Posted by: CJ | June 21, 2010

Reminder of the Year: Sciences Edition

In all branches of physical science (and computer science) there are two separate aspects: theory and practice/labs. Understanding the theory can be fun and rewarding. But, interestingly, it seems to have next to no impact on being able to actually solve problems in problem sets, explain real-world phenomena, and is definitely useless in the lab setting.

This is something that’s good to be reminded of periodically, so one (particularly me) doesn’t get too curious about theoretical underpinnings with the mistaken assumption it will help with other areas of the subject.



  1. But….the people who understand the theoretical underpinings are probably instrumental in devising whatever the next wave of practical app is, I would think….maybe?

  2. Ehhh….maybe, maybe not. Theories are just conceptual frameworks for understanding how a collection of facts fit together. That makes it easier to understand what’s going on, but that doesn’t necessarily suggest solutions. Either in general or to specific concrete problems. That seems to be true in all areas of (physical and social) science and engineering.

    A good example is that framework for understanding poverty book. If you absorb it’s contents well, you can understand some of the effects poverty vs. middle class mindsets have on life choices like lifestyle, educational attainment, jobs, etc.. But that doesn’t necessarily tell you what the next step is. It can narrow things down to tell you, broadly, some things that won’t work and some ideas of what directions might give solutions.

    And an even bigger problem, at least for academics, is there seems to be a point where additional theory just isn’t that useful. So even though that framework for understanding poverty could be incredibly useful for giving a framework for ideas, what’s the value in reading another book on a similar subject? Another two books? Another ten?

    Probably not. At that point your personal experience in dealing with people and students is much more valuable than another book.

    Some theory can be, and usually is, very useful. But a lot of theory usually isn’t a lot more useful than just some theory.

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