Monday, September 22, 2008

Infinitely stupid

(click on the snapshot to enlarge)

One of the new professors sent everybody this article. This caught my attention (editing in bold is mine):
My Ph.D. project was somewhat interdisciplinary and, for a while, whenever I ran into a problem, I pestered the faculty in my department who were experts in the various disciplines that I needed. I remember the day when Henry Taube (who won the Nobel Prize two years later) told me he didn’t know how to solve the problem I was having in his area. I was a third-year graduate student and I figured that Taube knew about 1000 times more than I did (conservative estimate). If he didn’t have the answer, nobody did.

That’s when it hit me: nobody did. That’s why it was a research problem. And being my research problem, it was up to me to solve. Once I faced that fact, I solved the problem in a couple of days. (It wasn’t really very hard; I just had to try a few things.) The crucial lesson was that the scope of things I didn’t know wasn’t merely vast; it was, for all practical purposes, infinite. That realization, instead of being discouraging, was liberating. If our ignorance is infinite, the only possible course of action is to muddle through as best we can.
In Chabad Chassidus, a similar feeling (and process) is called bittul. The word is loosely translated as “self-nullification”, but it is also realization that you’re nothing in comparison to the infinity and omnipresence of G-d. Once you realize this, you can start to learn: you allow G-d to enter you. The difference between holiness (kedushah) and unholiness (klippah) is that the former allows G-d to “rest” upon it, while the latter does not. How does something allow G-d to rest upon it? Through bittul, through understanding that it is nothing. The moment the arogant I disappears, something can enter.

To be sure, this is not self-nullification of the outer form (here Chabad Chassidus differs from Mussar movement). The form of I must exist, but in essence it becomes nullified to G-d. The union of the infinite (rather: unbound, undefined) with the finite (defined) — that’s what the creation and existence of the world are all about.

What’s the practical consequence of this nullification? Structuring your life in such a way that your every act is connected to Torah. If it is not connected — why are you doing it, as a Jew? So, to reach to the point where everything you do has inner purpose, defined by Torah, from waking up to going to work to eating ice cream, one must first have bittul.

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About the article itself: good stuff. I like this part:
I don’t think students are made to understand how hard it is to do research. And how very, very hard it is to do important research. It’s a lot harder than taking even very demanding courses. What makes it difficult is that research is immersion in the unknown. We just don’t know what we’re doing. We can’t be sure whether we’re asking the right question or doing the right experiment until we get the answer or the result. Admittedly, science is made harder by competition for grants and space in top journals. But apart from all of that, doing significant research is intrinsically hard and changing departmental, institutional or national policies will not succeed in lessening its intrinsic difficulty.
All graduate students find this out by their third year. It takes a lot for this realization not to break you. This part, however, is what the article is all about:
Productive stupidity means being ignorant by choice. Focusing on important questions puts us in the awkward position of being ignorant. One of the beautiful things about science is that it allows us to bumble along, getting it wrong time after time, and feel perfectly fine as long as we learn something each time. No doubt, this can be difficult for students who are accustomed to getting the answers right. No doubt, reasonable levels of confidence and emotional resilience help, but I think scientific education might do more to ease what is a very big transition: from learning what other people once discovered to making your own discoveries. The more comfortable we become with being stupid, the deeper we will wade into the unknown and the more likely we are to make big discoveries.
When I just started coming to the Computational Neuroscience journal club, I realized that I like the “leap into unknown”. Sometimes it is nice just to sit in the middle of information most of which you do not understand and just get a “preview” of how it all looks once you do understand. Rather like peeking into the middle of a book. I advice anyone to take such “peaks” when learning any new area: just go to a really difficult lecture, talk, open a really difficult text, watch a full-length movie in a language you’re just starting to learn. Enjoy the cold and empty vacuum of the unknown — at least for a while.

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