What Is Research?

July 13, 2006

A sorrow… and a determination

Filed under: TIFR (VSRP) — vipulnaik @ 5:15 pm

My “What Is Research?” blog often gets overwhelmed with a “What Is Me?” flavour and this is not surprising considering that I am largely inseparable from my work. So it is with this post, written far into the night, as the sun sets on my VSRP at TIFR.

In absolute terms I have nothing to complain about. A person whose greatest worries are purely related to academics or to “what to do now to further myself?” is one of the lucky few in this world who isn’t besotten with problems. I haven’t lived a life of late night movie shows, I haven’t gotten high ever, I haven’t been spending my precious time and energy falling in love, I have maintained a reasonable diet, a good exercise pattern, and a reasonable sleep schedule that only gets compromised in case of work and only on a temporary basis. I don’t have squabbling parents or drunken neighbours or any emotionally sapping family problems. I have a reasonably fit body, an open mind (or so I think), and an honest and forthright personality. I love myself a lot, I don’t indulge in undue modesty or undue vanity shows. As far as I know, I am liked and respected by my colleagues and others whom I interact with. I believe in doing the best I can for myself and for the world around me, and I am open to redefining that “best” as time progresses.

I was determined to do mathematical research from quite early on, though I didn’t know what it meant. I had the hunch that it would involve uncovering structures and patterns through a combination of creativity and rigourous logic. Rich patterns that resided within the mind. But what did a career in research entail? How did one prepare for it?

Preparing for the Olympiads was a natural first step for me, because I had heard that getting through the INMO guaranteed direct admission into Chennai Mathematical Institute which was one of the best places in the country for doing mathematics, and also because I had heard that Olympiad experiences shape a mathematician. So be it. I prepared for the Olympiads, multiplexing it with school and with so called IIT JEE preparation. I made it to the IMO team in 2003, and from then on, was all set for a life in mathematics. And I finally did join CMI for my B.Sc.

But having joined there, I have been largely clueless. What is research? What is
mathematical work? What kind of work must I or can I do to build my research potentialities?

I can list a few: reading, writing, learning, attending lectures, interacting with mathematicians, trying to reformulate ideas. All these, I have been doing. But, there’s a big thing I’ve missed out on.

One important component of success in any area, I believe, is knowing the when, where, and what of things. And this is something I have neglected, at least relative to my other capabilities. For instance, there have been many opportunities in CMI, in IMSc, and in TIFR, to interact with people who have “been there, done that”. There have been opportunities for organized summer schools that I may have missed out. Not that I wasted my summers… at least not this one, but I might have found other ways of utilizing my time that would have gone into a lasting record.

Currently, my focus should be on positioning myself for a life in mathematics at a premium institute where I can fulfill my dreams. Naturally, the procedure for applying to a good university must occupy my utmost attention. Unfortunately, this hasn’t been the case. Of course, there is still “lots of time” and probably will be till the last date. But there are also “lots of other things” and if I want to make a dent, I should put give application a top priority.

Which brings in a number of deep seated issues.

First: Do I think that neglecting my actual studies in order to focus on applying is a kind of bad thing to do? Such as cramming for an exam and getting through with fake means? May be. At least, the residual of those ideas still remain. Secondly, I feel that all the application work is clerical and procedural, not the kind of work that I associate with research. Thirdly, I just don’t have the energy at times to do it… and that’s what I’m trying to recover via this blog.

All the above concerns are stupid. I know that. Applying to a good place is what will further my utility to society the most. And devoting my clerical efforts to that application procedure indicates my level of commitment to things. I can see the light now. I remind myself that the vegetable seller does his job even if we considers it clerical, even it it seems peripheral to the giant strides of humanity. The mother who spends time cleaning her child’s urine knows that while the job she is doing may in the short term be pretty “menial”, in the long run it is shaping a new individual who will contribute to and reshape society. The same should be the case with my application procedure.

Research is not just about doing it… it is about being it. It is about being in the right environment. You can do research in a crowded basti but it is much easier to do it in an environment that lives and breathes the subject. And if I am committed to research, I should be committed to reaching such an environment.

Which is what I plan to focus on now.

The questions I’d like to raise on now: what is the balance between the actual doing research and the being at the right place part? Where should the trade offs lie? Looking forward to your comments.



  1. “A person whose greatest worries are purely related to academics or to “what to do now to further myself?” is one of the lucky few in this world who isn’t besotten with problems.”

    How are you convinced that staying aloof from the “normal” world is the thing to do? Is it to avoid the problems which would otherwise slow down your academic progress? Don’t you feel that you might be missing out on some important things in life? I wonder whether an excessive drive for professional success is a consequence of the void experienced in the other departments of life.

    I also believe that a wholly prosperous and comfortable life does a man no good, and what you may call
    “emotionally sapping” may turn out to be a more instructive and ultimately a more enriching, though turbulent, experience than a bland, peaceful emotional life.

    Comment by Indraneel — July 17, 2006 @ 8:40 am

  2. ‘Applying to a good place is what will further my utility to society the most.’ – some time when you have time off mathematics, you must think about whether the motive of your research is to further your utility to society or to pursue your personal aspirations. (If, here you mean ‘mathematical society’, these questions wouldn’t arise, but it looks like you intended it to be ‘society at large’) Society is a vast complicated body – and what is ‘good’ for a society is not a question that is easily answered.
    Money for research grants is a result of surplus from other economic sectors. Money spent on research is the money spent on ‘supposed-long-term-benefit’ for a society. But in case of research in arts, abstract mathematics and theoretical sciences the length of the ‘long term’ almost blurs off into infinity. So, research in these fields is a luxury for any society. It is an aesthetic pursuit. And people like you are fortunate to at the right place in the right time where you’d be allowed to pursue mathematical research with reasonable indsependence and not worry abt earning your keep.
    What are your views?

    Comment by Sushmita — July 19, 2006 @ 6:03 am

  3. @indraneel:

    It seems like I have conveyed the impression that “non academic endeabours” are somehow inferior to ac academic ones. That wasn’t my original intention.

    Speaking for myself, I would not say that I experience a “void” in other parts of life though I must admit I have remained ignorant of the experience of getting high through drink. Nor would I describe my life as “bland” and “peaceful” on the “emotional” side because I do keep pretty active on that front.

    The question confronting me is: “who stays in control? Do I mould my emotions towards my goals, or am I a slave of my emotions? Do I follow my conscience, or pulsations and whims?” My answer is “My goals and aspirations stay in control and my emotions act only as advisors.”

    Comment by Vipul Naik — July 21, 2006 @ 4:31 pm

  4. @sushmita:

    The common belief that “research in these fields is a luxury for any society” is severely limiting. It rings many bells:

    (i) How can we set up multinationals in India when people are starving?
    (ii) How can the government spend so much on defense when people are dying on the streets?
    (iii) How dare a doctor take a day off when his one day at work can save the lives of many patients?
    (iv) How can Mr. Bill Gates earn $x million a ady when a casual labourer gets only Rs. 100 for the same number of hours?

    These “we are living off others” and “… while the world starves” arguments go round and round and round. Here are some “ways out”:

    (i) Distance myself from the society angle: My job is to do my research well. That is my task in life and the best way I can contribute is by doing it well. Society will take care of itself in the aggregate.

    That is what many an office goer, many a shop keeper, many a dish washer does. They don’t say, “How can I … when the world …” Why should researchers carry extra bags of guilt?

    (ii) Throw in a little “social work” and “good causes”: While devoting some of my time to the subject, I take some time off to do genuinely “good stuff” like teaching poor kids, cleaning up the street, etc. (Aren’t these tasks much more important and far reaching for society?)

    I’ve tried (i) and I’ve tried (ii). And (ii) doesn’t seem as easy as (i). Here’s what happens: trying to do “good stuff” usually means doing stuff for “other people”, and “other people” are usually not even 1% as likely to take me seriously as I am. So 99% of my effort goes into the atmosphere. In fact, doing my own work finally turns out to be far more effective and useful to society than doing “good stuff”, because I’m doing social service to myself, and I am improtant.

    Thus, I think (i) is the best thing adn (ii) should only be reserved for the adventurous few. There’s also a (iii) that I’ll not talk about here.

    Hope this relates somewhat with your concerns.

    Comment by Vipul Naik — July 21, 2006 @ 4:47 pm

  5. Few have the necessary background and circumstances to move near the bleeding edge of research. Its like the chaps climbing new mountains using more difficult routes. Or setting records for x, y or z. This is what makes humans human.. culture. and intellectual achievements are a big part of that. Leave it to the economists, politicians and social workers to figure out how to feed starving children. You have identified the things that get you revved up.. so go for it.


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