What are Examples of Great Distillers?

post by adamShimi · 2020-11-12T14:09:59.128Z · LW · GW · 5 comments

This is a question post.



A distiller (name based on https://distill.pub/) is a writer who can explain a complex topic, one with a lot of research debt, so that knowledgeable undergraduates in the subject can get a good intuition and picture of the subject. I'm looking for examples of people you consider great distillers in a field in which you have advanced knowledge. For example, Terrence Tao is a great distiller of Mathematics, and Scott Aaronson is a great distiller of Complexity Theory and Quantum Computing. What are your favorite distillers, and why?

I'm asking because I'm trying to improve my own distilling skills, and studying/stealing from the masters is a great way to get better. Only issue is that you need to know the masters. 


answer by yagudin · 2020-11-12T15:58:51.138Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
comment by yagudin · 2020-11-13T18:23:52.974Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

As this answer got upvoted, I collected some Dubna's courses read in English, for which recordings are available (look for "Доступны 4 видеозаписи курса.")

comment by adamShimi · 2020-11-13T18:02:09.540Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks! The first link is especially awesome!

answer by David_Gross · 2020-11-12T19:45:01.619Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm fond of the "A Very Short Introduction" book series from Oxford University Press. Some very good examples of those include Thomas Pink's on Free Will, Susan Blackmore's on Consciousness, Christopher Janaway's on Schopenhauer, David Weir's on Decadence, Stanley Wells on Shakespeare, and Brad Inwood's on Stoicism.

comment by adamShimi · 2020-11-13T18:01:48.383Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks! I have some of those, I'll pay more attention next time I read one.

answer by Owain_Evans · 2020-11-13T18:46:53.424Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

David MacKay: Sustainable Energy – without the hot air
David MacKay: Information Theory text book
Steven Pinker: How the Mind Works, The Stuff of Thought (Cognitive science, linguistics, philosophy of language)

comment by adamShimi · 2020-11-13T18:51:42.162Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


I know MacKay by reputation, for the information theory textbook. What make him a great distiller/explainer in your opinion?


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comment by Mo Nastri · 2020-11-12T15:54:37.770Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Chris Olah for machine learning (I'm thinking in particular of his backpropagation essay), Qiaochu Yuan for math (I'd been following his writing on Math Overflow and MSE for years before discovering to my pleasant surprise that he's also a frequent LW poster) as well as John Baez and Tim Gowers (their blog posts are, to me the gold standard for research-level math exposition), Sabine Hossenfelder for theoretical physics.

Replies from: vanessa-kosoy
comment by Vanessa Kosoy (vanessa-kosoy) · 2020-11-12T21:24:24.893Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Seconding John Baez

comment by Ikaxas · 2020-11-13T02:44:50.610Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Can't claim advanced knowledge for either of these, but based on benefitting from them myself: Jonathan Haidt for social and evolutionary psychology, and the 3Blue1Brown youtube channel for math.

comment by Gyrodiot · 2020-11-12T14:25:34.317Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

To clarify the question, would a good distiller be one (or more) of:

  • a good textbook writer? or state-of-the-art review writer?
  • a good blog post writer on a particular academic topic?
  • a good science communicator or teacher, through books, videos, tweets, whatever?

Based on the level of articles in Distill I wouldn't expect producers of introductory material to fit your definition, but if advanced material counts, I'd nominate Adrian Colyer for Computer Science (I'll put this in a proper answer with extra names based on your reply).

Replies from: adamShimi
comment by adamShimi · 2020-11-12T15:02:57.738Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm talking more about the first two. Although probably something in the middle. You can be a good textbook writer by writing clean textbooks, even without much intuition. And you can write good blog post that don't go deep into the topic. Those two cases are not good distillers for me.

So I think both can qualify, if they are similar to my examples: Tao as a textbook writer who adds a lot of intuition, or Aaronson as a blog post writer who goes deep into technical details.