It is a bit pompous of me think that I can actually tell you the most important thing you can learn from Physics Forums (PF). After all, each one of us here has different reasons for being on this forum, and so, we will have different things that we consider to be important to us.
Still, I believe I can clearly describe what is the most important thing that an “average” PF member can learn while in this forum. While most people would think that I would say that the subject matter being discussed, covered, and answered here are the most important thing one can learn in this forum, I have a different opinion. Oh, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that learning what the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle really is, or what the difference between RNA and DNA is are not important or valuable things you can learn here. However, in the scheme of things, and based on what I think is the demographics of the overwhelming majority of members in this forum, there is one, most important thing that one can learn from PF.
Many of us more “elder” members of this forum remember a time when the internet wasn’t prevalent. While I have been on the ‘net for a rather long time (my first e-mail account was in 1988, my first post on Usenet was in 1989), I still remember not having it, or when it was of rather limited use. We used to go to a library to find scientific papers, or look through a card catalog (remember those?) to find a book on the library shelves.
Back then, we did not have easy access to a lot of things. And this includes access to people who know a lot more than us about things that we were about to go into. For many of us physicists, we didn’t have easy access to other physicists, especially before we entered college. Even in college, we encountered our instructors and faculty members only in the academic settings. Very seldom do we get to learn anything deeper than that. We usually did not have a chance to ask them why they chose to become physicists, what they went through to become physicists, what they think about the profession, what does it mean to be a physicist, where do they find time for a social life when they were students, do they follow any sports, do they think women’s high heels are part of some social evolutionary selection, etc… etc. In general, there were very little opportunities to just talking to people who are already in the profession that you are aiming for. Many of us didn’t get to do that mainly because there were just no easy access to these people.
It is rather obvious that most members of this forum are not in science, not practicing scientists/engineers, probably a lot of students still very early in their education, or just folks who have some curiosity and interest in physics, or science/engineering in general. Most of you do not have easy or regular access to scientists and engineers. Sure, you can read their writings of these people on the web, or if you are a student at a university, you get to interact with them in the academic settings. But as we were back before the internet days, you don’t get to really TALK and have a conversation about stuff, or learn about their profession from the people who are actually doing it.
And so, that brings me to what I believe to be THE most important thing you can learn as a member of PF. You can learn how professional physicists, engineers, mathematicians, biologists, chemists, astronomers, etc… think, analyze, practice their profession, and handle problems and issues that they face almost every single day. You get to see the workings of science and how a problem is analyzed and dissected before the process of finding an answer begins. You get to learn why some of your questions are deemed vague when you thought it was perfectly clear. You might even begin to realize why making clear and exact citation to the sources of your information are crucial, and that “I heard that” is no longer sufficient. You start to make sure that if you are using some part of science to justify something else, that you have fully understood what you are using, etc… etc. In other words, your interactions with other scientists and engineers on here have forced you to adopt a small fraction of the practice on how they tend to conduct their work.
To me, access to the very people who are practicing the profession allows one not only learn about the knowledge, but also learn about how they conduct their work. The latter is an extremely rare access. You can find “knowledge” material all over the web. If you want to know about “quantum mechanics”, there are numerous sources, both online and in books. But to actually gather information on how scientists and engineers actually function, that’s not that easy to find, and very seldom can the general public get access to that on a daily basis.
We try to enforce many things here on PF, and some of them to the dislike of many members. I’ve mentioned our insistence that members who wish to understand about stuff they read, heard, etc. must cite their sources clearly. This is a normal practice in science and engineering. We includes tons of citations in our papers, our funding proposals, our reports, etc. It is part of our standard operating procedure, making sure whoever reads it knows where the source of such-and-such information comes from. This is not a common practice for the general public. Newspapers very seldom provide such exact citations. Politicians are even worse – they seem to claim A causes B without even providing any justification, something we can’t do in science. Maybe, just maybe, if you learn how we arrive at our ideas in science, then you might set your acceptance level of what is valid to be higher, where you demand to know what is the evidence to support that A causes B? What is the nature of the source that support this? There is no reason to not demand valid supporting evidence even in dealing with political and social issues. Otherwise, it becomes just a matter of opinion or tastes without any rational justification. This is what science set as a standard, and this is why HOW we arrive at the conclusion we have is something important that you can learn from this forum.
We also often comment that the questions being asked sometime are as important, if not more, than the answers that one seek. That is something many of us in science learn very quickly. To be able to answer a question about nature, we must know exactly what we are asking, and what we mean by our question.
So what you can learn from being in PF is how scientists and engineers think and practice their profession. While you may not want to follow it (and why would you?), it at least will give you an idea why there are certain things we are insisting upon in the communications between members on here, especially in discussion science-related topics. It may be a bit foreign to you, it may appear strange, and it may even annoy you, but that’s the whole point! It is not something you are familiar with, and it might be beneficial for you to learn this new way to communicate. It is a part of the overall effort of familiarization on how communications are done in science, and how the people who work in it function in their occupation. It is the demand on careful, systematic analysis and the demand for valid evidence to support an assertion. This knowledge and skill transcends the boundaries of science.
To me, that is the most important thing you can learn from PF.
Originally posted on Feb 14th 2013