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The loneliness of the discretized discipline

  1. Oct 10, 2014 #1


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    I've been drinking tonight, and when I'm drinking, I start thinking about off the wall topics. I'm a computer scientist, and there are several abstractions between my area and the physical world. Before one ever gets to my world, he or she must go past the layers of nature, physics, basic electronics, digital circuit design, logic gates, some architecture like Von Neumann or Harvard, assembly language, programming language, oceans of math, and finally into my area of machine learning.

    The problem of having a field like mine is that a Neil Degrasse Tyson lifestyle is simply off the table. When one is in a highly discretized field, he or she can't point to some physical object to explain to grandmother what exactly he or she does. And there is a deal of loneliness in such a thing.

    Can you explain what you do to your grandmother? Why or why not?
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 10, 2014 #2

    Simon Bridge

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    ... um, what?
    Oh right, that's "layers".
    (I'm half cut too...)

    I cannot explain anything to my g'ma ... she's dead.
    But I find Jack and Johnny are good listeners.
  4. Oct 10, 2014 #3


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    Me too, and I think Simon's mention of layers is spot on. Whoever your audience may be, the first assumption is they've asked a question - they've expressed an interest in understanding more about what you feel a need to explain. Explanations are your thoughts and worth nothing to anyone else who isn't interested in an explanation.

    As much as 'pop-sci' analogies are criticized at PF, there's a time and a place, and if your audience isn't interested (or not prepared) for drilling down to the real details, an analogy may be as much as they're interested in to better satisfy their casual understanding. I would always follow up the analogy by briefly mentioning that it isn't exact, but only a way to use peoples' existing intuition to explain concepts that are not intuitive without a deeper understanding. If more questions follow, more layers can be peeled...
  5. Oct 10, 2014 #4
    I have not graduated yet so I have no title, but the way I go is by making short sentences and then pausing. In the pause I ask them for example if they understand what I mean with the word: "memory" in my sentence. If they don't, I define it for them. Then, after defining it, I go back and repeat my first sentence and ask them whether they understand until said point. Sometimes they keep asking what this or that means and that's why I keep my sentences short with as little new vocabulary as possible because as you said there are many layers and we can lose the string quickly. That way I can go step by step. If they reach a point in which for example their question is better answered with concepts from Digital Design, I tell them that to explain that I would need to use a lot of concepts which would take time to explain. Time which I don't have to spare, but I humbly tell them I have a book if they are really interested in understanding beyond.

    But as you said, no, I cannot possibly go Tyson style. Maybe some people can, but I cannot. You are not alone.
  6. Oct 14, 2014 #5


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    I don't do anything to my grandmother; please stop spreading false rumors.
  7. Oct 15, 2014 #6


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    Sorry for the cheesy joke; didn't mean to derail the post.
  8. Oct 15, 2014 #7


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