Chat with ChatGPT: What is a Single Idea in an Atomic Note?

I chatted about “atomic notes” and the concept of a “single idea” with ChatGPT1. The conversation is reproduced below. I have kept ChatGPT’s responses unchanged. I’ve only added headings “Setting the Context for ChatGPT” and “What is a ‘Single Idea’,” along with some punctuation for my part.

I’m intrigued by its discussion on “idea-centric notes.” I have done a couple of iterations with different prompts, but this is the only instance (and the very first one) ChatGPT specifically mentioned it as a concept. Googling it does not surface any page that mentions the term, so ChatGPT might have “coined” the term – I am more interested in the content of the idea than the term or whether it is a novel one.

Setting the Context for ChatGPT

—Are you aware of the idea of atomic notes in the context of zettelkasten?

—Yes, I’m familiar with the concept of atomic notes in the context of a Zettelkasten system. In this method, each note (or “zettel”) is designed to capture a single idea or piece of information. These notes are meant to be as atomic as possible, meaning they should be self-contained and specific enough to stand on their own without additional context. This approach helps in linking notes in a meaningful way, enabling easier retrieval and combination of ideas to generate new insights. Atomic notes are typically concise and focused, aiming to encapsulate one thought clearly and succinctly.

What is a “Single Idea”

—Can you think of a more formal / ridged definition of a single idea to be written down in a single atomic note? What does one look like? And what doesnt?

—Defining a “single idea” for an atomic note in a Zettelkasten system can indeed be refined into a more formal or rigid format. Here’s a structured approach to what should and should not constitute a single atomic note:

What a Single Idea in an Atomic Note Looks Like

  1. Specificity: The note focuses on one distinct aspect of a broader topic. For example, rather than addressing the entire concept of photosynthesis, the note might focus on explaining just the light-dependent reactions within photosynthesis.

  2. Completeness: The idea should be complete in itself, meaning it can be understood without needing additional context from other notes. It answers who, what, when, where, why, or how about the topic.

  3. Conciseness: It is expressed concisely, using clear and precise language. The note is long enough to cover the subject but short enough to maintain focus without veering off into related topics.

  4. Linkability: The note should be able to connect with other notes on related topics through direct links, enabling a network of ideas that enhance understanding and retrieval.

What a Single Idea in an Atomic Note Does Not Look Like

  1. Too Broad: If a note covers multiple aspects or angles of a topic (e.g., an overview of photosynthesis including light-dependent reactions, light-independent reactions, and ecological implications), it’s too broad. Each of these should ideally be its own note.

  2. Dependent on Context: If the understanding of the note’s content relies heavily on another note or external context, it’s not atomic. Each note should make sense on its own.

  3. Verbose or Vague: Overly long notes that delve into multiple ideas or notes that are not clear and precise in their wording do not fit the atomic model.

Example of a Good Atomic Note

Title: Light-Dependent Reactions in Photosynthesis

Content: Light-dependent reactions occur in the thylakoid membranes of chloroplasts where chlorophyll absorbs sunlight, leading to the production of ATP and NADPH. This process is crucial as it provides the energy and reducing power for the light-independent reactions.

Example of a Poor Atomic Note

Title: Photosynthesis

Content: Photosynthesis involves several complex steps where plants convert light energy into chemical energy, store it in the form of sugars, and use it to fuel their activities and growth. It includes various reactions and processes that are essential for plant life and impacts ecological systems.

By adhering to these criteria, you can ensure that each note in a Zettelkasten system is useful and effective in a standalone capacity while being capable of forming part of a larger, interconnected knowledge network.

Idea-Centric Atomic Notes

—The example above about the light dependent reactions in photosynthesis describes a fact about Nature, correct? It is not an idea.

—You’re correct in noting the distinction between a factual description and what might be considered an “idea” in the context of atomic notes within a Zettelkasten system. The example given indeed describes factual information about a natural process—specifically, the light-dependent reactions of photosynthesis. In the realm of note-taking and knowledge management, the definition of an “idea” can be broader and may include both factual descriptions as well as interpretations, insights, or conceptual frameworks.

An “idea” in this context could be a unique insight, a synthesized thought, an analytical observation, or a novel interpretation of information. For a more idea-focused atomic note, the content might not merely describe a fact but also offer interpretation, ask a question, or connect seemingly disparate facts in a new way. Here’s an example:

Example of an Idea-Centric Atomic Note

Title: Implications of Light-Dependent Reactions on Artificial Photosynthesis Technologies

Content: The efficiency of light-dependent reactions in natural photosynthesis suggests potential pathways for enhancing artificial photosynthesis technologies. By mimicking the chlorophyll’s ability to absorb sunlight and convert it into chemical energy, we can potentially improve the energy conversion efficiency of synthetic systems. This could lead to more sustainable energy solutions by utilizing principles observed in nature.

This note moves beyond just describing a natural process by introducing an interpretation of how understanding this process could influence technological development. It presents an idea connecting biological insights with practical applications, demonstrating how factual information can seed further intellectual exploration and innovation in a Zettelkasten system.

  1. The conversation took place on 13 April 2024 with ChatGPT4 in the browser user interface through a personal “Plus” subscription (paying subscription) of ChatGPT. ↩︎