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Reading Los Tónicos De La Voluntad by Santiago Ramón y Cajal

I've been meaning to read this book for a long time. I don't think I've ever read anything from him, so it'll be a good start to see if I want to dig deeper.

This book talks about rules and tips on how to do investigation. Which I'm sure I can apply to learning and reasoning in general. I always evaluate my conclusions and put my knowledge to the test objectively, but I'm sure there are many things I don't do properly. So I'm looking forward to improve my approach.


Task started

I've read the introduction and I've already got some valuable lessons.

The first one is not directly related with the book, and that is that I prefer reading on a digital format 100%. It's been a long time since I read a physical book, not a PDF or eBook. And I'm already seeing the problems. The most relevant of which is not having the ability to highlight excerpts. Of course I can always use markers on the book, but the use I give to highlights is to review the parts that got my attention, ignoring everything else. And that is not really possible with that approach. So I've been manually copying excerpts to Evernote.

The other thing I learned, related with the book, is Cajal's view on scientific prowess and intelectual capacity. He's of the opinion that individuals have mostly the same potential, with some exceptions. And scientific results are derived from rigorous methodology and discipline. For the most part I agree with him, and it's refreshing to read. Specially with the old Spanish speech used in the book that I'm enjoying a lot.

Where I don't agree with him is on his disdain of purely philosophical practice. He explains how the lack of practical implications leads to a waste of time. I agree that staying in the realm of the mind makes it difficult to extract significant achievements. But considering that our brains are the main instrument we use for our daily practice, I consider them essential as well.

While reading the book I'm finding many ideas I was already familiar with that I believe to be true. But I started wondering about something. When I'm reading a text and the author is aligned with my opinion, do I really agree with him or I'm automatically agreeing because I already had that preconception? It's difficult to tell, since it goes all the way to how our opinions were formed in the first place. And if we just agree or disagree based on opinions we already had, we're not getting anywhere. I try to be as impartial as possible and judge things for what they are, but sometimes it's more difficult than it seems and I get wrapped up in an infinite loop of evaluation.

I could do an entire blog post about this, but I'll just say that I don't think anybody has solid opinions, since most of them are based on experience and that's usually not a great way (not enough data, too dependent on the context, etc.). I actually wrote a blog post that is similar to this, so I guess the conclusion is that we work with heuristics, which is fine. And we change opinions often, which is also fine. But there must be some underlying principle that I'm not grasping.

Anyways, one of the ideas I found interesting that I already agreed with is the power of ignorance. Cajal also exposes how focusing on one problem at a time and actively ignoring everything else can be benefitial. Perhaps he goes too far by saying that some books are useless, to which I'd never agree. Art is never useless, since the value is in the eye of the beholder.

The second chapter focused on common problems that are found by novice scientists: admiring predecessors too much, believing in topics left for study running out, deeming only practical discoveries as relevant and not being "smart enough".

On chapter 3 he outlines some important moral qualities for a scientist to have: independence of judgement, perseverance in study, passion for glory, patriotism and enjoyment of scientific originality.

Independence of judgement and perseverance in study are great. I feel like the second one in particular is even more relevant today. He explains how long-term attention is something valuable for investigation. Here's one quote from the book:

All great works come from patience and perseverance, combined with prolongued attention in months or years focused on a single goal.

Passion for glory talks about how scientists see society and the repercussions of their actions, and what they expect from them.

Patriotism is something I don't agree much with, since he gives too much importance to his physical location. I consider myself a "citizen of the world", and don't see myself constrained to any one culture. Of course I guess this is to be expected given the context when this was written (Spain 1897). Today we have the Internet and everything is more global. I'm not even using my native language to communicate most of my work.

He finally goes into enjoyment of scientific originality. He talks about the pure joy of knowledge and discovery. I can see myself identified with this, because I'm always chasing abstract concepts without any particular goal other than getting new insights. And I feel a constant struggle between chasing "useful" knowledge, that has some practical applications, or just "food for thought".

Chapter 4 delves into which sources of knowledge the novice scientist must pursue.

The first thing he introduces is the necesity to have a good grasp on general knowledge in disciplines related with the subject chosen for practice. But not going too deep, he also notes how important it is to specialize in something specific. This reminds me to the concept of T-shaped skills, where a person has a solid base in a wide range of skills but is a lot of expertise in one or two areas.

He continues by talking about the necessity to learn other languages, which is interesting and I didn't see it coming. I was already aware of this, I noted in the previous entry of the journal how I'm not using my native tongue for my work. But it's interesting to see it coming from a place I didn't expect.

After underlining the importance of being aware of the state of the art before delving into science practice, so that mistakes that others made can be avoided, he talks about the source of all truth: nature. This is something quite obvious if you think about it, but I like how he presents it by saying that all learning resources we'll get (mostly books at the time) are nothing short of a reflection of the author. That's why it's so difficult to obtain knowledge without practical experience. This is particularly relevant if you are reading this without reading the book. I am transmitting the knowledge from his words, but the way I am presenting and explaining it may be completely off the mark.

He finally concludes the chapter talking about the importance of having the correct skills to perform tests and how luck only presents to the ones who are looking. He acknowledges the importance of chance in scientific discovery, but it's true that luck is only useful to those who can interpret the results.

I've been busy reading the book from the book club I joined, but I'm now back to this and I have to say I enjoy it far more. It'd be nice to exchange ideas with this one as well, so let me know if you've read it and have anything to say!

In this chapter the author talks about different ways people have of not making progress. I find it interesting specially because I see myself identified in some of them. Which is great, because now that I'm aware I can start to fix it. He refers to these as "illnesses of the will", and categorizes them like the following:

  • The Bystanders ("contempladores" in spanish): People who enjoy science and studying, but never make any discoveries of their own other than categorizing what has already been found.
  • The Bibliographers: People who accumulate knowledge indiscriminately and pride themselves on the variety of their interests, without ever challenging preconceptions and look down on others who don't know as much.
  • The Magnificent ("megalófilos" in spanish): People driven to act and with good foundations, but who are too perfectionist to make progress or lack a viable path to reach their impossibly high standards. Yes, these are the ones I feel the most identified with.
  • The Organizers: People who praise methods and tools so much that they don't use them enough or keep others from using them. They treat them as precious and over-protect them when in reality their value comes from using them. This may be difficult to apply in broader terms, but the word "gatekeeper" comes to mind.
  • The Misplaced: People who have a role just for its sake, and have no further interest in filling their position other that the benefits they get. The author points out how bad personal circumstances are no excuse in the long term to not be doing something of value.
  • The Theorists: People who work only in theory and never bother to add prove to their ideas. The author concedes that theories are an important part of investigation, but they are only the first step in a long journey towards discovery.

He may seem a bit too harsh on this chapter, but I believe this kind of tough love is important. He points out how the intention of his writing is not to make these individuals change, but to warn and teach new generations.

In the 6th chapter the author tackles a couple of topics that are impossible to avoid in this time and age: How to get your science done in today's society.

The first part talks about making progress with little resources. He suggests focusing on cheap but valuable experiments, and as he alluded to in previous chapters, working slowly but constantly. Something interesting he mentions is that working with others in a lab can have drawbacks, for example plenty of interruptions and lack of focus. This has a direct parallelism with today's office environments. Solitude is more valuable than we think as a society, and deep work is important to progress and grow as individuals. He also presents as a possibility of having a day job and doing your science on the side, which is also a common approach today.

The second part of the chapter is something I don't agree with in the least. I went back to my self-assessment of agreeing or disagreeing based on pre-established opinions, and I came out reinforced by my original ideals. What he exposes is that having a successful scientific career is incompatible with having a family (and a social life). He then continues by making a sexist categorization of women that are suitable for a scientist to marry. I won't judge the entire book just for this part, I'll just leave it as something I strongly disagree with. My opinion is that work-life balance is not only necessary, but it actually empowers creative endeavors. I guess it's up to discussion if the scientific method can be considered a "creative endeavor" or not, but I'm sure programming and the work I do is. Still, I understand the point he's trying to make and I'm keeping the good part: It's important to be diligent with how we allocate our time and be intentional on what it's spent on.

In chapter 7 Cajal introduces what he considers to be the 3 stages of the scientific method: Observation, hypothesis and verification.

Observation is essential and the first step towards scientific discovery. He emphasizes observing things for what they are, as unbiased as possible. And not a superficial observation, but immersing and understanding of the topic at hand. One example he gives is to draw by hand what's observed in order to internalize it, for example if the subject under study is anatomy or natural history. Quoting him "New findings are discovered not by the first ones to met them, but by the ones who are able to capture them on their entirety."

Once something has been observed, the next step is to formulate a hypothesis. He gives some guidelines as to how hypothesis should go. In particular focused on utility and demonstrability lest they end up in too abstract of a terrain. Even if a hypothesis is proven false, it's still useful given the new information that is gathered. He ends up by warning against the danger of hypothesizing too much without landing in the terrain of the practical, but they are still necessary as a guide towards discovery. Quoting him again "Observing without thinking is as dangerous as thinking without observing".

Finally, when an incident has been observed and a hypothesis has been formulated, the last step is to prove it. Formulating good experiments is one of the attributes that distinguish brilliant scientists from the mediocre. A good experiment should prove conclusively the truth of a fact. And he also warns against falling in love with the hypothesis or the observation. The final experimentation should be the guide towards definitive conclusions, and previous assumptions should be killed without compassion. Another of his quotes is "The duty of a man of science is not to petrify in the error, but to adapt continuously to the scientific medium".

I did not think chapter 8 would be too interesting given the title, "writing of the scientific work", but it proved to be interesting as well. He breaks down some tips into eight categories that I'll refrain from repeating (I'm also not sure how well I'm faring in this translation from Spanish).

One of the things he talks about is having something to say and not just writing for the sake of writing. I have to agree with him, specially comparing it with the software industry. I am kind of disappointed in how many useless things the industry produces, and I think efforts could be focused in solving better problems. Instead we're reinventing the wheel all the time.

Another topic he tackles is diplomacy and respect for other's work, even when criticizing. He also notes the importance to acknowledge previous work and present the assumptions one's work is built upon by citing related works in the bibliography.

Finally he goes into exposing the intricacies of the work done, what I would translate to my field as the classic sentence "show me the code". There is value in abstractions, conclusions and all kind of explanations. But in the end, nothing beats looking at the lowest levels of abstraction to really understand something. He also makes emphasis in simplicity.

Chapter 9 is focused on teaching. He goes into how important it is for a scientist to teach others and gives different tips on how to do the best for students.

This topic is very interesting to me. I enjoy teaching and I've done it formally in some occasions. I also believe education is one of the most (if not the most) important things in society. When pondering about social problems, I often reach the conclusion that education is the key to solving most of them.

And yet, I don't practice teaching on a regular basis. I work in the open and I try to share what I do, but that's not really teaching. Sharing is also very important, but it ain't teaching. So why's that? Right now, two reasons come to mind.

The first one that it takes effort. It also takes effort to document my journey like I'm doing now, but preparing educational resources is a different game (I write documentation, but I consider that something else).

The second reason is that I actually don't know what to teach. I feel like anyone can learn most of what I know on their own (although I know that's not 100% true). So I end up reducing the things I would like to teach to philosophical or abstract topics. I guess that's part of the reasons why you won't find technical posts in my blog, even though I'm a developer and I spent most of my day programming.

If I really think about it, the second reason makes no sense and I should probably teach things that are "obvious" to me anyways. I've actually got some potential posts prepared and it may be time to start thinking about writing those. Regardless of that, I'm sure at some point teaching will become part of my daily work, because I've enjoyed the experiences I've had and I think education is really important. But I'm not quite sure when that'll happen.

After dragging it a lot, I've finally completed the book. The last 2 chapters were excruciating to read, I even skipped some parts.

For one, I've validated that I don't like reading non-digital books. At least with the reading habits that I have now (I read mostly on my commute). And I also miss the ability to take highlights, so I ended up writing them by hand to Evernote (again, not ideal in my commute). I've tried with a Kindle book before, but as I've already explained I don't like having to rely on Amazon or private technology. And I recently started reading a book in the web, which I like a lot conceptually, but let's see how it goes in practice. All in all, PDFs are still my preferred format for reading. But unfortunately, they are not easy to get legally.

The other thing that made it so difficult to read was the topic. The last two chapters are focused on why Spain was lacking on scientific advancements back then (1900s). I have to confess that, in general, I don't like history. Specially not this kind. It reminded me a lot of the texts I was forced to read back in highschool. Luckily enough, I'm not forced to do it anymore, so I skipped some. But I do like other kind of history. For example, I'm a huge fan of Dan Carlin's Hardcore History podcast.

So yeah, even though it's finished with this somber note, it's done! I have to say overall I enjoyed it a lot, and I'd recommend anyone to check it out. I'll probably come back to my notes in the future.

Task completed