Thursday, January 7, 2010

tiny steps

Scientists (especially mathematicians where the effect is amplified) often say that the nature of research is to beat your head against the wall miserably for eons, and then enjoy a short ecstatic breakthrough.

I would refine that slightly to say that the nature of research is to work hard to identify the tiniest feasible problems that can be answered, spend a lot of time answering them (via the process described above), and then eons later, enjoy a wonderful crystallization process in which all these tiny puzzle pieces start to look like a whole picture.

If you only like epiphanies but not year-long headaches, read the end results in textbooks, but don't be a scientist. And if you only like the crystallization but not the squinting at single pixel sized problems, write literature reviews and overview books, but don't be a scientist.

I actually fairly enjoy all those aspects, but it sure is hard to identify a small enough chunk of something to work on before you can even get started...