Technology, courage and fun

The basic personal start-up mechanism for research has to be curiosity. I find myself curious about how something works, or I observe something strange and begin to explore it. Because I am fond of symmetry, when I observe some simple symmetry, I am almost inexorably drawn into exploring it. For example, one day Don Oestreicher, who was then a graduate student, and I noticed that the number of random wires expected to cross the midsection of an N terminal printed circuit board is N/4 independent of whether the wires connect two or three terminals on the board. This comes about because although the probability of crossing is higher for wires connecting three terminals, 3/4 rather than 1/2, the number of wires is correspondingly reduced from N/2 to N/3. This simple observation led us to explore other wiring patterns, gather some data from real printed circuit boards, and eventually to publish a paper [4] called How Big Should a Printed Circuit Board Be? Follow your curiosity.

Beauty provides another form of personal encouragement for me. Some of the products of research are just pretty, although mathematicians prefer to use the word “elegant.” The simplicity of E=MC2, the elegance of information theory, and the power of an undecidability proof are examples. I got interested in asynchronous circuits by discovering a very simple form of first in first out (FIFO) storage that has rather complete symmetry [1,8]. It simply amazes me that my simple and symmetric circuit can “know” which way to pass data forward. The beauty itself piques my curiosity and flatters my pride.

Simplicity is to be valued in research results. Many students ask, “How long should my thesis be?” It would be better for them to ask, “How short can it be?” The best work is always simply expressed. If you find something simple to explore, do not turn it aside as trivial, especially if it appears to be new. In a very real sense, research is a form of play in which ideas are our toys and our objective is the creation of new castles from the old building block set. The courage to do research comes in part from our attraction to the simplicity and beauty of our creations.

I, for one, am and will always remain a practicing technologist. When denied my minimum daily adult dose of technology, I get grouchy. I believe that technology is fun, especially when computers are involved, a sort of grand game or puzzle with ever so neat parts to fit together. I have turned down several lucrative administrative jobs because they would deny me that fun. If the technology you do isn’t fun for you, you may wish to seek other employment. Without the fun, none of us would go on.

I tried to capture the spirit of research as a game in my paper about our walking robot [2]. Unfortunately, the editors removed from my paper all of the personal comments, the little poem about the robot by Claude Shannon, the pranks and jokes, and in short, the fun. The only fun they left was the title: Footprints in the Asphalt. All too often, technical reports are dull third person descriptions of something far away and impersonal. Technology is not far away and impersonal. It’s here, it’s intensely personal, and it’s great fun.

That is the last section of Ivan Sutherland’s Technology and Courage, a must-read piece. Link via Relevant History.

One Response to “Technology, courage and fun”

  1. Karthik Pai Says:

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