Critical Mass

Critical Mass

In physics there is a concept known as “critical mass.” Without going into a physics lesson, it refers to having enough of a substance to sustain a nuclear reaction. Below the necessary amount, no reaction will occur. When you have enough material, a chain reaction can occur.

The same thing happens with knowledge. When I was in my first years of college, the Watergate scandal was beginning to break. At first it didn’t get my attention, but eventually it was in the news almost every day. Then you couldn’t escape it – it was in the news constantly. At some point, before it was saturating the news, I thought I’d try to find out what it was all about. Unfortunately, since I hadn’t been following the story, I found the news reports hard to understand. Since there was so much background material, the writers couldn’t put all the necessary background into each story. They had to just report on what was new. For people like me, who didn’t have the background, it was impossible to understand the new material without the background context. You had to have a critical mass of background information in order to follow the story day-by-day.

Before our Civil Rights trip in September and October this fall I took a bunch of books and media out of the library. One of the books was titled Reporting Civil Rights, Part 2, edited by Clayborne Carson. It is composed of a huge number of firsthand accounts of events, as they were reported in various publications during the period of 1963-1973. Although I was excited to find this book, I read one article and set it aside. I was unable to follow the stories, because I lacked the necessary background knowledge. It reminded me of my first efforts to read about Watergate.


I took the book out again last week, and lo and behold, I am loving reading it! The background knowledge that we gained on our trip is providing me with the critical mass of knowledge that I needed in order to understand the stories. Articles that frustrated me a couple months ago are now a source of great insight. The difference in my ability to benefit from the book is amazing.

I think the issue of critical mass, in terms of knowledge of current events, is a huge issue for contemporary Americans. There is so much information thrown at us every day, and so much of it has a context that is not spelled out. I think we risk misinterpreting what is happening when we try to understand it without the necessary background knowledge.

That’s another reason to commit ourselves to learning everyday!


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