Doug Bruns

Habits of learning.

In Books, Curiosity, Life, Reading, Science, The Examined Life, The infinity of ideas on January 11, 2013 at 6:00 am

There are many subjects discussed here at “…the house…” It’s an eclectic place. Commenting on this, a friend recently asked about my habits of learning. I thought I’d take a moment and talk about that. I wrote about the habits of reader-writers yesterday. This makes for a natural, albeit tangential, elaboration.

As I’ve said previously, I’m an autodidact. That is, I learn best on my own and without specific direction from others. (Ray Bradbury is a best-case example of an autodidact. A recent post on Bradbury, among other things, can be found here.) College showed me what to be interested in, pointed me in a direction. I took over from there. Through the years I have wished for a mentor, a guide, someone to help me in my intellectual pursuits; but that never happened and is not likely to happen now. Consequently, an evolution of learning resulted, a fashion of making my own way. It is simple and boils down to this: biography and original sources.

Let’s start with biography, and since we recently talked a bit about quantum physics, perhaps we will begin there.

Many years ago I came to better appreciate how modern physics was redefining our understanding of the physical world, but I had little understanding of the work being done. Where to begin? Abstraction is booksdifficult for me. I need the hook of personality to guide my quest. Ergo, biography. Want to learn something? Begin with the lives of those who discovered/practiced/exercised the discipline. I began learning about physics by reading Denis Brian’s biography, Einstein: A Life. More properly, I began learning about the life of Einstein.

The book set the stage, but it was only the beginning. I came to learn from my reading that the good professor was at the sunset of work being done in traditional Newtonian physics. With that (new)98685 knowledge, I moved to modern physics with the brilliant award-winning biography, Genius, The Life and Times of Richard Feynman, by James Gleick. I was starting to settle in, getting traction, and knew that one life still had to be explored: Robert Oppenheimer. I turned to the definitive book, Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer.

71JUG2TW19LI will resist the urge to riff on these books. They get me excited. I cannot over recommend them. (Though Walter Isaacson’s biography of Einstein is the one to read now.)

With this work done, I was equipped to move to the next phase: original sources. However, I could not read original sources. I am mathematically illiterate. So, where to turn? I read books for the lay person. (Fortunately, too, I have a physicist in the family. Advice: find an expert.) But still, I gave a selection of the original sources a go and found the good Doctor Einstein’s book, Relativity, The Special and General Theory, to be surprisingly accessible (if you ignore the math). File:The_pleasure_of_finding_things_outMany of Feynman’s books are written for the layperson. (Start with The Pleasure of Finding Things Out–not physics, per se, but wonderful thoughts on leaning and curiosity.) The point being, without the biographies I would not have asked the right questions, read the right supplemental books, discovered the correct sources. By the end of the process–I probably invested two year’s reading–I was confident that I knew what I needed and wanted to know.


I share this to perhaps help you on your quest, whatever that might be. I’ve read a lot of books and hope to read many more. If you’re a life-long learner perhaps you’ve got your own technique. I share mine to show how one person does it. Maybe you have a technique you think I would appreciate. Please share. We’re all pilgrims on this journey.



Our schools teach from secondary and tertiary sources. This is a pity. Original thinkers shared. They wrote books to be read. My personal admonition: Do the homework, go to the source–and, for me, prepare for the source material; that is, read the biographies.

Thanks for reading,


  1. Thanks Doug for this week. I did pick up a copy of The Road to Reality and really enjoyed the NYT piece about Joy; I re-read it and shared it with friends. All of this had sparked an interesting conversation about the unexplained phenomenon of laterality and why 90% of the world uses its right hand – yes the language center is in the left hemisphere, but we may have originally have evolved from non-dominant cerebral hemispheres. The thought being that over time if left-handedness is becoming more prevelent as suspected then maybe our ideas/attitudes about each other and towards nature are changing for the better as well; due to the inherent behavior characteristics of left-handed people. So thank-you and have a great weekend.

    • Thanks for your note Kevin. I’m glad you enjoyed Zadie Smith’s article. Funny, my wife and I were out for a Chinese dinner at a little hole-in-the-wall here in Portland, a favorite place, and I read to her the part of Smith’s essay about the dance club on drugs. It’s an amazing few of paragraphs. The piece is meant to be read out loud. Glad you did.

      Kudos for picking up the Road to Reality. Again funny, Penrose’s name is popping up all over the place in my readings. It’s like that. You discover something and then it sticks its nose into every nook and cranny.

      I wasn’t aware of the righthand lefthand thinking. That’s very interesting. Very interesting. Are you familiar with The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian James? Your comment about the evolution of non-dominant cerebral hemispheres made me think of it. I think I need to re-read it. It sounds like a book you might be interested in as well.

      No, thank you, Kevin. Coming back to “the house” has been refreshing and exciting due to folks like yourself who share my interests and enthusiasms. I don’t subscribe to personal energy and all that sort of thing, but if I did, I’d thank you for your energy. In my silly little scheme of things I sometimes think of the community here at the house growing and becoming a wonderful and thrilling place where ideas are exchanged and interests shared. Now there is a goal!

      Take care and have a good weekend yourself. I’m heading into the mountains here in Maine to snowshoe tomorrow. It’s not all about what happens between the ears.

      Regards, d

I welcome your comments. Thanks for reading.

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