Sunday, September 19, 2004

The self-absorption of science.

Many months ago, Scott Aaronson initiated a discussion on Lance's blog about the appropriate amount of time to spend on one's research (quick answer: all). Lance was quick to adjust this in a later post, saying "Your success in academics, like any professional endeavor, depends in part on how much effort you put into it with the relationship far more than linear. But by no means is social life and a productive research career incompatible."

I was reminded of this discussion whilst reading a book that excerpted small sections from Charles Darwin's autobiography. Here is Darwin reflecting on his absorption in science:
My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding laws out of large discussions of facts...Up to the age of thirty, or beyond it, poetry of many kinds ... gave me great pleasure... Pictures gave me considerable, and music very great delight. But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry; I have tried lately to read Shakespeare and have found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me... Music generally sets me thinking too energetically on what I have been at work on....
Darwin goes on to theorize that a lack of "poetic stimulation" as it were atrophied the sections of his brain that would have appreciated the arts, and felt that if he could have lived his life over again, he would have spent more time cultivating artistic pursuits, because
The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.
Especially in more theoretical areas of computer science, it is the easiest thing in the world to become absorbed in your work: all you really need is a pen and paper. There is also a thrilling sense of abandonment, of being swallowed whole by a collection of lines, or a manifold, or a linear program, as one delves deeper and deeper into the mysteries of one's work. Darwin's sense of regret as he looks back is an interesting perspective on such a life of absorption. I don't think that everyone would agree, but it is a sentiment worth keeping in mind.


  1. I haven't noticed myself becoming unable to appreciate literature or poetry, thank goodness! What I have noticed is that I am becoming more aware of the competitive pressures involved in research.

    Unlike Darwin, I don't think becoming lost in the contemplation of my favorite problem (or coding the next thing I need) threatens my capacity for enjoyment of other pursuits. If anything, it helps, as I can sometimes transfer the concentration from one endeavour to another. Instead, it is the feeling of "shouldn't I be doing something else more productive? and am I working hard enough? am I doing my share? am I doomed to be a mediocrity or simply not cut out for research at all?" that has started to creep into everyday life.

    Ironically, I've found this kind of worry is exactly the *worst* thing for making progress on research. Try spending an afternoon sometime comparing your CV to famous researchers in your field and worrying why you haven't published as many papers as they did by the time they were your age. It's pointless. Therefore I try hard not to spend all my time doing research things...or at least not all my time on the "main" areas and tasks I "need" to get done. I don't even want to put it like that, though, because I think a social life and time for yourself is important even if it didn't help your research.

    -David Molnar

  2. Much like Homer always comparing himself to Thomas Edison. But remember, Homer eventually came out with a new idea which Edison was given credit for...

    Wow, Simpson's has so much bearing on real life.


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