Visualizing the textbook for fun and profitpost by AllAmericanBreakfast · 2020-09-24T19:37:47.932Z · LW · GW · 4 comments
Here we go again. It's the beginning of my undergraduate o-chem series. It's going to be a year of prose like this:
Recall the electron configuration of carbon (Figure 1.18). This electron configuration cannot satisfactorily describe the bonding structure of methane (CH4), in which the carbon atom has four separate C─H bonds, because the electron configuration shows only two atomic orbitals capable of forming bonds (each of these orbitals has one unpaired electron). This would imply that the carbon atom will form only two bonds, but we know that it forms four bonds. We can solve this problem by imagining an excited state of carbon (Figure 1.19): a state in which a 2s electron has been promoted to a higher energy 2p orbital.
Scintillating. I genuinely enjoy my subjects, but let's be honest. Right in the moment, there are many other things I would rather be doing than reading my chemistry textbook.
Recently, I explored [LW · GW] whether it's possible to feel a sense of playfulness while you're alone. I found that it was. It it possible to feel playfulness while reading a chemistry textbook? Or is it better to optimize for an efficient, if dry, learning experience, and find ways to reward yourself afterward? If it is possible to feel playfulness while reading an o-chem textbook, it would be worth trading off at least some efficiency in favor of positive feeling. The question is how much. Of course, the best case scenario is where it's both possible to feel playfulness while reading, and it makes you learn more efficiently.
In my experiments of feeling playful while alone, I took away a few key insights.
- Starting with an open, unfocused, non goal-oriented mindset was crucial.
- The feeling of playfulness was based on connecting physical objects with memories, a sense of profound personal meaning, and possibility. There was a poetic, metaphorical, associative quality to the experience. These associations were neither purely spontaneous and involuntary, nor deliberately constructed. It was more a sense of resting my attention and gaze on an object, and then gently asking my mind to remember or imagine a psychological association.
- I remembered the act of remembering afterward, and it made those memories more available to me in the future.
Playfulness while reading a chemistry textbook might take a similar form, something quite different, or simply be unavailable.
A particular difference is that my playfulness-around-the-house experiment was entirely visual. This will be, if anything, textual first and visual only secondarily.
I read a couple review paragraphs about hybridized orbitals. I try to get out of the mindset of reading the text, and instead try to visualize it. My visual imagination is fairly poor, so mostly that entails looking at the diagrams and trying to "echo" them in my visual imagination. By practicing this a bit, I can see them in my mind's eye, and compare them with each other. I can directly see the point my textbook is making in words, but directly represented.
It's like the difference between having somebody explain different cuts in a diamond, or styles of brushwork in a gallery of paintings, and being able to directly perceive them yourself.
This doesn't feel "playful," but seems to be a step in the right direction.
As I read another couple paragraphs, I notice that some sentences add something new to the visual. Others call attention to some feature that I'd ignored. Others don't affect the visual at all. By focusing my attention on the visual I've been generating and developing, rather than on the verbiage, my experience of reading this textbook feels different than it did before - more relaxed, more meditative. I'm having an interesting experience of what my visual imagination is capable of, rather than doing the labor of reading a certain number of paragraphs.
Certain words seem to suggest a visual representation, even though I'm not confident that it accurately depicts them. For example, the textbook says:
The larger front lobe enables hybridized atomic orbitals to be more efficient than p orbitals in their ability to form bonds.
What does that word "efficient" mean in a visual sense? Hybridized orbitals aren't a real physical process, just a mathematical description that more accurately predicts empirical data. I try representing this fact by imagining two hybridized methane molecules. One has shorter symmetrical orbitals. The other reaches out one end of its orbitals toward the surrounding hydrogen atoms, like an octopus extending four tentacles to grab on to some clams.
... Well, that's a fun image. Maybe I'll try to imagine bonds as octopuses and clams this year! And here's a little bit of genuine playfulness entering the picture.
The shapes of small molecules can often be predicted if we presume that all electron pairs (whether bonding or nonbonding) repel each other, and as such, they arrange themselves in three-dimensional space so as to achieve maximal distance from each other.
I try to imagine this. At first, I get a picture that simply represents "small molecules," like a dot in my mind. Then my mind thinks of how squirrels will run around a tree, trying to stay on the opposite side of the trunk from you. Then it spits up a representation of yellow dots chasing each other around a spherical nucleus, in a similar style to the chemistry textbook. These imagines come up rapidly.
I'm starting to get out of the mindset of scrutinizing the words of these paragraphs, as if the language itself held the key to understanding. Instead, I rapidly "upload" the text into a visual image. This takes far less time. It's an attitude shift. Reading isn't about diligently shoving an imaginative aural simulation of the words themselves through your brain, or dragging your eyeballs across every line of text on the page. It's about activating your visual imagination and allowing the text to help you manipulate and notice features of those images. Sometimes that results in playful visuals, other times in geometrical reductions.
This is part of Valence Shell Electron Pair Repulsion theory. Last year, I'd have tried to remember this phrase by stringing together the sounds in my mind, like a jingle. Now, I just picture an atom, see the electrons in the valence shell, see them repelling each other, and the name just feels natural. It's the equivalent of naming a dock the "Place Where Cargo is Unloaded From Ships." The name isn't mysterious or hard to remember at all once you've visited, created a visual memory, and understood what's going on there.
My imagination is starting to incorporate sound effects. I'm able to create transitions between simulated molecular shapes that feel sophisticated, sort of like a video game. There's a sense of being able to "click" a certain orbital to transition it back and forth between a bond with hydrogen and a lone pair of electrons. The sound effect and expansion as the bond with hydrogen turns into a lone pair, pushing the other bonds with hydrogen closer together, makes the significance of the different geometries more clear.
There's a physical satisfaction in being able to hold and expand on these images. It's a bit like the feeling of strength that comes after you've gotten into a long run and are no longer resisting the exercise, but instead enjoying the feeling of power residing in your body.
These visuals dramatically improve my ability to remember. The difference between an sp3 and sp2 hybridization looks insignificant when it's just these abstract abbreviations on paper. But these two types of geometries look very different in their diagrams, and being able to quickly "flip" back and forth between imagining one and then the other is helpful.
The visual image contains all the information from the preceding paragraph. Thus, I no longer feel the anxiety I typically do about having forgotten the words in the first sentence by the time I get to the last sentence. It's all contained within the increasingly elaborate visual image I've been developing as I go along. A picture is worth a thousand words.
I'm not sure if this is taking longer than it would to just read the text. I suspect so. I'm also not sure if I'll retain the information better than by merely reading the text. I do feel as if I'm understanding it on an intuitive level much better, and to me, that's worth it. This is all review material, and I'm very curious to know whether this visualization practice will be a useful compliment, or even a replacement, for spaced repetition with flashcards.
Why is fluorine the most electronegative element on the periodic table? The answer is that it has the greatest ratio of positive charge from the protons in its nucleus to the amount of shielding it gets from the electrons in its orbit. Picture those protons as black holes in the center of the atom, sucking in any electrons nearby. In a big fat molecule like iodine, there's a big huge cluster of protons in the center, but there are just as many electrons surrounding it "absorbing" that "suction," and what's more, they surround it in layer after layer, protecting electrons in nearby molecules from the force. In fluorine, there's not as many protons, but they have far fewer layers of electron "fat" around their core, so nearby electrons are much more exposed to their "suction."
Picture iodine as a big, content Roman patrician after devouring a feast. Fluorine is a skeletal, starving Windigo, ravenous and ready to devour the electrons of any atoms it can get its hands on.
Occasionally, the effort I put into visualizing the text produced funny or striking images, and felt like a form of poetic, imaginative mental play. Most of the time, it was a more calm and focused experience. Overall, though, making an effort to visualize makes the experience of reading a textbook much more satisfying. Now that I'm doing it, it's almost inconceivable that I would go back to doing things the old way - reading paragraphs and hoping that the verbiage somehow sticks.
Does this connect with playfulness, somehow?
When kids are playing, they're transforming the world with their visual imagination. A stick becomes a sword or a laser gun. Putting your arm up overhead like Superman and running around the room becomes flying. Telling a story creates a world in your mind.
Kids hurt themselves and fail in their efforts all the time partly because their imaginative world is more real to them than physical reality. When we decide we want to master physical reality, we start to focus on the world of our senses at the expensive of our imagination. This isn't bad, but the visual imagination appears to me to become incredibly important once again when we circle back around and want to explore the world in the greatest possible detail through science and mathematics.
My long-term perception of myself has been that I lack almost entirely the ability to visualize. Reading novels has tended to be an auditory and intellectual experience. This experience and others that I've written about [LW · GW] over the last few months have convinced me that my visual imagination can be trained, and that this training is the number one method I have available to improve my general intelligence.
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