Empty Success
© 9 Jul 2012 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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Research and Passion.


I spent last week at the World Congress of Engineering. I submitted a paper to this conference mostly on a whim, and discovered upon attending that it was attended almost exclusively by persons from the developing nations rather than developed nations. The third world, I believe it used to be called.

My first impression, as I started attending these talks, was almost entirely negative. Most of the presentations for which I had the background to know were of unoriginal or only tangentially-novel material, generally poorly presented with little rigor or finality. It felt like entries from students’ lab notebooks rather than entries into the research community.

One conversation between sessions changed my attitude. I was conversing with the only other American I met in the congress, a representative of the Khett foundation whose name I did not obtain. He pointed out that the presenters were talking about how they solved real problems they actually faced. It was a practical rather than cerebral conference.

Suddenly a line from “‍About a Boy‍” came to mind: “‍All in all I had a very full life. It’s just that it didn’t mean anything.‍” My research is actually on the frontiers of human knowledge. It is full and rigorous and sound. All in all, I have a very full research life. But, when push comes to shove, it means very little to me. I personally have never faced, and likely will never face, any of the problems I have solved and am yet in the process of solving. I think they ought to be solved, and I think my solutions are good ones, but I don’t really care much one way or the other.

A crank approached me at the end of the conference with some nonsense about how you could put eighty different wires in a grid and the pattern of cross-wire attractions would form patterns as fundamental to the universe as constants like π and e. There was no intellectual merit in anything he had to say. But there was an interest and passion in him as he spoke of it…

On the spectrum from correct but meaningless research to passionate nonsense, who is in the right? The congress was filled with people who had solved important-to-them problems in original-to-them ways, as well as a few of use who solved important-to-someone problems in original-to-everyone ways. As the frontiers of knowledge push every farther into territory it takes many minds to solve, is the fracturing of research into individually almost-meaningless portions inevitable? Is there a way to keep the personal passion of the WCE in the more structured research world in which I live?

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