Tag Archives: Blaise Pascal

Knowledge spheres

Out-of-focus image from optical microscope of 10 micron diameter polystrene spheres in water

10 micron diameter polystyrene spheres in water (see Holes in fluids)

There is a well-known quote from Blaise Pascal: ‘Knowledge is like a sphere, the greater its volume, the larger its contact with the unknown’.  Presumably, Pascal was eloquently observing that the more we know, the more we realise how much we don’t know and the more questions that we have.  Perhaps this is also a test of whether we have acquired knowledge and understanding or only information; because the acquisition of knowledge and understanding will lead to further questions, whereas information tends simply to overwhelm us.  We need to process information into some form of ordered structure in order to gain understanding and render it more useful.  Of course, as in any process that involves increasing order and reducing entropy, this involves an expenditure of available energy or effort.  What makes it interesting and stimulating when mentoring learners on a MOOC is that very many more of them are prepared to make that effort than in a class of undergraduate students.  Some of their questions, including (or perhaps especially) the tangential ones, cause me to think about concepts in a new way and this increases my own knowledge sphere.  Lewis Hyde remarks in his book, The Gift, that ‘ideas might be treated as gifts in science’ and ‘a circulation of gifts nourishes [a] part of our spirit’. I would like to think this is happening in a MOOC, both between the educator and learners and between learners.  In my experience, it is a culture that has been lost from the undergraduate classroom, which is to the detriment of both educator and student.