planck vs chaffeur

2 minute read

Extension of my previous post on how doing anything great takes at least 10 years

Examining the difference between ‘deep knowledge’ and ‘superficial knowledge. Other ways of articulating:

  • memorising vs understanding
  • Recall vs relationship
  • real vs pretend knowledge

Planck vs Chauffeur Knowledge

Charlie Munger recounted in his 2007 Commencement to the USC Law School:

“I frequently tell the apocryphal story about how Max Planck, after he won the Nobel Prize, went around Germany giving the same standard lecture on the new quantum mechanics.

Over time, his chauffeur memorised the lecture and said, “Would you mind, Professor Planck, because it’s so boring to stay in our routine. [What if] I gave the lecture in Munich and you just sat in front wearing my chauffeur’s hat?” Planck said, “Why not?” And the chauffeur got up and gave this long lecture on quantum mechanics. After which a physics professor stood up and asked a perfectly ghastly question. The speaker said, “Well I’m surprised that in an advanced city like Munich I get such an elementary question. I’m going to ask my chauffeur to reply.”

The story articulates the difference between superficial understanding and deep understanding. Max Planck understood the topic, whereas the chauffeur was simply able to repeat.

What is the difference?

understanding is relational

Understanding is based on building on prior concepts, and seeing how they relate to each other

understanding takes time

Going back to the previous post. To develop deep understanding within a field takes time.

you can apply the concept to other contexts

For example : in computer science, understanding abstraction as a concept can be applied to other fields. Or in chemistry, the concept of activation energy.

You can explain without jargon

knowing the name of something doesn’t mean you understand it

The ultimate test is the ability to explain it to a 5 year old. I love this video where a neuroscientist explains the idea of a connectome


How do you develop Planck knowledge ?

Chauffeur knowledge is not bad

Having a superficial understanding of a topic is not a bad thing

What is bad, is pretending to have a deep understanding and deceiving yourself and others

You are going to start off by having superficial knowledge. What is important is :

Imposter syndrome is part of the process

You’re going to start off as the chauffeur.

In fact in the start you’ll think you understand something deeply (Dunning Kruger)

dunningkruger

But at some point, with enough time spent on truly understanding the priors, you can get to a Planck level knowledge

Take aways

Especially as you are about to start rad training

  1. Spend time understanding the basics
  2. Question
  3. Keep a medical logbook

Related Posts