Thursday, August 17, 2006

Why do research?

Why do we do research? What is our real source of gratification?

I remember the answer which Andy Yao gave me many years ago. When he discovers a new result, there is a moment, between the time when he finds the proof and when he shares it with others, during which he feels uplifted by the awareness that he knows something new, something that nobody else knows in the whole world. I guess it must be like reaching the top of a mountain after much effort, and realizing that you are the first person ever to have climbed it.

My own motivation (perhaps more at par with my abilities) is quite different. What I enjoy the most is working with other people. When two or three of us get together and focus on a particular problem, there is a time, when new insights start revealing themselves to us, during which ideas go back and forth and there is a strong sense of intellectual closeness while we are together building a new construction. This is what I strive for.

Here is what Gauss has to say on the topic: It is not knowledge, but the act of learning, not possession, but the act of getting there which generates the greatest satisfaction.

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  1. I wonder if what you describe is gender-related. Gender studies are full of claims to the effect that a woman's self esteem is more likely to be affected by the quality of her relationships while a man's depends more on his sense of competence.

    Are there any statistics on male/female coauthorship patterns?

  2. Maybe you're right, but in any case, I'm 100% with Claire on this one. Actually it is not only about intellectual closeness, but also about intellectual variety. For me it starts to get interesting when different people contribute different points of view on the problem. I would never write a single-author paper---I would not find it interesting enough.

  3. I do research because certain
    questions arouse my curiosity
    ALOT and I just HAVE to know the
    answer. Hence I tend to have
    papers where I ASKED the question
    and made some headway but someone
    else improved it (co-authors).
    (There are other papers out there
    where I asked the question, did
    nothing, and am NOT a co-author,
    but am delighted the question is
    answered, so long as they acknowledge
    that I asked it, which is usually
    the case.)

    bill gasarch