i ran into nikhil today while leaving berkeley. it's always interesting talking with nikhil: he has big problems on his mind, even if he has no idea how he might approach them.
we started talking about what problems we might work on. nikhil's distinction was between iterative work on problems, vs trying to solve big problems, like building a time machine. of course, big problems probably also include things that may be more approachable than time machines.
i remarked that my goal was to start on a known problem and iterate on it -- try to feel my way into a field one small problem at a time. maybe after getting my hands dirty i could look at some really big problems where not much was known and a big splash would be remarkable.
nikhil wanted to do something different. i think his point was that there are lots of real-world problems with real-world solutions that haven't been implemented because no one has connected some esoteric research with the real solution implied by that research that could benefit millions of people.
i certainly think nikhil is right. unfortunately, i believe that seeing that connection and knowing to run with it, in the face of many obstacles, is a lucky decision... well perhaps luck has nothing to do with it. but i know it takes a singular mind, stubborness, an intense drive and a knack for seeing things in new ways. i don't think i have those qualities. however, i think perhaps nikhil does, so good luck to him!
actually a lot of what i'm discussing here reminds me of a speech neha gave me, a speech my dick hamming, one of the founders of coding theory. it's called "You and Your Research" -- it's directed at researchers, but I think it's something a lot of people would find a useful read.
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