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Take some time to read the “classics”

No, I am not referring to Shakespeare, Melville, Tolstoy, or any conventional literary classics. I am referring to the classic papers and works that have shaped our science and engineering worlds. Sure, most of us have done our formal learning from textbooks, and that makes sense. A well-written book can efficiently distill and present ideas, concepts, demonstrations, experiments, and conclusions in a well-organized, clear fashion.

But the real world of discovery and innovation is not so neat. The most dramatic innovators, while they build on the work of others, often venture out into very unknown realms. I've been reading “Einstein's Miraculous Year: Five Papers that Changed the Face of Physics” (Princeton University Press; edited and introduced by John Stachel) and it's fascinating. The papers include his analysis of random thermal motion (Brownian motion) of tiny particles in a fluid, the special relativity paper, and of course, the famous E = mc2 paper.

Although I frankly can't follow all the complex reasoning and math, I still get a sense of the amazing stretch of the imagination and intellect that Einstein had to use to even start out on the path he was taking let alone come to any conclusion. (Fortunately, the papers in the book are in modern translation, rather than the original German!) You have to remember that at the time these theories were developed, nearly all of the solid-sate physics understanding we now take for granted have was unknown—even the idea of the electron orbiting around the nucleus. Quantum physics didn't exist yet. Much of Einstein's reasoning was prompted by, and developed, using thermal, energy, and other fundamental considerations.

This is not the only original paper I have read. Some of the works of geniuses such as Newton (in transaction from the Latin, of course), Shannon, and Nyquist make fascinating reading, as you see how they combined inspiration with determination to follow their ideas through, and use math and other tools as needed. Reading through these works, and looking at their original diagrams, gives you a fresh perspective on the whole issue of problem-solving when existing structures no longer seem to work, or are riddled with contradictions and can no longer explain the evidence.

Everyone is busy, and everyone has a lot of things to keep up with in our fast-moving technical world. But if you look into the past, you may get a sense of how to move into the future.

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