The quest for beauty (and interesting problems)
Is computer science really closer to an art than a science? Paul Graham, in Hackers and Painters, argues that it is the case. An insightful piece, as usual with Graham, that draws many interesting parallels between hacking and painting.
A part that caught my attention was that about the mismatch that exists between the urge to hack and the requirement to fit within existing institutions, as this quote illustrates for the case of academia.
"In the best case, the papers are just a formality. Hackers write cool software, and then write a paper about it, and the paper becomes a proxy for the achievement represented by the software. But often this mismatch causes problems. It's easy to drift away from building beautiful things toward building ugly things that make more suitable subjects for research papers.
Unfortunately, beautiful things don't always make the best subjects for papers. Number one, research must be original-- and as anyone who has written a PhD dissertation knows, the way to be sure that you're exploring virgin territory is to to stake out a piece of ground that no one wants. Number two, research must be substantial-- and awkward systems yield meatier papers, because you can write about the obstacles you have to overcome in order to get things done. Nothing yields meaty problems like starting with the wrong assumptions."
Which reminds me of a recent post by theoretical computer scientist Lance Fortnow about finding problems to work on:
A good problem for a graduate student must fulfill each of three characteristics.
Finding problems that fit any two of these three is not hard, but if a problem is doable and interesting, someone likely would have solved it by now. Too often interesting is the property that is given the least emphasis.