Doctoring Philosophy

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

There are those days of Zen when you wake up at seven in the morning, greet the kindling dawn and decide that you will get a lot done today; and then promptly settle down to read some obscure paper on topology that you will never use till someone calls you for lunch.

Except that, today, I went in to listen to a talk about control and feedback channels and Markov Decision Processes. Not that the talk was not very rigorous or thorough, mind you. In fact, it was exactly the opposite. The speaker dealt with a simple, yet general model, and then proceeded to analyze it with remarkable clarity and perception. He made the right rough-big-picture comments, the right number of “lets sweep that under the carpet” statements with regard to knotty issues involving compactness and Polishness of certain spaces and, in an effortless attempt to please the front-rowers (all profs) with his flashy erudition in theory, rolled off connections to theorems and lemmas in obscure areas of stochastic processes.

If you paid attention to the first bits of this post, you will see how clearheaded and yet devoid of motivation , I was in the morning. Naturally, I had to interrupt the speaker at Slide 3 and request a clarification. It went swimmingly. There were approving nods and smiles of great insight from the wise men in the front row, even an appreciative chuckle from the speaker. Things, as they tend to do, increased in entropy from then on.

I missed a few of the notational stuff in Slide 12 and by Slide 20 or so, I was thoroughly lost left with the tenuous hope that at some point, the speaker would reclaim all the math with one insightful comment and get me back on track for the proof again.

While I sat glassy eyed, looking at my advisor furrow his brow (he does that when he feels like he has lost track of the talk as well, but is trying hard to logically guess at what techniques might be used to prove the result), I began to wonder about the point of it all.

Everyone knows the 10% rule -- that only about 10% of the papers that one publishes has any true academic merit, a further 10% of that subset has even practical merit and a further 10% of those practically significant papers will ever see the light of the day in the form of some niggling little feature added to a little standard to speed up your internet by about 20%. That means that you can then illegally download the entire JRR Tolkien Trilogy (in four parts) in about 16.67% less time. The universal (yes I know it is meaningless) insignificance of this rests with each of us, even as we write NSF proposals claiming how another $300k over 2 years will present to the world a completely new paradigm for network performance, or electronic security or seamless connectivity. Naturally, the more vaunted the claim, the less effort the investigators make in even trying to reach their goals since any arguments defending the failure of such projects will undoubtedly be persuasive.

I imagine that there are people that save kids in Africa, rescue the economies of post-communist kleptocracies and swap kidneys across the continental North America. Don’t these seemingly brilliant men (and the few women) of science ever want to do something that significant? Or in the words of Bower’s boys, create impact?

So why, as I am sure you are asking yourself, astute reader, would anyone do this for 20 years and make a career out of it? I grappled with these weighty issues, even as the speaker was changing measures, defining measures on top of measures and cost functions on the space of such measures, and came up with nothing. Then the speaker made one of those nice intuitive statements, linking his result to something I picked up in a graduate seminar last Spring and I got back into the groove – and followed him all the way to the QED of his proof.

I had survided the talk without sliding off the chair in analysis-induced haze. Once the proof (and subsequent corollaries) made sense, to an extent, my nihilistic sentiments towards the world were over. I reminded myself smugly yet again that I do this just because it is fun. It is intelligent, competitive and aesthetically pleasing to a few. Much like Jackson Pollock, I suppose. Probably the other guys in the room thought the same about it.

So there. It is not that I like being economically unproductive. It’s just that I have the soul of an artist. I suppose I could do worse. Like moving mounds of pennies from one place to another in Kansas City, Kansas. Or better, since that seems to pay quite well.