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Trickle is a community of lifelong learners where you can discover curated insights and share your own knowledge

Trickle is a community of lifelong learners to discover and share knowledge

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Streams Illustration

What is Trickle?

Trickle is a community of lifelong learners where you can discover curated insights and share your own knowledge.

HOW IT WORKS

The half-life of knowledge predicts that many facts become obsolete over time

Chapter 3 Acquiring knowledge is a vital part of learning

11/23

Half-life is a term derived from physics. Radioactive material contains unstable nuclei that emit radioactive particles as they decay. Half-life describes the time it takes for half of the radioactive atoms in a sample to decay.

The term half-life has been used as a metaphor to illustrate how knowledge and facts can become obsolete over time. The concept of a half-life of knowledge is often attributed to Fritz Machlup , though this attribution appears to be apocryphal . Research into the origin of the concept finds early references to a half-life of knowledge from library sciences to describe how many books became obsolete. Samuel Arbesman Share this expert SA Samuel Arbesman applies the term more broadly to facts.

Facts, in the aggregate, have half-lives: We can measure the amount of time for half of a subject’s knowledge to be overturned.
Samuel Arbesman Share this expert SA Samuel Arbesman , The Half-life of Facts

Researchers showed that scientific publications in a specific field of medicine became obsolete or were proven false over time.

The concept has been used to describe the amount of time it takes for the knowledge of skilled workers — e.g. engineers — to become obsolete after they leave education and join the workforce.

Assessments of academic research are used to support the claim that knowledge has a half-life

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Using the term “half-life” suggests a high degree of precision because half-lives of radioactive material can be measured very accurately. The concept of a half-life of knowledge is not a precise measure. But it is a useful metaphor that reminds us that what we know decays over time because new ideas and discoveries replace old ones. As a result, knowledge must be continually updated through learning.

… now that you know how knowledge changes, you have to be on guard, so you are not shocked when your children [come] home to tell you that dinosaurs have feathers.
Samuel Arbesman Share this expert SA Samuel Arbesman , The Economist

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