Part 5 of the essay series Research and Knowledge Accumulation

Euclid vs. Galileo vs. Freud

Some thinkers’ ideas are refined and built on for decades, centuries, or millennia. Other thinkers’ ideas are explored but then abandoned.

Euclid and Galileo are examples of the former. Euclid’s Elements in 300 BC presented a framework for what came to be known as Euclidean geometry. Mathematicians built on this for over two thousand years and are still studying it now. Galileo in 1609 AD used a handheld telescope to make surprising observations about the moon, Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn. …


Part 4 of the essay series Research and Knowledge Accumulation

Towards accumulation

Left to itself, knowledge naturally decays. Yet we see many cases around us where researchers make discoveries and knowledge accumulates. What allows knowledge to accumulate in these cases?

In this essay, we will introduce the idea of an intellectual Schelling point. This will help us to understand the phenomenon of knowledge accumulation and more about when knowledge does and does not accumulate.

Intellectual common ground

For knowledge to accumulate among researchers, those researchers must have enough common ground. When you have enough intellectual common ground, you can share…


Part 3 of the essay series Research and Knowledge Accumulation

The Rocketdyne F-1 engine (Photo by Daniel Mennerich)

Preserving knowledge

It is easy to believe that knowledge accumulates automatically. We see many instances of knowledge accumulation — in math and physics, on Wikipedia and the internet, in our own lives as we learn things and teach things to others.

However, knowledge accumulation is not automatic.

To see this, we can think about cases of lost knowledge — or cases where knowledge would have been lost, had we not worked very hard to preserve it. …


Part 2 of the essay series Research and Knowledge Accumulation

Finding a way in

In my previous essay, I proposed that the idea of knowledge accumulation was a key missing concept in our understanding of research.

How knowledge accumulation works is itself an entire topic — hence this essay series. A good way in is to start with a nearby concept, the concept of research productivity.

Researchers are doing research. What determines how productive they are? What determines the total research output of the system? …


Part 1 of the essay series Research and Knowledge Accumulation

The Long Room in the Old Library, Library of Trinity College Dublin

Mountains of research

Our society is spending an enormous amount of money and effort on research. Here is a graph of PhDs granted, money spent, and papers published over the last hundred years:

Geoff Anders

Philosopher, research program designer.

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