This morning I read the Atlantic piece Finding The Next Edison* in which Derek Thompson touches upon the notion of “optimal distance”. This idea made me reflect upon Hamming’s 1986 talk You And Your Research, the transcript of which I find myself re-reading every few years for inspiration.
To exist optimally distant from a problem entails possessing an expertise close enough to it that you can understand the basics and tinker with solutions but far enough to avoid an over-familiarity that breeds complacency and groupthink. If, for example, you are laboring to help NASA predict solar-particle events, you’ll likely flounder if you’re an English Literature professor, and you might bog down in the status-quo if you’re a NASA-lifer, but being a retired telecommunications engineer might make you the perfect outsider.
This harkens back to Hamming’s lamentation that…
“When you are famous it is hard to work on small problems. This is what did Shannon in. After information theory, what do you do for an encore? The great scientists often make this error. They fail to continue to plant the little acorns from which the mighty oak trees grow. They try to get the big thing right off.”
Regarding which he counsels us to…
“Somewhere around every seven years make a significant, if not complete, shift in your field. Thus, I shifted from numerical analysis, to hardware, to software, and so on, periodically, because you tend to use up your ideas. When you go to a new field, you have to start over as a baby. You are no longer the big mukity muk and you can start back there and you can start planting those acorns which will become the giant oaks.”
*: We’ll ignore for the moment that Edison was more businessman than inventor and that the piece would have been better titled Finding The Next Tesla.