On research in general

I am not sure I am qualified to talk about research in general, but I will try to do my best.

To me, it seems that the research community of any given topic is pretty small. The reason for this is many-fold. Firstly, I suspect that the number of qualified individuals willing to work for a relatively small pay (but with many benefits, like flexible schedule, less stress, etc.) is relatively small. Secondly, any given topic usually reaches a maturity level where the subdomains are very clear, and it is very difficult to say anything reasonably good about a subdomain that one is not acquainted with. For instance, Knuth’s books are brilliant, but even he (someone who is like a semi-god in computer science) acknowledges that he simply cannot be an authority on all the topics covered in the 4th volume of his series. (BTW I just bought Vol4F0 and Vol4F1, wainting for amazon to ship now).

Since the research community is small, everyone gets to know one another. This is great since it helps collaboration, but it also might backlash against newcomers (PhD students), and against people generally not well-acquainted with the field, but who genuinely have good ideas that they wish to publish. I guess it’s a difficult integration process, that gets all the more difficult because it rarely happens that someone can simply stay in the same specific subfield for his entire research career. And even if someone stays in the same field, the field may change so much over time, attracting researchers from many distinct research domains, that even an “oldboy” can feel detached from his/her own topic after a while.

Research that deals with practical things is even more fast-moving than other kinds of research. Just a couple of years ago, research on botnets didn’t exist, yet now it seems it is a very rapidly evolving research domain. SAT solvers – I believe – also fall into the category of practical research. Year after year the solvers evolve so much that trying to compare two solvers with only 1-2 years of difference in their release dates seems nonsensical. This is great because there is a lot of “buzz” going on, but at the same time, it feels like a race against time: inspiring at first, but tiring at the end.

Very theoretical domains rarely have this speed of change. For instance, last year at the SAT’09 conference, I saw Stephen Cook, the person who basically invented the notion of NP completeness (I felt honoured just to be in the same room with him, I must say). Although SAT has changed a lot in the past years (many new applications, e.g. cryptography), but the fundamental problem didn’t change – therefore, he never had the ground taken from under him. The ground sure moved, but he still masters it, I am sure.

Oh well, legends. I met Shamir twice. Very kind person. Also, I met Daniel J. Bernstein at EUROCRYPT’09. He looked somewhat shorter and younger than I imagined, and I liked his openness. I met Lenstra at CCC’08. I was so shocked it was him, I couldn’t even say hello – very embarrassing. He was very friendly, and seemed much younger than his official age would suggest. I really want to meet Knuth, but I guess that might have to wait… forever, maybe. Unless I somehow manage to visit Stanford one day, in which case I will definitely show up at one of his classes. They say he is a terrific speaker.