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A photon of understanding

(published 11 January 2011)

Fabulous date today. 11.1.11

I had hoped, among these words and lines, to track something of the acquisition of knowledge; to observe the process of my learning and pin it, splayed wide, onto this page. But it seems it is insidious, like love, and all of a sudden it is there, with the subtle details of how it arose forever smudged into hazy history. Not that I yet fully understand what it is that I go there to learn, but I believe I am further along that path than I had realised; the words I now read have new thoughts and meanings attached, my view has shifted. And as I tumble down this rabbit hole I see jars and objects on the shelves as I pass that contain wonderous galaxies of ideas and notions, the names of which, scrawled on their labels in myriads hands, I am beginning to recognise, and am able to envisage the taste of. (And yet I know I have a long way to travel before I land, with the bump cushioned I hope, at the end of this mysterious trail.)

I attended a lecture by Goran Mashanovich a few weeks ago, a senior member of the silicon photonics research group. (He is very interested in the process of learning, and uses contemporary, interactive methods in his lectures to encourage it, with the result that he teaches well and scores extremely highly with his students in their feedback). Anyway, I am out of practice at maths and have almost no knowledge of electronic engineering so the lectures of his I’ve attended have basically been beyond my comprehension (in this latter one he spoke of tea and pie circuits, which I’m afraid sounded more like social interactions, to me, than technological advancements). The maths of it was pretty straight forward (so it felt; so he later assured me) and yet still beyond my current capability (though not, I believe, beyond past capabilities), and I came away at the end of the lecture under the impression that I had nearly grasped it.

There was a girl on my fine art degree who made paintings about the sense of being able to feel proximity of objects in darkness, for example walking along a dark corridor and having a sense of the presence of the adjacent wall. I found her work intriguing, and was much taken with the notion of this sense. Somehow I left Goran’s lecture carrying what felt like an analogous feeling – that of almost understanding. I know that I did not understand it, and yet I felt that the point of absolute comprehension was close at hand. Is it possible to determine that? The degree of learning. Does understanding work as a smooth linear progression, where partial understanding is a real entity, decipherable as a distinct part of a bigger thing? Or is it attained in discrete units (photons of understanding?), in which case there is no such thing as partial understanding, and without having received a full photon of it (seeing the light?) one is none the wiser. 

Or is it, maybe, that photons work the other way, and even though at the moment at which a whole one is absorbed (etc) there occurs a luminating epiphany of some sort, nonetheless exposure to a partial one can still provide a sense of light to the receiver?

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