Sunday, June 03, 2007

More sappy links about research

Continuing my endeavor to link to advice by non-philosophers about non-philosophy...
Last night I stumbled across slides for a talk called "How to Have a Bad Career In Research/Academia". (The link is to the page with the talk, not to the talk itself.) That was, by and large, pretty disappointing. It mentioned a 1986 talk at Bell Labs which sounded kind of neat. I googled that and found "You and Your Research" by Richard Hamming. This talk was pretty good. Of course, it wasn't by a philosopher or about philosophy. It was by a mathematician about computer science, mostly. Still, there was a decent amount of good advice, although some of it is hard to apply to philosophy. But, there were large bits that seemed applicable and which I enjoyed. It also resonated, in a strange way, with Dennett's short piece on chmess. The main points in the talk were that in order to do great work one had to: work hard. identify the important problems in an area, work on those problems, and be flexible. For people that don't want to read the whole thing, I'll quote my favorite bit:
"Over on the other side of the dining hall was a chemistry table. I had worked with one of the fellows, Dave McCall; furthermore he was courting our secretary at the time. I went over and said, ``Do you mind if I join you?'' They can't say no, so I started eating with them for a while. And I started asking, ``What are the important problems of your field?'' And after a week or so, ``What important problems are you working on?'' And after some more time I came in one day and said, ``If what you are doing is not important, and if you don't think it is going to lead to something important, why are you at Bell Labs working on it?'' I wasn't welcomed after that; I had to find somebody else to eat with! That was in the spring."
What on earth are the important problems in the different areas of philosophy...


Justin said...

I read the Hamming talk a few months ago, and while I think it's worth reading, I really don't like it. For one thing, Hamming really comes off as something of a nasty fellow to me. Maybe the tone of it was better as a speech.

I also think there's something wrong with Hamming's general view. It sounds like he advocates working on a problem because you feel like it's the important issue in a field. On one way of reading that, it sounds like a recipe for alienating yourself from your work. In order to do your best, to motivate yourself, etc, you need to work on a problem that just viscerally engages you. Of course, work can engage you in that way because it seems likely to lead to important developments. But it sounds like he's saying something rather different, that you have to go out that and say "what will make me a success?"

Shawn said...

I think he comes off as kind of nasty. I don't really expect it was lessened much by the delivery unless he was an amazing speaker.

I did not really consider alienation as a result of his advice, although it is a possibility. The importance stuff is one of the things that I'm least comfortable applying to philosophy. What are the important problems for any subfield? Are there things that are clearly the important issues? My naive view is that there are more solid answers in sciences. There are things like that in math, it seems, with the various big name open problems. Even there though, I'm not sure if *important* is the right way to characterize them (mainly out of ignorance). For philosophy I'm less certain (actually a little doubtful) that there are any problems that are the *important* ones. If his advice boils down to work on the hot topics, then it is not exciting. I think we're both uneasy with the same bit of the talk for different reasons.

Maybe what is more off-putting is one of the aims of the talk? At one point doesn't he say that this is his advice on how to do things in science? That has the flavor of "what will make me a success" to it. I'm mixed on what exactly I think of this. Presumably, there are at least a few important problems in any given area, so one could figure out which of those is most attractive and work on that. If there is only one and it is pursued solely out of aspiration for future fame, that could pretty easily lead to some alienation. I had assumed that working in a field meant that you were interested enough in the area to avoid alienation in your work. As advice on which field to choose in addition to what more particular problems to work on it is awful. I'll have to think about it more.