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Are you a 'Babylonian mind' like RP Feynman?
2015 by W. Beaty

When I first became interested in science as a kid, I sat down and figured out how it all worked.

Well, sort of.

I read many articles which explained the "Common Base" amplifier.

My home-made explanation sort of worked, but I wasn't satisfied. I was full of niggling doubts. And why the hell were the textbooks using Common Base to introduce transistors to the newbies? It just didn't make any sense.

When I went into engineering school, I found it extremely odd that there were still no good explanations for much of basic physics and electronics. Sure, there were detailed mathematical treatments. And nobody else seemed curious. Everyone else in the class seemed to think that to memorize the equations was the same as learning concepts and gaining understanding of the device. (R. Feynman calls this the Euclidean or "Greek viewpoint;" the love of mathematics, as opposed to the physicists' "Babylonian viewpoint" where concepts are far more important than equations.) I'm a total Babylonian. For me, math is useless at the start, equations are like those black box Spice programs which might work great, but they don't tell you any details of what's happening inside a device in the real world. I can learn the math, but that just means I can run a "mental spice program" without needing any computer, and I still don't know how transistors work. First tell me what "Transistor Action" is all about. Show me animated pictures, use analogies. Only after I've attained a visual and gut-level understanding of something, only then is the math useful to me for refining it and adding all the details. However, for me the math alone is not a genuine explanation. Math is just a tool or a recipe, a crutch for those who want nothing except the final numerical result, and it certainly does not confer expert knowledge.

Now many years have passed and I think I see the problem...

Traditional science explanations basically *suck.*
The ones I see in high school textbooks and hobby magazines are terrible. They're full of errors and contradictions. They teach misconceptions that, if we don't discover them, will warp our understanding forever. Textbooks for engineers spend their time deriving equations which will end up in software simulations, but still they don't sit down and describe what's happening in a direct clear fashion. And then there's all those authors who use Common-base amplifiers to introduce transistors to newbies. Are they just fools who follow a tradition only because it's traditional? Why don't they ever make efforts to improve the explanations? Were they written in stone by god? Well, if nobody but me thinks the explanation is open to improvements, then I'd better put my money where my mouth is. (And if I'm right, then it should be very easy to write my own vastly-improved explanations.)


PS Now I finally understand one of the RP Feynman quotes. Feynman couldn't understand such things as high-school physics without going off and constructing his own version from scratch. "What I cannot create, I don't understand." But but... this is what I've been doing on this website! The stuff in my textbooks is non-babylonian. I only learned it by going off and basically writing my own textbook (in my head.) "Create" the whole science course myself, with no math involved. Once I understood the concepts, I add the math back in at the end, since math is just a tool for getting exact numbers.

TEACHER: you cannot understand this without advanced math. Explaining it to the general public is impossible.

EINSTEIN: "If you can't explain it to your grandmother, it means that you don't understand it yourself."

Yep, RP Feynman wasn't the only Babylonian-style mind. Einstein was another.
Created and maintained by Bill Beaty.
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