Miguel Panao | Professor and Author

Finding ways to improve scientific writing and academic productivity.

Don’t stop when you fail to understand the science

The best thing it may happen while doing science is also the worst. It’s when we realize and say “I don’t understand.” However, not understanding can be of value. We just need to learn how to deal with it.

not understanding can be positive

When I read an article outside my field of research, if the underlying science is mathematically-based, the reading becomes a challenge and the chances of putting that paper aside increase. Even within my field of knowledge, occasionally, something like this happens.

The reason is our lack of understanding or mathematical skills to interpret what a group of authors developed in their research. At best, when you say to yourself – “I don’t understand.” – can be the worst thing because you feel demotivated to continue your reading. But not necessarily.

We have this amazing gift of curiosity and the ability to make sense of things. So… what seems impossible only takes longer and more ingenuity. I’d like to share three simple steps I’m experimenting to reach that goal.


Learn to read between the lines

A lot of the description we read in papers is there because the authors must make sure anyone is able to reproduce their results. However, from the interpretation point of view, most of the time you don’t need to go into the line containing those detailed descriptions. What matters is actually between those lines. Underline the interpretative parts of papers.


Brake the math into smaller pieces

If the math seems complicated (it probably is!), you can break expressions into smaller pieces and search for the meaning of each part to understand the whole. Every mathematical formalism is nothing but a way of describing concrete aspects of reality. Search for what those aspects are and you increase your chances of better understanding the math.


Cherish the value of not understanding

The meaning of not understanding is you still have a lot to learn. Only those who give up on their ability to be creative stop learning. We only move forward when we don’t understand.

Suggestion: try to face what you don’t understand under this point of view and share your experience in the comments below. If you want… of course 🙂

About Miguel Panao

I am a Professor at the University of Coimbra in Mechanical Engineering. I am also author of books in the fields of environmental ethics and Science and Religion. From the several research projects, this site is personal and dedicated to the search for the best approaches, tools, techniques to improve scientific productivity.

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