Academic Research: Quotes for Talks, Introductions, and Lunchtime Banter

Poetry and Science

"In science one tries to tell people, in such a way as to be understood by everyone, something that no one ever knew before. But in poetry, it's the exact opposite." --- Paul Dirac

By the way, I like the variations on Dirac's line where one replaces in poetry with in Business Schools or In Economics or even (gasp) in Statistics, but please do not tell anyone.

Experts and Possibilities

"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, in the expert's there are few." --- Shunryu Suzuki

I find this quote paradoxical in light of some psychological research. Evidently master chess players and lesser chess players each consider about the same number of canditate moves. It's just that the master cosiders better moves.

In my experience, having expertise in a subject may close the doors to some creative ideas, but it also saves you from wasting a lot of energy on ideas that truly do not work.

Damn it all, there really is a trade-off.

Management versus Forecasting

“As for the future, your task is not to foresee it, but to enable it.” ---Antoine de Saint-Exupery

I think this little quote goes a long way toward explaining one of the reasons that good managers are often reluctant to put much emphasis on forcasting. The second reason is obviously that most forecasts are pretty damn bad --- unless they are pertty damn obvious.

Even at their best forecasters tend to "drive the car by looking out the rear view mirror" while at their worst (and most pretentious) they simply promote dilusional phantasies.

Research, Theory, CS, and Data

"The outcome of any serious research can only be to make two questions grow where only one grew before." ---Thorstein Veblen

"There is nothing so practical as a good theory." --- Ludwig Boltzman

"Computer Science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes." --- E. W. Dijkstra

"It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data." --- Arthur Conan Doyle (via Sherlock Holmes)

Research: Guidance and Misguidance

"Basically, I'm not interested in doing research and I never have been. I'm interested in understanding, which is quite a different thing." --- David Blackwell

"Being a scientist means living on the borderline between your competence and your incompetence. If you always feel competent, you aren't doing your job." --- Carlos Bustamante (Molecular Biologist, UC-Berkeley)

"It is a far, far better thing to have a firm anchor in nonsense than to put out on the troubled sea of thought." --- J.K. Galbraith who was probably being ironic, though perhaps in this case it is hard to be sure.

"Research is the process of going up alleys to see if they are blind." --- Marston Bates

"I want to stay as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can't see from the center." --- Kurt Vonnegut, Jr..

"Don't be afraid to take a big step if one is indicated. You can't cross a chasm in two small jumps."--- David Lloyd George

"The universe is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper." --- Eden Phillpots


"Don't be a novelist --- be a statistician. Much more scope for the imagination." --- Darrell Huff

"Statistics is the first of the inexact sciences." ---Edmond de Goncourt


"The nature of reality is this: It is hidden, and it is hidden, and it is hidden." --- Rumi, 13th-century Sufi poet

Rota on "One Trick Ponies"

"A long time ago an older and well-known number theorist made some disparaging remarks about Paul Erdös's work. You admire Erdös's contributions to mathematics as much as I do, and I felt annoyed when the older mathematician flatly and definitively stated that all of Erdös's work could be ``reduced'' to a few tricks which Erdös repeatedly relied on in his proofs. What the number theorist did not realize is that other mathematicians, even the very best, also rely on a few tricks which they use over and over. Take Hilbert. The second volume of Hilbert's collected papers contains Hilbert's papers in invariant theory. I have made a point of reading some of these papers with care. It is sad to note that some of Hilbert's beautiful results have been completely forgotten. But on reading the proofs of Hilbert's striking and deep theorems in invariant theory, it was surprising to verify that Hilbert's proofs relied on the same few tricks. Even Hilbert had only a few tricks! "

--- G.C. Rota, in his essay Ten Lessons I Wish I Had Been Taught

The Purpose of (Text) Books

“The real purpose of books is to trap the mind into doing its own thinking.” ---- Christopher Morley.

I picked this from a useful essay on teaching by Joe Ben Hoyle who used it as the opening quote of his long-running and popular Advanced Accounting. Hoyle's essay also motivated parts of the next two items.

Memorization: Not Just for Donkeys Anymore?

"Memorization is what we resort to when what we are learning makes no sense." --- Anonymous

Childhood education, especially the early childhood education of the remote past, has left memorization with a bad reputation.

For almost all of my life I certainly held a special odium for memorization. Still, there are a few places where it serves us well.

In some areas (including mathematics, accounting, law, and even statistics) a few definitions really must be mastered with absolute precision.

As a first step toward such mastery, one should not feel bad about simply memorizing a definition. It's honestly easier to work toward a deeper understanding of something if you already have a "correct copy" of it in your head.

In a few other areas, memorization is simply fun. Who is not happier with a limerick or two in cold storage?

Imaginative Consideration

"This atmosphere of excitement, arising from imaginative consideration, transforms knowledge. A fact is no longer a bare fact: it is invested with all its possibilities. It is no longer a burden on the memory: it is energizing as the poet of our dreams, and as the architect of our purposes. Imagination is not to be divorced from the facts: it is a way of illuminating the facts.” --- Alfred North Whitehead (The Aims of Education and Other Essays. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1929. p.139)

From the Real Indiana Jones...

"Father was a wise man. He told me that I would starve to death if I became a professor of archaeology." ---- Frank C. Hibben

Yet Frank Hibben did go on to become a professor of archaeology --- one clever enough to acquire the wherewithal to endow an anthropology museum.

Still, for a more average son (or more average archeologist), the fatherly advice would have been perfectly sound. Fortunately for Hibben, human talent is long-tailed --- even in archaeology.

gold fade line

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