An account of personal motivations concerning research and publication

Motivated by a g+ mention of two posts of mine, I think I need to explain a little bit the purpose of such posts, also by putting them in the context of my experience. (I don’t know how to avoid this appeal to experience, because it is not at all an authority argument. Authority arguments, I believe, are outside of the research realm, they should be ignored in totality.)

Despite my attraction to physics and painting, I was turned to become a mathematician by a very special kind of professor. When I was little there was the habit of taking private preparatory classes for increasing the chances of admission in a good college. So, at some point, although I claimed not to need such classes, one day when I came back home after a soccer game I met a strange old guy, who was speaking in an extremely lively and polite way with my parents. I was wearing my school uniform which was full of dust gathered in the schoolyard and I was not at all in the mood to speak with old, strange persons. He explained to my parents that he is going to give me one problem to solve, for him to decide whether to accept me or not as a student. He gave me an inequality to prove, then I spent a half hour in my room and found a solution, which I wrote. I gave the solution to the professor, he looked at it and started: “Marius, a normal kid would solve this inequality like that  (he explained it to me). A clever kid would prove the inequality like this (a shorter, more elegant solution). A genius kid would do like this (one line proof). Now, your proof is none of the above, so I take you.”  It was an amazing experience to learn, especially geometry, from him. At some point he announced my parents that he is willing to do the classes with no pay, with the condition that he could come at any time (with a half hour notice). We did mathematics at strange hours for me, like midnight or 5 in the morning, or whenever he wanted.  Especially when geometry was concerned, he was never letting  me write anything until I could explain with words the idea of the solution, then I could start writing the proof. An amazing professor, a math artist, in the dark of a communist country. I have never met anybody as fascinating since.

If someone would had come to tell me that doing research exclusively means to dig one narrow area in order   to write as big as possible a NUMBER of articles  in ISI journals, then I would have thought that’s a disgusting perversion of a lovely quest. Then I would have switched to painting, because at least in that field (as old, no, older than mathematics)  creativity won against vanity since a long time.

I was young then and I wanted to do research in as many areas as I see fit. There was no internet at the time, therefore I was filling notebooks with my work. Most of it it’s  just lost, mostly because of not having anybody around to share my thoughts with, to learn from and to grow into a real researcher in  a welcoming environment (with one exception, the undergraduate experience was a disappointment). I was not willing in fact to show what I do because it was much more rewarding to find out some more about some subject than to loose time to explain it to somebody, moreover now I know to trust my intuition which was telling me that there was no point to waste time for this.

The next important moment in my life as a researcher was the contact with the www, which happened in 1994 at Ecole Polytechnique from Paris, when I was doing a master. I was not interested in the courses, because I already had (a bit better, due to the mentioned exception) ones back home, but, OMG, the www! At that point, after having only one article published (The topological substratum of the derivative) — can you imagine? — which was written at a typewriter, with horrific handmade underlines and other physical constraints of the epoch — so I decided that’s have to be the future of doing research and I completely lost interest into the contrived way of communicating research by articles.

I had to write articles, and I did, only that very frequently I had problems concerning their publication, because I hold the opinion that an interesting article should combine at least three fields and it should open more questions than those solved. Foolish, really, you may say. But most of all I am still amazed how much time it took me to start to express my viewpoints publicly, through the net.

Which I am finally doing now, in this blog.

In this context, I use the personal experience as a tool in order to stress the obvious belief that www is changing the (research) world much more, much faster, than the printing press. I don’t complain about the mean reviewers, but I offer examples which support claims as: the future of peer-review is one which is technical (correct or not?), is open to anybody to contribute constructively, not based on unscientific opinions and authority arguments,  separated from “publication” (whatever this means today) and perpetually subjected to change and improvement with the passage of time.

More on open peer-review in this blog here.

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5 thoughts on “An account of personal motivations concerning research and publication”

  1. What a great story! And I just read about Ion Barbu in MO earlier today … however it’s a shame to judge someone on half an hour’s work. Maybe the boring kid just thought it’s how s/he’s “supposed” to do it and that’s what’s expected.

  2. It’s funny, I would certainly go crazy if I couldn’t express myself about things I read. As a kid I was always annoying my parents (and stepfather especially) recounting exactly what I had learned that day. After a bit of growing up I realised it’s annoying and therefore diverted this practice to the www.

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