In praise of books

If you want to get recognition long-haul, it seems to me writing books is more contribution because most of us need orientation. In this day of practically infinite knowledge, we need orientation to find our way. Let me tell you what infinite knowledge is. Since from the time of Newton to now, we have come close to doubling knowledge every 17 years, more or less. And we cope with that, essentially, by specialization. In the next 340 years at that rate, there will be 20 doublings, i.e. a million, and there will be a million fields of specialty for every one field now. It isn’t going to happen. The present growth of knowledge will choke itself off until we get different tools. I believe that books which try to digest, coordinate, get rid of the duplication, get rid of the less fruitful methods and present the underlying ideas clearly of what we know now, will be the things the future generations will value. Public talks are necessary; private talks are necessary; written papers are necessary. But I am inclined to believe that, in the long-haul, books which leave out what’s not essential are more important than books which tell you everything because you don’t want to know everything. I don’t want to know that much about penguins is the usual reply. You just want to know the essence.

That is another bit from "You and Your Research," by Richard Hamming, do read this important piece.  Being an author of books, I am happy to hear this argument, but I can think of other strategies:

1. Influence the long-run by mattering now with specialized research; this is especially effective if social opinion has a "unit root" and persists (for purposes of contrast, imagine long-term mean reversion, in which case short-run victories wash out).  While you may get less long-term recognition, you will get more short-term recognition. 

2. Work on projects with the highest expected value of impact.

3. Build up a specialized field that will have long-run influence.  Take your pride in the progress of the field, not in how long your name sticks around.  What is so special about your name anyway?  (Analogy: would you rather your distant descendants know your name, know your contributions but not your name, or resemble you but not know either?  It is not obvious that the former option should win out.)

4. Do what you want.  If you don’t love your daily grind, it won’t matter for the scientific long-run anyway.

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