January 08, 2013

The Challenge of Being Learned in the Modern Age

Clearly, this is a problem without a solution. We live in a world where knowledge is being created at an ever growing and ever increasing pace. In literature, there are the classics that are must reads. Then, there are modern masters who have written perceptively about recent times. Then there are the contemporary writers -- the ongoing literary endeavor to capture the human condition and place it within the context of the 21st century. One needs to read all of this. There's history. And science. Biographies and auto-biographies. At least, some of them must be read. So, how does one find the time to read them all.

For those involved in scientific work, the pace of change is even more staggering and perhaps nausea-inducing. Admittedly, different branches of Physics, for example, are at different stages. The Standard Model and Supersymmertry and String Theory have been the cutting edge in our understanding of particles and forces for a few decades now. However, observational astronomy is perhaps going through a golden age with astonishingly capable space-based observatories looking at and mapping the universe across the breadth of the electromagnetic spectrum. Astronomy has placed before us incontrovertible evidence of astonishing phenomena such as gravitational lensing or the thousands of planets being discovered around nearby stars in our galaxy by the Kepler telescope.

Electronics is going through revolutions in further miniaturization. Nanotechnology offers glimpses of truly astonishing machines and possibilities. The envelope is being extended everyday. Nobody who works in this field can afford to stand still for then he will fall behind as others move forward.

Biology is in its golden age too. Our understanding of genomes and biochemistry acquired in the 20th century will lead to astonishing, staggering possibilities in the 21st century.

When the capabilities and complexities of man-made computers will approach that of the human brain in the next 20 years, we will have arrived at a truly gigantic inflexion point in our technological history. It might then be possible to reduce all of human biology including human emotions to mere information processing. Immortality will be within easy grasp.

But mastering all this new found knowledge involves an astounding amount of learning for the scientists. Is the human brain capable of absorbing ever-increasing amounts of information?

To put things simply, if information keeps growing such that to be a cutting edge researcher, one has to absorb the knowledge contained in 100 PhD theses or generate 5 PhD theses of his own, would the human brain be able to keep up?

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