I turn the tap on and there's water there..... Yep.
August 8, 2010 5:08 PM   Subscribe

I am woefully (and willfully I guess) ignorant. What's the best way to remedy this?

I consider myself reasonably educated. I have a BA, I read in my spare time, and I try to stay informed about current events. But the other day it struck me that I don't know how a lot of things work. As in I don't know how electricity actually works, or how radios function, or how decisions are made at the federal level, or.........

Basically, I don't know about a lot of things that affect my daily life. I have no idea how a car works or how airplanes get off the ground. I don't know how the fridge keeps my stuff cold. I don't know what happens to make water come out of my tap. I just take all of these things for granted and have no idea how they actually happen.

Are there any books or podcasts or short videos that would be good to read, listen to, or watch? I would prefer to read than to listen or watch but I am willing to do anything.

I don't like the Discovery channel show "How It's Made" because I find it dry and not very engaging. Also I'm not really all that interested in how machinery is engineered because I can't relate much of it to my life.

Help me learn!
posted by Small Pockets to Education (20 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
What's the best way to remedy this?

The folks at your local public library would love to see, and help you.
posted by netbros at 5:15 PM on August 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

It doesn't cover everything, but I recommend picking up a copy of the cheap and ubiquitous Time-Life book How Things Work in Your Home: And What to Do When They Don't - it gives schematics of, and short, simple explanations of the workings of, many of the components of your house or apartment. It also explains, in terms a layperson can understand, how to fix them if they break.
posted by ryanshepard at 5:20 PM on August 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

The Way Things Work

It's not going to turn you into an EE, but it's a start.
posted by Some1 at 5:22 PM on August 8, 2010 [3 favorites]

I think there's an Eyewitness book called How Things Work...
This might be a computer program.
posted by lhude sing cuccu at 5:23 PM on August 8, 2010

Some1 beat me to it...THAT's it!!
It also comes as a computer program.
posted by lhude sing cuccu at 5:23 PM on August 8, 2010

If you're looking for a general "how do a bunch of different machines work" book, The Way Things Work by David Macaulay is outstanding. I read it as a kid, and it's part of the reason I became an engineer. Infrastructure: A Field Guide to the Industrial Landscape by Brian Haynes is good for, well, infrastructure (water, electricity, roads, etc.).

The Internet is great too. Every time you wonder about something, make a note of it, and look it up (Wikipedia or Google) the next time you're at a computer. Maybe make a habit of browsing Wikipedia instead of online game-playing...it's almost as mindless, as long as you follow your interest rather than what you "should" learn.

On a deeper level, people know a bunch of rules for what things happen when, but the ultimate "how" or ultimate nature of reality has not been found. It sounds like you're looking for just the "what principles were used to design this?" or "what smaller machines go into this big machine?", not anything philosophical.

Why do you want to know these things? (I like knowing a lot of them. It makes me feel powerful, and very rarely I can know why something isn't working. But, I can't hold enough specialist knowledge to rebuild civilization from scratch. I'd need a lot of time to re-learn, say, crop rotation, iron refining, etc. even when I know the general principles.)
Your reasons may be different, and other things might give you the same feeling. Have you thought about taking a welding or car repair class at a community college?
posted by sninctown at 5:24 PM on August 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

I had a copy of The Way Things Work when I was little. It is so fantastic. It answers the questions you're looking to get answered clearly and plainly (it is a book for children, after all), but fully, in detail, and with awesome illustrations. And mammoths!

Go get a copy from your library and spend some time with it. For kids or not, it's really enjoyable.
posted by phunniemee at 5:25 PM on August 8, 2010

Oops, should've previewed.
posted by phunniemee at 5:25 PM on August 8, 2010

posted by resiny at 5:27 PM on August 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

In the pre-internet days, the encyclopedia served this purpose for me. When it struck me that I wanted to know about something, the something went on a list of things to be researched when I was at the library. I would slowly work through that list (which was and is neverending) to my satisfaction. Today, Wikipedia is my goto. My trips to the library and knowledge list resolution are now condensed to convenient 5 minute chunks. Yay technology!
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 5:27 PM on August 8, 2010

What I do: Anytime you find yourself wondering in passing about anything at all, make a habit of looking it up. Right then if possible, or make a mental note for later. You won't remember all your mental notes, but if you remember even one or two a day it will lead to surprising and interesting knowledge.

Lately (as an example) I've been interested trying to learn how to identify common trees. This, in turn, (without me meaning it to) has led to knowledge about various kinds of forests, the names of the parts of a leaf, the meanings of a few latin tree names and why they were named that, and the existence of a nature preserve in my vicinity that I didn't know about. Take one thread and let it lead you in any direction you want.

In the meantime, you have the ability, right now (since you have a computer with internet access) of finding out how electricity works. So find out! I'm not talking Wikipedia necessarily. The Internet Public Library is a great place to start for reliable resources on just about anything. If you find yourself really interested, you can stop by the library and get some books about it, or about the history of it, or whatever. If not, just move on to the next thing another day.
posted by frobozz at 5:27 PM on August 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

The legendary TV series Connections by James Burke goes through a history of technology in a beautifully arranged manner, and along the way gives short and understandable explanations of many important technologies (some of which we no longer use but which paved way for things we do use).

First episode

Full series (It's organized a little strangely; in the 'description' of each video on this playlist is a link to the playlist for that episode)
posted by Anything at 5:29 PM on August 8, 2010 [3 favorites]

Seconding the How Stuff Works site, and, if you're a podcast person, the Stuff You Should Know podcast, which is produced by HSW and hosted by two of their writers.

The podcast doesn't often do really mundane stuff like "How Electricity Works"*; they typically cover slightly more quirky subjects that, in my experience, anyway, tend to set off either a long chain of wikipedia surfing or a visit to the How Stuff Works site. Recent topics include quantum physics, presidential pardons, reincarnation, and voodoo. They also have years of older episodes that might specifically touch on topics that interest you.

*That said, they recently did episodes about ticks and saunas, so who knows...
posted by Sara C. at 5:49 PM on August 8, 2010

I'm a big fan of old books. Recently, for a few bucks I picked up a full 6 volume set of Sir John Hammersley's "Practical Knowledge for All" from the late 50's, in very good condition. Though certainly dated, it's still a surprisingly good, if stilted, read that covers the basics of the many things a well-rounded English Gentleman of the mid-20th century was expected to know ;-)

"Containing clear and ample instructions on Accountancy, Aeronautics, Art and Literature, Astronomy, Biology, Botany, British History, Chemistry, Drawing and Design, Economic Geography, Economics, Engineering, English Language, English Literature, Geography, Geology, History (Ancient and Medieval), Mathematics, Modern History, Philosophy, Psysiography, Physics, Physiology, Zoology, Foreign Languages, Latin, French, German, Spanish, Shorthand."

While I can certainly pick holes in some things due to its age, the basics in subjects I'm well acquainted with (electricity and electronics, biology, botany, engineering, physics, and zoology) stand up surprisingly well. It's a pity they don't make adult books like this any more…
posted by Pinback at 6:59 PM on August 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Connections and The Way Things Work are wonderful and explain things really well, but to me it sounds like what you are lacking is a basic scientific education.

If you understand something about the ideas behind Boyle's law (whether or not you know it by name) and the laws of thermodynamics the principles governing many common devices become easily comprehensible. Similarly knowing about resistors, capacitors and inductors makes understanding what goes on in electrical devices possible.

Once you know some of this background scientific information then getting descriptions of how and why a specific technology works is much easier -- when you are told that a refrigerator has an evaporator a compressor and a condenser you will have a fighting chance of working out why without a lot of further investigation.

Try to learn some of the science behind the things you are interested in and other technology will become more comprehensible; as you learn more science more and more will become comprehensible. This won't mean you'll be able to design integrated circuits, but it will mean that you have some idea of why there are limits to optical techniques for shrinking the circuits on to the die.

Look more for things that explain basic science than for straight explanations of technology that usually presume some knowledge of science.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 7:23 PM on August 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

Thirding Connections by James Burke. They have all three series at Netflix, and at most libraries.

When I was an engineering student, I would ride home fast to catch Connections... Burke has a great way of explaining not just the way things work, but also the context in which discoveries were made.

Burke also has many books that exhibit his unique way of looking at how the world works.
posted by foobario at 7:26 PM on August 8, 2010

get a college physics textbook.
posted by scose at 8:53 PM on August 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Website: HowStuffWorks
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:52 PM on August 8, 2010

For science in general, Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything is superb.
posted by wei at 2:40 AM on August 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

Read wikipedia with a browser that supports tabs. If you can think of something that interests you, start there. Open all the linked articles in new tabs. Then when you read them, open more tabs. Otherwise, you can use the random article feature on the left side. This can suck up hours. But I learned about the Kingdom of Mallorca today and I don't even know how I started toward that.
posted by oreofuchi at 3:25 PM on August 10, 2010

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