On Doing Research posted January 2019
Along the years, I've been influenced by many great minds on how to do research. I thought I would paste a few of their advice here.
That advice from Feynman’s Breakthrough, Disregard Others! was really useful to me as I realized that I HAD to miss out on what was happening around me if I wanted to do research. It's quite hard nowadays, with all the noise and all the cool stuff happening, to focus on one's work. But it seems like Feynman had the same issues even before the internet was born. So that's one of the secret: JOMO it out (Joy Of Missing Out).
The word was “Disregard!”
“That’s what I’d forgotten!” he shouted (in the middle of the night). “You have to worry about your own work and ignore what everyone else is doing.” At first light, he called his wife, Gweneth, and said, “I think I’ve figured it out. Now I’ll be able to work again!” […]
That advice comes from Andrew Ng's interview:
"I don’t know how the human brain works but it’s almost magical: when you read enough or talk to enough experts, when you have enough inputs, new ideas start appearing."
and indeed. I've noticed that, after reading a bunch of papers, new ideas usually pop in my head and I'm able to do some new research. It actually seems like it is the only way.
Richard Hamming in "You and Your Research" wrote several good advice:
Let me start not logically, but psychologically. I find that the major objection is that people think great science is done by luck. It's all a matter of luck. Well, consider Einstein. Note how many different things he did that were good. Was it all luck? Wasn't it a little too repetitive? Consider Shannon. He didn't do just information theory. Several years before, he did some other good things and some which are still locked up in the security of cryptography. He did many good things.
You see again and again, that it is more than one thing from a good person. Once in a while a person does only one thing in his whole life, and we'll talk about that later, but a lot of times there is repetition. I claim that luck will not cover everything. And I will cite Pasteur who said, ``Luck favors the prepared mind.'' And I think that says it the way I believe it. There is indeed an element of luck, and no, there isn't. The prepared mind sooner or later finds something important and does it. So yes, it is luck. The particular thing you do is luck, but that you do something is not.
Sam Altman wrote "compound yourself" the other day, which reflects what Hamming was saying as well when quoting Bode:
What Bode was saying was this: ``Knowledge and productivity are like compound interest.'' Given two people of approximately the same ability and one person who works ten percent more than the other, the latter will more than twice outproduce the former. The more you know, the more you learn; the more you learn, the more you can do; the more you can do, the more the opportunity - it is very much like compound interest
Here's some quote about being in the right state of mind. From Hamming again. The first one rings true to me as I gained much more confidence in doing research after releasing a few papers and being cited.
One success brought him confidence and courage
The second one is quite impactful as well, as trains, planes and hotels without wifi are often my most productive places to work from:
What most people think are the best working conditions, are not. Very clearly they are not because people are often most productive when working conditions are bad
It even sounds like prison, yes prison, is sometimes cited as the best place to do one's work! This is an extract of a letter from André Weil after having spent some time in Rouen's prison:
My mathematics work is proceeding beyond my wildest hopes, and I am even a bit worried - if it's only in prison that I work so well, will I have to arrange to spend two or three months locked up every year?
And if you can't believe this, here's what Reddit has to say about it:
Just spent four months in jail. I read over thirty books and I feel like I’ve been born again.
Hamming again, on working on important problems:
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?"
If you do not work on an important problem, it's unlikely you'll do important work. It's perfectly obvious. Great scientists have thought through, in a careful way, a number of important problems in their field, and they keep an eye on wondering how to attack them
I noticed the following facts about people who work with the door open or the door closed. I notice that if you have the door to your office closed, you get more work done today and tomorrow, and you are more productive than most. But 10 years later somehow you don't know quite know what problems are worth working on; all the hard work you do is sort of tangential in importance. He who works with the door open gets all kinds of interruptions, but he also occasionally gets clues as to what the world is and what might be important.
Silvio Micali gave a talk in which the last 10 minutes (which I linked) were a collection of advice for young researchers. It's quite fun to watch and emphasizes that one must be stubborn to go through with one's research. He also mentions being fine with one's limitations:
Our limitation is our strength. Because of your limitation you are forced to approach a problem differently.
Paul Graham wrote "Maker's schedule, manager's schedule" which differentiates the kind of work schedule one can have:
When you're operating on the maker's schedule, meetings are a disaster. A single meeting can blow a whole afternoon, by breaking it into two pieces each too small to do anything hard in. Plus you have to remember to go to the meeting. That's no problem for someone on the manager's schedule. There's always something coming on the next hour; the only question is what. But when someone on the maker's schedule has a meeting, they have to think about it.
This is something Hamming touched as well, but more on the personal life plan:
"I don't like to say it in front of my wife, but I did sort of neglect her sometimes; I needed to study. You have to neglect things if you intend to get what you want done. There's no question about this."
I can't remember where I read that, but someone was saying that deadlines were great, and that he/she was often promising things to people in order to get things done. The idea was that if you break your promise, you lose integrity and shame rains upon you. So that's some sort of self-fabricated pressure.
If you know more cool articles and videos like that, please share :)