By Fermilab (http://www.fnal.gov/pub/news/feynman.jpg), via Wikimedia Commons
“I can live with doubt, and uncertainty, and not knowing…If I can’t figure it out, then I go to something else. But I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things…” –Richard Feynman
Time to face facts. You will read passages on the GMAT, GRE, SAT, and ACT that you won’t understand. Complex passages on topics that you aren’t familiar with, new and foreign terminology, jargon and more jargon, astronomy, physics, history, economics, written at a level that you are aspiring to reach–all these impediments liter your path to success. For some, this is crippling. Students will become frustrated, lose focus, and stop digging into the passage if they encounter something they don’t know.
But, not us!
The wonderful, inquisitive Richard Feynman has the perfect attitude for you to adopt: embrace the unknown! Don’t be frightened by a foreign word or new concept. Embrace what you do know and move forward to find a correct answer. Remember that your task is not to fully understand everything written in the passage, but to choose a correct answer from a collection of wrong answers.
So, what does this mean for your test?
First, focus on what you do know, not on what you don’t. Your goal should be to understand the relationship between the words you do know and the words you don’t. To do this, look at the structure words in the passage. Aim to understand the flow and structure of a passage through words like also, however, therefore, first, second, and but. Let’s review.
The English language has three basic ways to relate ideas–continue, contrast, or cause-and-effect. Either an idea or topic continues along, the way it has been going (and, also, in addition, furthermore), or a contrasting idea or topic is introduced, something that changes the “direction” of the passage (yet, however, surprisingly, but), or finally, an idea or topic is the result of something, a concluding statement, a cause that leads to an effect (thus, because, ergo, so, since). These words tell you how things in a passage connect, how things in a sentence connect. Pay attention to them.
Second, if you find a word you don’t know, abbreviate it. Either in your mind or in your notes, use an abbreviation. This is especially helpful when a passage is salted with terms describing biochemical reactions within algae, the strata of weather patterns in the Andes mountains, or astrological phenomenon that seem more like online passwords than the name of stars. Don’t worry about a strange new word. Give it a new name. A name you like. A name you can understand. If the passage says, “Averaging of incompressible flows on two-dimensional surfaces”, I say, “Avg. the flow!” Ultimately, try to understand the function of the abbreviation in the passage. Look at how the author uses the words and ideas–the author’s purpose. Remember, “Why is more important than what.”
Finally, ask yourself some questions about the word you don’t know:
- Is it person, place, thing, or idea?
- Is it an action?
- Is it an event?
- Is it something in the past, present, or future?
- Is it a description of something?
- Is it how to do something?
- Is it a fact or opinion?
- Is it a category, a relationship, or a type?
Alright, enough talking about it, let’s illustrate this with an example. I found a passage similar to something you might read on the test titled, “Evolution of gene neighborhoods within reconciled phylogenies.” The title alone is a intimidating. Here is an excerpt:
“Here, we propose a method that takes a species tree and a set of gene trees as inputs, and models the gain and breakage of gene adjacencies along a pair of trees, taking duplications and losses into account. We consider two genes to be ‘adjacent’ if they are on the same chromosome in the same genome and no other gene is located between the two. We give an exact polynomial algorithm which minimizes the number of gains and breakages of adjacencies, or more generally, the gain/breakage cost of an evolutionary scenario for gene adjacencies. The result consists of sets of ‘adjacency trees,’ which are phylogenetic trees describing the evolution of a family of homologous adjacencies (adjacencies that share a common ancestor and derived from it).”
Overwhelming? What if you had one minute to read and answer a question? Well, you should abbreviate and focus on the relationship of ideas:
- They took two types of GT, “gene trees.”
- Put GT into model–wanted to see where there was gainB, “gain and breakage.”
- gainB was at ADGE, “adjacent genes.”
- definition of ADGE.
- Something to minimize gainB–something to account for evolution.
- gainB related to evolutionary event.
- The result: another GT, which describes the evolution of similar ADGE.
Notice that this is not a complete summation of the passage, but merely a rough sketch of what is there, an outline of the passage’s flow from one idea to next. I may not really know what they mean by “gain breakage,” but I do know how it is used in the passage.
So next time you encounter something foreign, new, and potentially scary in a reading passage, think, “What Would Richard Feynman Do?” WWRFD? Abbreviate, ask questions about the words, look at the relationship of ideas, and embrace not knowing. You might even enjoy it.
 The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard Feynman, edited by Jeffery Robbins ISBN 0-14-029034-6
 Bioinformatics. 2012 September 15; 28(18): i382–i388. Published online 2012 September 3. doi: 10.1093/bioinformatics/bts374