Information ≠ Knowledge ≠ Understanding

The work in my lab looks at questions of why, what, how, where and when. As an example, in a recent technical paper, my research group communicated the serendipitous discovery of a metallic ink that we used to print an electrical circuit.

First, we played around with some materials in our lab. (Science can be fun!) We observed that we could entangle very tiny magnetic particles with equally small carbon nanotubes. This chance information lead us to brainstorm during our lively Friday morning discussions about what we could do with the discovery.

We decided to dissolve the entangled particles in kerosene. This produced an ordinary ink, but only ours was magnetic. Then we thought of ways of using a magnet to draw sketches and patterns with the ink. When, Abdel Fattah, an amazingly creative doctoral student, did so, he noticed that the magnetic ink sketches also behaved as electrical circuits.

Abdel set to work, making different sketches and patterns of electrical circuits in a plastic. After trial and error he found that, once he connected the circuit to a battery, he could monitor how the plastic responded to bending and flexing. We realized that he had fabricated a brand new sensor.

Our method to print a circuit with a magnetic ink is rapid and convenient. We are exploring how to advance 3D printing in soft plastics using this magnetic ink. This work could lead to even more intricate and inexpensive wearable electronic devices.

Here’s the trail of discovery and application that we followed. Our observations provided us with information: we noted that we could very simply and durably entangle magnetic particles with carbon nanotubes. Had we stopped there, we would not have produced the magnetic ink.

The knowledge that the ink was magnetic lead to an understanding of how to use a magnet to make sketches and circuits with it. An understanding of the nature of the electrical circuits lead to the fabrication of an entirely new type of sensor.

This point was driven home to me recently during my periodic once-a-year visit to my primary care physician in nearby Dundas. She likes that I have a blood test a week or so before we meet. I use a local testing lab for this purpose, which posts the blood work results online within a day or so.

If you’ve also had such a blood test, you will be aware that the list of components that are tested for can be quite long. This year I noted exclamation marks next to a couple of values.  Since the visit with my doctor was scheduled a few days hence, I did what many of us do. I used the information provided by Google, WebMD and Wikipedia to make sense.

“You’re just fine,” my doctor said with a familiar South Asian inflexion when we met. When I related my online quest for information about my blood work, she smiled, “There’s a difference between information and knowledge.”

She’s right, just as all doctors should be. There’s a firm line between being a borderline hypochondriac and understanding disease.

I’d take her insight further.  Just as there’s a difference between information and knowledge, there’s a similar difference between knowledge and understanding.

This is an important distinction in a disruptive era that requires urgent innovation.

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