It's a total noob question, I know.

I'm a layperson trying to come to grips with basic scientific terminology. I always face a conceptual hurdle in trying to understand micro-talk. The way I'm using the expression 'micro-talk', I take it to refer to any kind of discourse that relies extensively on concepts that refer to unobservables like DNA, adenosine triphosphate, other molecules/compounds, chemical elements, atoms, etc. i.e. the kind of quasi-tangible entities that we can never perceive directly owing to our particular evolutionary history that prioritized engagement with mesoscopic objects.

Whenever I read anything in an introductory textbook, the talk of such entities is always presented as a given to me. It's not explained on how on earth we know about them (or even if such explanation is given, it's usually quite shallow and circular i.e. it makes references to the entities in question). I can recite, or rather parrot facts about them just fine. If you ask me why a second magnesium ion is important for ATP, I retort that that's because of its functional role in regulating kinase activity. I might be able to successfully make certain inferences between sentences that involve such concepts. So I might even successfully pass a scientist's Turing test, but that's all there is to it. I don't really have an understanding of what I'm talking about. I feel like I'm a robot or a medieval scribe.

How can I get over this conceptual chasm? Learning about a historical development of a particular discipline might help, but I need to find a way to systematize my study and I can't have a recourse to university right now (even if I did, I'll face the same conceptual hurdle). I have library loans and will to study, but I haven't internalized a good number of micro-talk related concepts and they feel so foreign to me.

This is quite maundering, but I couldn't put it any more succinctly. If there's anyone who experienced a similar frustrating feeling to the one I've described, I'd be very grateful if they could offer me some tips. Thanks a lot.


closed as primarily opinion-based by Remi.b, David, Bryan Krause, fileunderwater, WYSIWYG Apr 19 '18 at 12:17

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ You should study chemistry, and the history of chemistry would also be good, like atomic models, Rutheford, Bohr, etc. Some software of visualization of molecules, like RasMol, could help as well. $\endgroup$ – Rodrigo Feb 18 '18 at 0:05
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ here are chemistry animations, if you learn well with visuals. youtube.com/… $\endgroup$ – com.prehensible Feb 18 '18 at 0:46
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Although I think this question is off-topic here (is there an eduction of psychology SE?) I find your attitude interesting. It may reflect a general attitude of people who are put off by molecular sciences or your own particular research mind. The question is whether it would help you reading texts that described the way the atomic theory and then molecular theory was developed and the evidence supporting them. Or would the uncertainty be still too great for you. How mistakes (e.g. phlogiston) persisted for years before being discarded. How simple theories had to be revised. You could try. $\endgroup$ – David Feb 18 '18 at 10:10
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ When I was at secondary school in the 50s (sic) the text books (physics, especially) adopted that approach, partly for contemporary pedagogic reasons, partly because less was known then. I'm not sure how you would get hold of a (more condensed) chemistry text with a similar approach today. Many/most major conceptual breakthroughs did not follow the "scientific method", but involved ideas of how matter might be, for which support was slowly obtained by the results of experiments, generally inconclusive in themselves. The logic of the ideas appealed to me, so I could accept the uncertainty. $\endgroup$ – David Feb 19 '18 at 12:37
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ For me a lot of clicking happened thanks to structural biology. Actually seeing how each molecule of that enzyme looks physically, and how it interlinks with others, made everything much easier to imagine. Try adding "PDB" (or PDBe if you prefer the UX) to a search for a protein and usually you'll find something nice to look at. Also, this: youtube.com/watch?v=X_tYrnv_o6A $\endgroup$ – Armatus Apr 7 '18 at 0:05

I'm assuming you have a reasonable high school education otherwise you probably wouldn't have posted your question.

Do a basic science course and/or read - maths, physics, chemistry, biology texts. 1st year university level should be good.

If there is anything you don't understand in these texts, go to more basic books - plus Wikipedia is good for the sciences (I wouldn´t like to read them on, say, the Arab-Israeli question), but I've never seen any egregious errors in the scientific area!

Then read Klug and Cummins "Concepts of Genetics" from cover to cover.

If there is anything you don't understand in Klug and Cummins, go back to basic texts.

I had a good background in the sciences and then majored in Genetics with minors in Biochem, Microbiology and Immunology. I read that book from cover to cover taking notes in 3rd year (of a 4 year degree programme) and have done very well in the field.

The book covers the history of the discoveries in a very readable and approachable fashion. Obviously it is no substitute for doing a degree in the subject, but if you really wish to at least have a good understanding of the science, you could do worse than read that text!

You could also read popular science books aimed at the "interested and educated layperson" - Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins for example. Try National Geographic and even Scientific American or New Scientist. You, at least intially, will have to make a real effort, but it is very rewarding - there is nothing more fascinating than biology generally and molecular biology/genetics in particular! Best of luck on your journey!


Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.