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Joy in Discovery

Newton was the greatest genius who ever lived, and the most fortunate; for we cannot find more than once a system of the world to establish.

I have more fun discovering things for myself than reading about them in textbooks. This is right and proper, and only to be expected.

But discovering something that no one else knows—being the first to unravel the secret—

There is a story that one of the first men to realize that stars were burning by fusion—plausible attributions I’ve seen are to Fritz Houtermans and Hans Bethe—was walking out with his girlfriend of a night, and she made a comment on how beautiful the stars were, and he replied: “Yes, and right now, I’m the only man in the world who knows why they shine.”

It is attested by numerous sources that this experience, being the first person to solve a major mystery, is a tremendous high. It’s probably the closest experience you can get to taking drugs, without taking drugs—though I wouldn’t know.

That can’t be healthy.

Not that I’m objecting to the euphoria. It’s the exclusivity clause that bothers me. Why should a discovery be worth less, just because someone else already knows the answer?

The most charitable interpretation I can put on the psychology, is that you don’t struggle with a single problem for months or years if it’s something you can just look up in the library. And that the tremendous high comes from having hit the problem from every angle you can manage, and having bounced; and then having analyzed the problem again, using every idea you can think of, and all the data you can get your hands on—making progress a little at a time—so that when, finally, you crack through the problem, all the dangling pieces and unresolved questions fall into place at once, like solving a dozen locked-room murder mysteries with a single clue.

And more, the understanding you get is real understanding— understanding that embraces all the clues you studied to solve the problem, when you didn’t yet know the answer. Understanding that comes from asking questions day after day and worrying at them; understanding that no one else can get (no matter how much you tell them the answer) unless they spend months studying the problem in its historical context, even after it’s been solved—and even then, they won’t get the high of solving it all at once.

That’s one possible reason why James Clerk Maxwell might have had more fun discovering Maxwell’s equations, than you had fun reading about them.

A slightly less charitable reading is that the tremendous high comes from what is termed, in the politesse of social psychology, “commitment” and “consistency” and “cognitive dissonance”; the part where we value something more highly just because it took more work to get it. The studies showing that subjecting fraternity pledges to a harsher initiation, causes them to be more convinced of the value of the fraternity—identical wine in higher-priced bottles being rated as tasting better—that sort of thing.

Of course, if you just have more fun solving a puzzle than being told its answer, because you enjoy doing the cognitive work for its own sake, there’s nothing wrong with that. The less charitable reading would be if charging $100 to be told the answer to a puzzle made you think the answer was more interesting, worthwhile, important, surprising, etc., than if you got the answer for free.

(I strongly suspect that a major part of science’s PR problem in the population at large is people who instinctively believe that if knowledge is given away for free, it cannot be important. If you had to undergo a fearsome initiation ritual to be told the truth about evolution, maybe people would be more satisfied with the answer.)

The really uncharitable reading is that the joy of first discovery is about status. Competition. Scarcity. Beating everyone else to the punch. It doesn’t matter whether you have a three-room house or a four-room house, what matters is having a bigger house than the Joneses. A two-room house would be fine, if you could only ensure that the Joneses had even less.

I don’t object to competition as a matter of principle. I don’t think that the game of Go is barbaric and should be suppressed, even though it’s zero-sum. But if the euphoric joy of scientific discovery has to be about scarcity, that means it’s only available to one person per civilization for any given truth.

If the joy of scientific discovery is one-shot per discovery, then, from a fun-theoretic perspective, Newton probably used up a substantial increment of the total Physics Fun available over the entire history of Earth-originating intelligent life. That selfish bastard explained the orbits of planets and the tides.

And really the situation is even worse than this, because in the Standard Model of physics (discovered by bastards who spoiled the puzzle for everyone else) the universe is spatially infinite, inflationarily branching, and branching via decoherence, which is at least three different ways that Reality is exponentially or infinitely large.

So aliens, or alternate Newtons, or just Tegmark duplicates of Newton, may all have discovered gravity before our Newton did—if you believe that “before” means anything relative to those kinds of separations.

When that thought first occurred to me, I actually found it quite uplifting. Once I realized that someone, somewhere in the expanses of space and time, already knows the answer to any answerable question—even biology questions and history questions; there are other decoherent Earths—then I realized how silly it was to think as if the joy of discovery ought to be limited to one person.

It becomes a fully inescapable source of unresolvable existential angst, and I regard that as a reductio.

The consistent solution which maintains the possibility of fun is to stop worrying about what other people know. If you don’t know the answer, it’s a mystery to you. If you can raise your hand, and clench your fingers into a fist, and you’ve got no idea of how your brain is doing it—or even what exact muscles lay beneath your skin—you’ve got to consider yourself just as ignorant as a hunter-gatherer. Sure, someone else knows the answer—but back in the hunter-gatherer days, someone else in an alternate Earth, or for that matter, someone else in the future, knew what the answer was. Mystery, and the joy of finding out, is either a personal thing, or it doesn’t exist at all—and I prefer to say it’s personal.

The joy of assisting your civilization by telling it something it doesn’t already know does tend to be one-shot per discovery per civilization; that kind of value is conserved, as are Nobel Prizes. And the prospect of that reward may be what it takes to keep you focused on one problem for the years required to develop a really deep understanding; plus, working on a problem unknown to your civilization is a sure-fire way to avoid reading any spoilers.

But as part of my general project to undo this idea that rationalists have less fun, I want to restore the magic and mystery to every part of the world that you do not personally understand, regardless of what other knowledge may exist, far away in space and time, or even in your next-door neighbor’s mind. If you don’t know, it’s a mystery. And now think of how many things you don’t know! (If you can’t think of anything, you have other problems.) Isn’t the world suddenly a much more mysterious and magical and interesting place? As if you’d been transported into an alternate dimension, and had to learn all the rules from scratch?

A friend once told me that I look at the world as if I’ve never seen it before. I thought, that’s a nice compliment… Wait! I never have seen it before! What—did everyone else get a preview?

Joy in the Merely Real




Bind Yourself to Reality