Rotterdam WTC; Foto Robert Tjalondo; website:

I’m currently re-reading the book Mastery by Robert Greene. One of the few books that impacted me so much that I’m going for a re-read. In that book, Greene emphasizes on the importance of practice, patience and having an open mind in order to become a Master, someone who have such knowledge in one area that his/her creations will leave their legacy throughout history.

Being a doctoral student, I could relate a lot to it. Although I don’t believe that the idea of “A calling” or “A life mission” is determined at birth, it is true that in order to get to the point of being considered a Master, one needs humility and a willingness to learn. I remember when I was a fresh doctoral student and I happened to go to my first conference. Before that, I thought that I had a good grasp in science and the problems one would face. Because hey, I spent quite some time learning the ropes during my undergraduate studies and (modesty aside) excelling at it.

How wrong I was…

That first real contact with the community was humbling. Even though it was a small conference, it was clear how small my area of knowledge and research was. It was the COMSOL Multiphysics european conference in Rotterdam back in 2013 (pictured above). Even in the COMSOL module I was working into, there were tons of things I didn’t know about. I went to plenty of talks, learned a bit about what people do and enjoyed the experience.

When I came back, I had to come to terms with the fact that I knew almost nothing. Even gaining a small part of that knowledge would require years of hard work. Just getting started in my project took a few months of reading, and it’s a tiny one in the vast sea of science. Just in PubMed, one of the bigger databases for biomedical research there are, according to their website, more than 26 million references.

The number is mind-boggling: 26 million. Tons and tons of knowledge. If you spent just 1 minute skimming through each of one of these papers, it would take you 1805 hours or 75 days to go through everything. That’s not counting breaks, sleeping or eating, of course. And just 1 minute per paper is definitely not enough to learn anything. Furthermore, PubMed is just a tiny slice of science, and it keeps on growing.

Perhaps one should do as the book says and try and get to their calling through a thorough apprenticeship of 7 to 10 years and find their tiny niche. Maybe I am halfway there. Even if I get there and become a true Master, that feeling of, as Isaac Newton (a Master) himself said, feeling like a child playing on the beach while vast oceans of truth lie undiscovered before me, will never go away. It, however, has its own beauty. Such a wonderful world we live in…

Photo by Robert Tjalondo;