Writing as understanding

David Mermin on his experiences with teaching non-scientists and writing physics:

I’m convinced that you don’t understand the real significance of the research you’ve been struggling with for the past year, until you begin to write about it. Only then do you realize that it is much more interesting (or, if you’re unfortunate and uncommonly honest, much less interesting) than you’d thought. Only then do you really see how your work fits into or, if you are lucky, changes the character of the tradition out of which it grew.

All this requires time. You cannot go through such a ruminative process if you feel the urgent need to get your work out ahead of your competitors. Because my written physics has to be slow- aged before it’s fit for consumption, I’ve always sought unexplored backwaters to work in, or obscure corners of otherwise fashionable enterprises. At my back I rarely hear the competition getting near.


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