What Is Research?

June 28, 2006

The question has been bugging me since…

Filed under: Uncategorized — vipulnaik @ 4:11 pm

Fun and inactivity accompany us wherever we go, but it’s the serious work we do in between that counts”

I’ve just finished two years of B.Sc.(Hons), Mathematics and Computer Science at the Chennai Mathematical Institute (CMI) in Chennai, India. In these two years, I have interacted with many researchers, some in my college, and some at the summer camps I’ve attended: Institute of Mathematical Sciences (IMSc), Microsoft Research Summer School on Algorithms, Complexity and Cryptography at Indian Institute of Science (IISc), and (currently attending) the Visiting Students’ Research Programme (VSRP) at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) School of mathematics.

Yes, and I plan to do research. So far I’ve only got a few whiffs but it’s addictive… or so I’d like to think. But it seems frustrating. The ideal picture one has of a researcher is a person who’s intensely thinking about his or her problems all the time, taking them to the coffee table, pondering them over in the bus ride, pacing up and down, Googling, surfing the net, drawing doodles on the board, and so on. Indeed, that’s research life… but these intense moments of activity seem to be embedded in large periods of inactivity where more mundane considerations rule the roost.

So how does a person become a top class researcher? Is it intelligence? Hard work? Creativity? Sheer determination? A conducive environment? How do researchers pick on open problems, how dothey make serious efforts to solve these open problems? These are issues I plan to discuss in these blogs, and my discussions will begin from where I am: the personal experiences I have had while trying to resolve these questions during my summer camps.

The posts on this blog are organized as follows. Each post begins with either some incident or event relating to my mathematical life, or with the story of one of my own mathematical ideas and how I developed and perhaps discarded it. Towards the end of the post, I raise a number of questions of the kind where both questions and answers are thrown up by my blog.

But before you hear me, you might like to have a look at the talk by Richard Hamming the expert on You and Your Research.

P.S.: If you really want to know more about me, visit my Home page.


  1. “intense moments of activity seem to be embedded in large periods of inactivity”

    does this really bother you? In some ways it is inevitable, since you can’t work all the time. And there’s life beyond work as well.

    Comment by Indraneel Mukherjee — June 29, 2006 @ 1:28 pm

  2. This isn’t the main question that’s been bugging me, it’s merely a passing observation.

    By “inactivity” I do not mean “other activity” which is a conscious effort towards doing some other work. I mean the way we often let things eat up our day which, looking back, we find we didn’t truly enjoy and didn’t have to do.

    To an extent, the inactivity between activity is inevitable because ideas need incubation. The question is: how inevitable is it? What other activities can be embedded into inactivity? How does one tackle the frustration of spending most of one’s time apparently doing nothing, if that is indeed an integral part of research?

    Comment by Vipul Naik — June 29, 2006 @ 2:04 pm

  3. You are absolutely right about our idling away a lot of time. Initially I forced myself to study, but this joyless approach didn’t last (though I’m sure it would be very effective if one perserveres!). Subsequently, I have been getting myself “officially” (and this is important) involved in various minor activities, like making problems for the training camp, writing a piece of software for someone, organizing a contest, sports, etc.; official, so that I can’t quit just because I am feeling low at the moment.

    This, however, only partially solves our problem, as it won’t substantially add to our research. It’s better than playing computer games/reading literotica though.

    Comment by Indraneel Mukherjee — June 29, 2006 @ 6:31 pm

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